Monday, March 2, 2015

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (or On the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life) 6th edition- Charles Darwin, FRS

The Origin of SpeciesThe Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First off, full disclaimer, as usual I didn't read the book, I listened to it.
I listened to the LibriVox version of this book, which was a reading of the public domain version of the book. Also, even though some poor schmuck read Chapter 16: Glossary, I did not listen to it.
This book is a classic work in science that I have intended to read for some time. I originally became very interested in creationism versus evolution the summer after my freshman year of high school. I have always felt that it is better to "know your enemy" and so back then when I still believed in a hard-line, literal, young-Earth, 6-day creation I felt that I should read it. Of course that was almost two decades ago, and it took me this long to pick it up. There of course, have been opportunities to read it, but I have always preferred to listen to it. The former biology teacher I worked with, now my principal, had told me that she had never read it, and that Darwin was very poetic when he wrote. I determined none-the-less a few summers ago when I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins finally that I would read The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (or On the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life) . I stumbled across the LibriVox version about that time, and have simply been waiting to get around to it. I'll admit that I let other classics [like The Great Gatsby and Pride & Prejudice ] get in the way, but finally it was On the Origin's time.
First, I am no longer a staunch Creationist. I think however, I'll save that discussion for another time. Also, I don't think Darwin was very poetic- wordy and repetitive yes, but poetic not really. There were a few times when he did wax poetic, but overall he was fairly straightforward with his prose. As I read, I kept trying to put myself back into the past when Darwin wrote this and to think about how groundbreaking of an idea it was. Furthermore, I was surprised that most arguments I've heard against Darwinism and evolution were preemptively addressed by Darwin, or discussed in later editions [specifically the added Chapter VII to the 6th edition to address criticisms. It is frustrating to me that I had the wool pulled over my eyes, like there were valid arguments against evolution and for the Creationist perspective that the scientific community had not addressed, when in reality they were addressed by the founder of this idea. Darwin was very methodical in laying out his case, in pointing out its shortcomings, in citing the experiments he or others had conducted to support his theory, and in showing what was left to be figured out [or even what experiments could prove him wrong].
In fact, I was surprised at how differently science was done in the past. As a naturalist Darwin and his peers did not seem to specialize as much as happens today. Darwin kept up regular correspondences to collect and share data. He was even a member of a birding society in London so that he would have a way to get a lot of breeding and inheritance data without having to go through the hassle of raising so many birds. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of floating and eaten seeds and how successful they were at growing after being subjected to harsh conditions. This kind of work showed that Darwin didn't just propose a theory, he thought long and hard about its implications and what must occur for it to be correct.
However, I laughed several times when the development of other scientific theories paled in comparison to where they stand today. He, and others at the time, seemed so close to proposing the idea of continental drift, and yet he drew short. He, of course, relied on Lord Kelvin's [or someone following a similar line of reasoning] for the age of the Earth. These shortcomings are not his fault, but still they amused me.
Several times as I was reading the book, I thought about how I'd use it if I was a biology teacher and although the text is probably a little advanced for most high schoolers, it could easily be used in upper-level classes or have snippets given to lower grades. In fact, the summaries at the end of most Chapters [some chapters follow such a common theme that two are summarized together] could be read and appreciated without too much confusion or additional guidance being needed. I also thought that it would make a great class project to create an illustrated edition. This has been done of course, but since the work is in the public domain it would be great to make a public illustrated version using public domain images.
The only real complaint I have it how repetitive Darwin was at times. The book probably could have lost and 1/8th to a 1/6th if he had been more brief. Also, as ground breaking as it was at the time, it doesn't carry the same weight as now when the concept is so accepted and prevalent.

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