Gene Expression

Charles Darwin was a genius (I think)

After watching Creation last week I decided to take the plunge and read Origin of Species. As I’ve mentioned before I did read Origin early in my teen years, but in hindsight with minimal comprehension. Since then I’ve occasionally started to read Origin, or perused an extract, but I’ve never made it from front to back as a sentient adult. At this point I’m 3/4 of the way through, and I need to get something off my chest: I now believe that Charles Darwin was a very smart man, a genius. I had heard other people to refer to Darwin in such a fashion, but reading his original works has brought home to me much more viscerally his incredible power of insight.

One of the reasons I hadn’t reread Origin of Species was that I assumed that because it was the modern root of evolutionary biology what was correct would have been integrated into conventional wisdom and what was false would have been falsified. This impression seems to have been right. But I was shocked by the magnitude of Darwin’s intellectual creativity, so many basic aspects of evolutionary biological orthodoxy are in evidence in Origin of Species, down to a very low level of specificity. Page after page I have encountered hypotheses and empirical observations which are seamlessly integrated into the body of conventional background wisdom within a modern biological education. Granted, he does not use contemporary terminology. For example, when Darwin discusses pleiotropic traits in depth he refers to “laws of correlation.” But it is clear what is being elucidated in the section nonetheless, the substance has the same force even if the style is a bit peculiar.

I do have to qualify that my reading of 19th century biology is rather thin, so my assessment of Charles Darwin’s genius from primary reading is not contextualized by any firsthand knowledge of Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Other Evolutionary Writings or William Paley’s Natural Theology. Perhaps Darwin’s originality is less than I perceive because I am ignorant of the original sources which he did not credit within the text of Origin. Here I must defer to the judgments of historians of science and others who have immersed themselves in the primary literature, and so can speak from direct authority. I think Charles Darwin is a genius based on Origin, and I trust the scholars who say he is a genius. But I am not a scholar of 19th century biological science so I must qualify my enthusiasm a bit.

It must also be said that the prose of Origin of Species can sometimes seem quaint and florid to modern sensibilities. I do not begrudge a man his semicolons, but Mr. Darwin goes too far rather often for my own taste in the direction of sentences which never end. Nevertheless, despite my stylistic quibbles I am now encouraged to delve more deeply into the primary works of Charles Darwin, I will soon be tackling Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Again, I suspect that all that is worthy in these works will already be known to me secondarily because of their integration into the modern consensus, while all that is false will long since have been purged.

But though it may not be particularly rational, I feel as if I owe it to the memory of Charles Darwin to appreciate his works fully after feeling that I had never appreciated his true intellectual greatness because I was not deeply familiar with his original works. Though I have never read The Principia I have adhered to the position that Isaac Newton accomplished more than any other scientist in the history of the world. By contrast on occasion I did express some sympathy with the position that Charles Darwin had a rather obvious Big Idea (Natural Selection), which he only happened to stumble upon through luck or happenstance. After reading Darwin’s most famous work I think that this is a ludicrous position to take. Such are the wages of ignorance.

Note: I was prompted to read Origin of Species in part because of the fact that I was reminded that it had sold out immediately. I wanted to get a firsthand sense as to whether Origin was a work of scientific narrative or a popular treatment. Though it is accessible to a general audience, I see it by and large as a work of original science, larded with abstruse concepts and almost trivial detail.


  1. #1 Lyle
    February 8, 2010

    I would encourage reading Lyells Principals of Geology in an edition of the time of the Beagle because it will help you understand the influences on his thinking as he went on the Beagle.
    Yes indeed Darwin did go into a lot of detail and explained the basis of his theory quite well. Recall that a large part of it was because the theory caused great intellectual conflict to Darwin both personally, and because he was worried what his wife would think.
    The coda to the book is often disregarded but gives a hint that Darwin may have become a believer in the watchmaker theory of god i.e. God set up the universe and its rules and lets it run by them. ” There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
    But the critical point IMHO is that by reading both Lyell and Darwin you find the philosophical assumptions underlying the work. In particular the uniformitarian hypothesis that underlies Lyell and thus Darwin.
    It is the explication of these assumptions, or recalling geometry postulates, that eliminates the whole conflict issue. In particular uniformitarianism says that the laws of nature are the same anywhere and anywhen. Put in another way there are no interventions in the world that don’t follow these rules— no supernatural interventions in the world. All follows from this.

  2. #2 John Emerson
    February 8, 2010

    I haven’t been able to find out whether Darwin could read German, but German was the lnguage of science during much of the 19th c., and German is very friendly to page-long sentences. It could just have been 19th c. Briutish style, of course.

    Darwin wasn’t a man of letters, but he wrote very well and some of his writings (e.g. the “Tangled Bank” end of the book) are included in literary anthologies. There are some things that are best expressed, or can only be expressed, mathematically or graphically, but there remain others that are best expressed in language. Darwin’s big topic, evolution, was multi-factored and multi-dimensional with a lot of probabilistic terms and a lot of uncertainty about how the various terms should be weighted, and a carefully done literary summary gets the main ideas across better than a rigorous and complete statement of all the factors, uncertainties, and weightings would, because the latter would tend to get lost in the weeds.

