Monday, September 24, 2007

In the Beginning...

This is the first installment of The Origin of Species weblog. I'm using the English sixth edition, originally published in 1859. Presumably, this is the final edition, but I don't know the publication history, so there may be later ones.

The book opens with an explanation of the various English and other language editions, and a listing of the changes that were made since the fifth edition.

But The Origin of Species really starts with a Historical Sketch. At the time Darwin is writing, scientific thought is changing, and the time when "[...] the great majority of naturalists believed that species were immutable productions, and had been separately created" is coming to an end. It's useful to remember that The Origin of Species is a refinement of ideas that already existed, and not an invention, and the Historical Sketch presents 34 different authors "[...] who believe in the modification of species, or at least disbelieve in separate acts of creation [...]." Here I came to an unanticipated problem. Mr. Darwin reads French, and clearly expects his audience to do so, as well. While German authors, such as one Dr. Schaaffhuasen, are quoted in English, French authors are quoted in their native tongue, which I do not read. (It's entirely possible to transcribe the passages into Babelfish or some other translator; and if there comes a point where a passage that is crucial to understanding the text is rendered in French, that is exactly what I will do.) In any event, Darwin spends a little over a dozen pages laying out for the reader about six decades of scholarly thought as concerns the descent and modification of species, leading right up to what was then the present time, and so there are authors on his list whose work is contemporaneous with earlier editions of The Origin of Species. By the end of this, it's pretty clear that naturalism and zoology are beginning to embrace the idea that animals and plants change over time, and that if if Darwin hadn't risen to prominence with his ideas, someone else would have.

Following the Historical Sketch is the Introduction, another short section of the volume, wherein Darwin explains some of the history behind his conclusions, and the decision to publish his work. He describes The Origin of Species as an Abstract, defined in Merriam-Webster Online as, in part: "something that summarizes or concentrates the essentials of a larger thing or several things." Darwin expresses a desire to publish all of his manuscripts, realizing that the facts that he puts forth can be used to support "[...] conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived."

"A fair result," he goes on to say, "can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this is here impossible." (It may be worth noting at this point that The Origin of Species is over six hundred and fifty pages long. I doubt that I have the endurance to read the sort of exhaustive treatment of the subject that Darwin might have had in mind.)

It is not enough, Darwin tells us, to understand that species have descended from other species, rather than being independently created. It is also important to understand HOW the many species of living things were modified. It is clear to him that not all such changes in species can be explained by external factors such as climate or diet, and that factors such as habit or the volition of the lifeform itself aren't even worth considering. Understanding that the variations in domesticated animals could be of great help in understanding the variation in wild animals, Darwin tells us that the first chapter of the book is devoted to the study of Variation under Domestication. From there, he proceeds to give short descriptions of the topics and subjects of the following chapters.

The Introduction ends with an admission that human knowledge of the details surrounding many plants and animals is likely to be incomplete for some time into the future, if not perpetuity. Darwin tells us that he now rejects what he, and many other naturalists once held to be fact - that species were both independently created and immutable. Instead, species descended from other species and varieties share a single parent species. Natural Selection is simply the most important of the various means of modification that ave brought this about. With Chapter One, he will start making this case.

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