Happy 209th Birthday, Darwin!

Charles Darwin was born on February 12th, 1809. Last year, I had the pleasure of taking a class taught by Benoît Dayrat focused solely on reading and discussion Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, which I would like to discuss today in honor of Charles Darwin on his birthday.

Darwin is most famous for his theory of descent with modification, but he also had early ideas about kin selection, where natural selection favors behavior by individuals that may decrease their chance of survival but increase that of their kin (who share a proportion of their genes). Though he was one of the greatest scientific thinkers of the 19th century, he was limited by the scientific knowledge available to him in his day; he wasn’t aware of continental drift, and thought that all species spread by migration only.

A statue of a young Charles Darwin, which stands at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in NY. Photo by Nathan Siemers (CC BY-SA 2.0). Click for source.

Darwin anticipated that his book would not be well received. He thought very carefully about how to overcome this, developing his ideas and collecting data for over 23 years. In his writing, he presents both well-known facts and data from his own experiments to prove his points, but he goes much further than this.

He crafts his writing to build a convincing argument that relies on logic and reason as well as fact. He introduces his ideas very slowly, and repeats them over and over so that the audience can become accustomed to them and understand them fully. In some cases, he asks questions and then accompanies the audience along a logical trail of thought until they come to the same conclusions themselves.

Darwin anticipates the weaknesses in his theory. He presents these weaknesses as “grave difficulties” to his audience, but this is often an exaggeration; after presenting each “grave difficulty”, he then explores the issue in detail, taking it apart piece by piece and showing how the “difficulty” actually fits into his theory of descent with modification. Oftentimes, he is even able to show that the issue at hand can only be explained by descent with modification. By the end, they are hardly “grave difficulties” at all, but arguments proving his point.

An illustration of a bat from Charles Darwin’s “Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, 1839–43, vol. 1, Mammalia”. Image from APS Museum (CC BY-NC 2.0). Click for source.

Darwin takes every opportunity to attack independent creation, spending a large portion of one chapter dismantling the idea that an eye is a perfect structure that could only have been created by divine means. He compares the eye to a microscope— though it may seem to work perfectly, it was not created in a single day. Instead, it was the result of many modifications to a structure over the course of several years. In another section, Darwin points out that bats are the only native mammals found on marine islands, and asks why a divine being would only create bats there and no other mammals. He says that this is clearly not the product of divine influence, but the result of migration; bats can migrate to places other mammals can’t.

Darwin thought that we should not marvel at the perfection of nature because there is no perfection in nature (he asks that if nature was perfect, then why would a bee die after stinging?). The reason there is no perfection in nature is because all organisms are a product of their history, not perfect creation.

Darwin believed that a species was just a variety that became more distinct over time. If Darwin were alive today, he would say that it is impossible to discover species because they are undiscoverable; the term “species” is arbitrary. We should not focus on what the qualities or essence of a “species” is; instead, we should wonder about its history.

An illustration from the The Boy’s Own Paper, 1892, showing several varieties of fancy pigeons. Charles Darwin bred pigeons himself, and discusses them several time in his “On the Origin of Species”. Image by seriykotik1970 (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

The class I took on Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was an enlightening experience for all involved. Other students in the class were impressed by the sheer amount of experiments Darwin did and data he amassed over 23 years. Many of his experiments involved pigeons, which we joked were Darwin’s favorite, though there was one memorable experiment in which he tested if snails could travel to other ponds by clinging to the legs of waterfowl. Darwin tested this by suspending a disembodied duck leg in a fish tank full of snails.

Personally, I was impressed by his rhetoric and the eloquence of his writing. Darwin’s mastery of the English language is extraordinary, and his skill as a science communicator is something that needs to be acknowledged more. He put an incredible amount of thought into every word he wrote. A perfect example of this is in the ending: the last word of the book is “evolved”. It is the first time that this word is mentioned in the entire book, and it is the word he chose to end it on.

Special thanks to Benoît Dayrat for teaching me about Charles Darwin!

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