    This is a big issue in economics. The virtuoso math of recent economics hasn’t protected it from enormous errors, as we’ve recently seen, and I think that math fetishism has been a lot of the problem. In economics, in fact, verbally criticisms of sophisticated models are simply ignored; if the math works, it’s apparently assumed to be a valid theory unless a different, better mathematical model is substituted.

    In his Discourse on Method Descartes, who was a major mathematician and a working scientist more than he was a philosopher, said that trying to express his ideas in writing often brought his attention to weaknesses that hadn’t been apparent, forcing him to start over agin on some part of his work. (Of course, for him “express in writing” included “express mathematically).

  3. #3 bob koepp
    February 8, 2010

    Yes… Darwin’s deployment of the ideas he expounds in the Origin demonstrates a quite amazing depth and breadth of knowledge. And the “narrative structure” of the Origin (i.e., “one long arugment”) is about as close to perfect as you’re likely to find. FWIW, Crick showed flashes of the same sort of “genius” in the best paper he ever wrote: “On Protein Synthesis.”

  4. #4 Prof .Milton Wainwright
    February 8, 2010

    Darwin was a first rate naturalist.However,by his own admission, he did not originate the idea of natural selection and none of the major ideas,as opposed to examples,given in “On the Origin of Species” are novel to him. For more details search Google for “wainwrightscience”. Darwin provided the last and best synthesis of Victorian(and some pre-Victorian)ideas on transmutation,i.e. evolution.
    Prof.(Hon, Cardiff University)Milton Wainwright.

  5. #5 David Boxenhorn
    February 8, 2010

    I had a similar reaction when I read it, maybe 10 years ago. Adam Smith had a comparably deep understanding of Economics.

  6. #6 bioIgnoramus
    February 8, 2010

    Me too; it was urged on me in my mid forties by an Aussie engineering pal who lent me his copy. I agree with DB about Smith too. Add Gibbon to the list, and reading just three books teaches you an enormous amount about mankind and its merry ways.

  7. #7 John Emerson
    February 8, 2010

    Uniformitarianism is a good example of a working principle which is fruitful without being true. Its power was to exclude all forms of special pleading and all claims of divine intervention, thus forcing a careful naturalistic approach to the problem. Uniformitarianism had harmful effects later on, but this was after it had done its heuristic work and could safely be discarded.

    When principles like that are integrated into the teaching process and made into prerequisites for advancement, they become dogmas, since with each succeeding generation less time or thought is given to understanding why these principles are true, and the principles themselves cme to be poorly understood.

    For example, catastrophic outside factors such as asteroid impacts, climate changes, ice-dam collapses, etc. have affected geology and evolution, but they were grudgingly treated because of the uniformitarian heuristic assumption. (Of course the uniformitarian principle can be stated to include all these, but initially it wasn’t.)

  8. #8 Jason
    February 8, 2010

    Darwin´s insight is apparent as well in areas outside biology, as can be seen in Voyage of the Beagle. It is for example extraordinary to read of his presentiment of the imminent near extinction of many of Argentina´s Indians as a result of actions such as the campaign of General Rosas. He also says something amusing about Australians, who while according to him harder working than South Americans, had no interest in books or in anything but money and sheep.

  9. #9 M. Möhling
    February 9, 2010

    > Australians, … interest in … sheep
    Whaddya want–lonely guys for a long time.

    Sorry. Yes, Darwin is cool.

  10. #10 Matt Springer
    February 9, 2010

    Agreed on Darwin. I want to point out that your opinion of Newton is accurate as well. The man was a genius of ludicrous proportion – the Principia initiated or anticipated just about everything that happened in physics over the next two hundred years. Even more impressive is the fact that he did all that essentially as a hobby – he devoted most of his effort to some rather quixotic work in alchemy and theology.

    Origin has been on my list of things to read for a while. Maybe I’ll bump it up a few places.

  11. #11 Ken Hirsch
    February 10, 2010

    Principia may be brilliant, but it is incredibly hard to read compared to Darwin. “The evanescent subtense of the angle of contact, in all curves, which at the point of contact have a finite curvature, is ultimately in the duplicate ratio of the subtense of the conterminous arc.” Yeah, do tell!

  12. #12 Billare
    February 10, 2010

    I myself have just started to read Origins. I was pretty surprised at the lucid, rather clear writing style, I had expected something rather jumbled, to modern ears at least. I also liked one of Darwin’s arguments that seems so obvious to overlook in retrospect; namely, that creationists have alot more fauna to account for that evolutionists, even if we take into account “missing transition fossils” — if every various kind of pigeon has an “aboriginal antecedent”, where are all their bones?