Why Read Darwin

One of the first insurmountable quests I was faced with was the memorization of the details of taxonomy in Junior High Biology. I remember platyhelmenthes and that spiny fishes are different from cartilaginous sharks, but most of the intricacies of naming the wealth of life forms has faded from my memory.

Let’s see: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Yes, had had to look this up. The example shown was the taxonomy of the dog:

  • Domain: Eukarya
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Canidae
  • Genus: Canis
  • Species: Canis lupus
  • Sub-Species: Canis lupus familiaris.

It wasn’t until High School Biology that we were allowed physically interact with other species: ferns, liverworts, tape worms (in a jar), earth worms, frogs, and small pigs. It might be a cliché, but I seem to remember the vivid smells that accompanied our investigations more than the actual exposing of parts on a dissecting table. Although the pickled pig was extraordinarily gross, the one odor that never left me was that of a recent kill. The biology teacher stopped off at the abattoir on the way into school that day and brought us a severed cow’s foot to demonstrate the operation of the Achilles tendon. Although mechanically it was fascinating, it smelled of fear and spurting blood.

The years have gone by and evolution has been as familiar to my life as gravity or free elections.

Yet today seemingly normal people are declaring evolution to be a hoax or indoctrination or just plain poppycock. It’s interesting that the basis of most of this denial is the world’s greatest delusion, organized religion.

Back in college and for many years after that I exercised my critical thinking muscle, read the Bible and many religious writings alongside various scientific books and papers. and political treatises, eventually reaching the incontrovertible opinion that Karl Marx was right: Religion is the opiate of the masses. It is a fiendish way to conquer and control populations.

However, I am ashamed to admit that I never read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. I am currently rectifying this aggregeous failing and reading, slowly, Darwin’s great, influential work. One thing I am noting is that, although the conclusions Darwin reaches are often familiar to me, the process of thought and experimentation is a revelation. It’s hard to imagine nowadays any one person so dedicated to their task, unless it’s a nurse in the Covid ward risking his or her life to save the lives of others.

Julia Kindt and Tanya Latty wrote about this at The Conversation. The article is well worth reading in its entirety but here is just a snippet to get things going:

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (originally published in 1859) shares a deplorable fate with many other classics: it is known to everyone, yet rarely read.

This is a shame, not only because there is much more to Darwin’s theory than the familiar principles of mutation, variation, natural selection, and evolution that have entered popular knowledge as Darwinian buzzwords. The book also gives unique insight into the intellectual milieu in which he developed his theory and his struggles to convince his peers of its veracity.

Indeed in this age of the counter-factual and pseudo-factual, acquaintance with the foundations of our scientific tradition — and insights into the struggles of their creation — seems a matter of some urgency.

In the introduction alone, we learn that Darwin first conceived of his theory when travelling the world as a naturalist on board HMS Beagle (1831-6), that he had kept collecting data in support of it ever since, that he even wrote a rough draft (he calls it “a sketch of the conclusions”) many years earlier, and that he was prompted to publish it (20 years later) only because his contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace had recently sent him a “memoir” reaching a similar conclusion. …

The core of the theory, as laid out in the first few chapters of the book, is quickly explained. Plants and animals produce more individuals than nature can sustain in each generation. These individuals vary in looks and in physical and behavioural characteristics, and they are able to pass on this variation to the next generation. Those individuals better suited to their environment have an advantage and are in turn more likely to survive to give their features to future generations.

Yet the bare bones of his theory of evolution are only part of what shapes this book. Darwin also communicates the obstacles he had to overcome to ensure its success and to turn it into what it became: a foundational text of the biological sciences that influenced all sorts of other disciplines, including anthropology, religious studies, and the Classics.

I notice that the direction of real frogs is going out of fashion with several companies selling fake frog dissecting kits, some quite realistic while others rival the game Operation in anatomical education. I don’t really want to cut up frogs and, although tasty, I can survive on chicken wings. But wait, how can we justify killing an unsuspecting chicken just to marinate its wings; and pineapples, do they really grow just to add an unwanted flavor to a perfectly good pizza?

Life is complex.

What are your thoughts on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s