Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Annotated Origin

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Probably no one left bigger footprints than Darwin especially when you consider the explanatory power of an idea. In this convocation address at Case Western Reserve, David Quammen says that 'On The Origin of Species' is a book that 'every educated person should read'. I now tend to agree with this. By this criterion I was almost 40 before I could call myself educated when I heard am audiobook version of the same. (I downloaded it from librivox.com. It is a useful site to know if you don't want to read How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read.)

I just read The Annotated Origin.I wanted to read an annotated version of 'The Origin' since it would give additional information about how Darwin formulated his ides, the pressures on him, what he got wrong, additional comments etc. For instance, the last two lines of 'The Origin' are as follows:
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
The annotation says:
I hesitate to intrude on the beauty of these lines. By necessity I will simply point out a few interesting features and later changes. Note, first that Darwin seems to speak to those perhaps reluctant to let go of their natural theology worldview: despite the reality of the "war of nature" - famine and death - exquisite beauty arises, he urges. His tone is not consoling, yet there is an air of reassurance about the statement. Note, too, the juxtaposition of Darwin's natural law of descent with modification with the law of gravitation. Even the divines of Darwin's time would have granted that the planets cycle on by Newtonian natural law, albeit set in motion by the creator. So, too, Darwin is saying, do life forms continually change - not in a cycle, he would argue, but in response to cycles of geological and biological change, in a grand interrelated system that spins "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful" from perhaps but a single common ancestor. In the second edition Darwin added "by the Creator" to "originally breathed," intimating that a creator may have set this grand system in motion, just as the physicists held for the clockwork universe. Note, finally, that the very last word is the only use of the word "evolve" or its cognates in the book - ironic, given that "evolution" is now synonymous with Darwin's model of common descent by natural selection. In his day the word was more closely associated with embryological development, and indeed Darwin's usage in this last sentence may be invoking an image of the embryo's unfolding developmental complexity, as natural selection endlessly spins out those forms most beautiful and most wonderful.
'The Origin' is worth reading but if it is your first book about evolution, you will struggle to complete it. At least that would have been the case with me. I had to negotiate a number of 'Hubble moments' eg. the idea of Deep Time, by reading a number of popular science books. (Here is a history of Earth in 24 hours.) Earlier, if there was a discussion of Cambrian life forms, I would have had no idea what was being discussed.

Apart from his genius, there is another thing about Darwin that fascinates me.He was born into wealth, had an independent source of income and didn't have to work for a day in his life to support himself. Most people in his place would have wasted their time in trivial pursuits. Darwin went on a five year voyage around the world and then did not move very far from his house for the rest of his life. But he had voluminous correspondence with many leading scientists, gathered copious amounts of data, thought long and hard and came up with a great idea. His privileged life was in contrast to that of Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection.

All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms, it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully, endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited, die off quickly. But nothing - from our own species, to the planet on which we live, to the sun that lights our day - lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal ...
Lucretius lived over 2000 years ago.


  1. Have you quoted Lucretius verbatim? Most astonishing! I looked up the guy on Wikipedia, and found some interesting stuff:
    "According to Lucretius, fear of death is a projection of terrors experienced in life, of pain that only a living (intact) mind can feel. Lucretius also puts forward the 'symmetry argument' against the fear of death. In it, he says that people who fear the prospect of eternal non-existence after death should think back to the eternity of non-existence before their birth, which they probably do not fear."
    Where did you find that??

    1. Anjali,
      Where have I mentioned about this? Can't remember. Getting old! Others have said similar things. Eg: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” ― Mark Twain
      I did not know Lucretius had also said it. Thanks for the information.

    2. Suresh Uncle,
      Pardon me for being so unclear. My indignant question ("where did you find that??") was about the paragraph you quoted from Mr. Krulwich's blog. I thought you had read about Lucretius somewhere before and quoted him out of *memory*(damn lack of italics). I don't why, but it did not quite strike me that the hyperlink above the paragraph was related to it. Probably got something to do with a certain lazy right-click button on my mouse and my unwillingness to leave the page I'm currently reading.
      So now I know.(Now I Know is a pretty decent newsletter about random facts BTW)
      The links in your blog are pretty decent, I must say.

    3. Anjali,
      That is ok. We all make mistakes. Thanks for telling me about Now I Know. I have subscribed to it.