books

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

Well, my work does revolve around evolution so it was about time that I got around to reading this book. It certainly wasn’t what I expected…

Bit of background. Darwin made multiple editions of his book and I read the first edition version. Apparently the other editions are more wishy washy as he tried to compromise some of his arguments to keep the stupid people happy.
Also, I didn’t read the book with the ape cover (pictured). I read the one with the stupid dinosaur cover. I think this ape cover is just as silly since Darwin took special care not to mention human evolution in this book (probably because he was worried about those stupid people…). I also don’t understand how the book can be “fully illustrated”. To my knowledge, there was only one illustration and it wasn’t the artistic sort of illustration anyway…

So, after my high school and uni classes, I expected a book that contained “Darwin’s finches” with a lovely explanation of their evolution and pretty little drawings. So it was a bit of a surprise to find that there was no mention of it at all. In fact, reading the book could easily make you believe that he was more inspired by pigeons than finches. Darwin’s pigeons anyone?
This just goes to show, don’t believe what people tell you, go to the original source and find out for yourself.

I found the book really hard to read. Not because it was technical or anything because in that respect, it is very easy to read. What I found hard was the style. This book was written long ago and I have a very modern mind so I struggle with old books. Some sections I found very frustrating. Some of his explanations are long and convoluted, making me shout “get to the point!”.
I do find the book fascinating. This guy had no idea about DNA and genes so although he knew that organisms inherited things, he didn’t know what. So with my modern genetics educated mind, it’s interesting to see what things he got right and what things are plain silly. It would be really interesting to see what he would have written had he known about genes.

Another thing that I find both fascinating and frustrating is that this book was meant to be an abstract – just a taste of his arguments and key ideas. So many times in throughout the book he annoying states that he has lots of examples but doesn’t have the space/time to include them. That is so damn annoying. How do you expect people to believe if you go around saying things like I have evidence that this is true but I’m not going to tell you so you’ll just have to believe me…
It’s also interesting. Was science really like that back then? Was it acceptable to make claims without substantially backing it up or (properly) referring to other people’s research?
It would be really interesting to read the full book that he had planned to write. Or maybe not. That “abstract” was so damn long, the “full version” would probably have been several thick volumes…

One thing that I strongly disliked was Darwin’s use of long sentences. When it comes to scientific writing, the shorter the sentence, the better. Often in papers I find myself read a sentence again and again because it’s just so long and technical that by the time I’ve reached the end of the sentence, I’ve forgotten what the start was all about. And when Darwin writes a sentence that takes up a third of a page then I have no hope…

I think that if I had no prior knowledge of evolution and read that book then I would not be fully convinced of his arguments. Though that is again partly because of my modern mind struggling with old writing styles. I think I would be persuaded that traits are inherited and thus, species can change over time. But I don’t think I would be convinced that species could diverge to create new, separate species. And I would not fully comprehend the concept either – artificial selection yes, natural selection, no. From reading the book, I get the impression that even Darwin didn’t fully comprehend it at the time (or was simply unable to articulate it).

So, if you are new to evolution and genetics then I suggest you read high school textbooks and then (if you are keen) move on to uni textbooks. Don’t start by reading Darwin. Save that for when you have a “more accurate” understanding than the simplified educational lies or the bull-crap that the ignorant (and TV) preach.

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