The first of many, I’m sure

Was Charles Darwin a genius? He certainly was extremely bright, but if we are to call him a genius on the basis of coming up with the theory of evolution by natural selection then we must recognize the genius of A.R. Wallace (and perhaps William Wells, Patrick Matthew, and Edward Blyth), as well. Although the idea of natural selection has developed independently several times in the past it was Darwin and Wallace who grasped the power of the theory as a driver for evolution, but even then it is Darwin who is the focal point of so many discussions about “transmutation.” While there are multiple reasons for this (from Darwin’s network of friends in scientific societies, to Wallace’s support of Darwin’s priority, to the romantic narrative of Darwin’s life) it is important to note Darwin’s persistence.

Although we often talk about On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, the way minute, gradual changes could cause larger shifts was a uniting theme in the rest of Darwin’s work, from The Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication to his hit The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits. Darwin did not simply issue a proclamation in On the Origin of Species and leave it to be dissected by squadrons of scientists; he constantly kept at his work and perhaps it would be better to speak of “The Persistence of Darwin” than simply “The Genius of Darwin.” Such quibbles aside, if you have not yet seen it the first episode of a series called The Genius of Darwin is now available for viewing on the web. I’ll probably write something about it once I have the opportunity to see it, but if you have feel free to make use of this thread to discuss it.

Update; I just watched the program, although I will liveblog my second viewing. It was a decent documentary, but it seemed to be more about the relationship between evolution and religion (i.e. Darwin’s theory dispensing with the need for the special and continued Creation of life) than about the science itself. There were a number of historical errors and omissions, too, and while it was visually impressive it seems that Dawkins was chewing on a bit of the ol’ textbook cardboard during this one.


  1. #1 bob koepp
    August 8, 2008

    Based solely on the quality of the reasoning presented in his “long argument”, I think it’s obvious (OBVIOUS!) that Darwin was a genius.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    August 8, 2008

    Capsule review of Dawkins’ programme:

    Stylistically accomplished and well organized; good “human interest”, particularly during the Kenya segment; some oversimplification in historical segments, perhaps compensated by moments like seeing Darwin’s own avian specimens (which is a remarkable virtue of the video medium). I’m definitely eager to see episodes two and three.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    August 8, 2008

    Oh, and it’s guaranteed to infuriate the Nice Hair crowd, if they deign to notice it.

  4. #4 Rich
    August 8, 2008

    Natural selection was brilliant, but Chuckie D also came up with the idea of common ancestry for all life and a viable mechanism for speciation. His influence and brilliance went far beyond natural selection I think. He deserves a lot of credit for having the guts to say “I am a primate”. So many Americans these days lack such guts.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    August 8, 2008

    On further reflection, I think what irritates me most about “textbook cardboard” is when it would be so easy to do it right. I mean, sometimes, it’s just a matter of changing the voiceover: you don’t have to fly to a new, exotic location or pay for new computer animation. It’s sort of like how the third Star Wars prequel, which sucked the least of the prequels, achieves a new level of meta-suckage when you realize, “Hey, George Lucas could have afforded to do whatever he wanted, and no matter what he did, he would have made his investment back with millions to spare. That movie should have been Seven Samurai in frackin’ space, man. What happened? Well, maybe George Lucas can’t write or direct his way out of an empty room.” When the problems come down to bad dialogue, it galls.

    Fixing Star Wars is beyond our abilities, but do you think a letter signed by several biologists and paleontologists — maybe even people known to agree with Dawkins on big issues — listing moments when they ground their teeth might be a good idea? Sort of a “maybe you could record some new lines for the DVD edition” thing.

    (I’m at home right now after going out to dinner with friends and eating far too much “Texan food”, a diet which reduces me to collapsing on a sofa in the hope that the meal will, somehow, digest. This is probably the wrong physiological state for comment-posting, but I’m not capable of too much more than that. And now they’re bringing out the tequila. . . .)

  6. #6 Lisa D
    August 9, 2008

    Genious? I don’t know (certainly very very smart). I think that the thing that differentiated Darwin from Wallace was the shear amount of data and organization of his arguement. He worked on his theory for years…persistance and hard work brings the best results. Genius isn’t enough; persistance is a big part too.

  7. #7 wazza
    August 9, 2008

    I think he was a genius; he had a skill for spotting things. Not just evolution, but coral reef growth, too.

  8. #8 Laelaps
    August 10, 2008

    Blake; I’m with you. I don’t mean to keep harping on the subject but it bothers me when people viewed as “spokespeople for science” just rehash the old stories when it’s just as easy to do things right. Like you said it wouldn’t require any major changes, maybe a few minor edits and voiceover changes, and I’m probably going to pick out the errors I saw when I watch this one again.

    This is why many scientists look down on science popularizers and equate it with “vulgarization.” You can make things understandable without sacrificing accuracy. It’s not like any of the corrections I have in mind are trade secrets, either. What Darwin thought and the science during his time has been well studied and written about in numerous books.

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