Thursday, September 27, 2007

Variation Under Domestication

From having gone back and read my entry on the beginning of The Origin of Species, I appear to be writing a high-school book report. I don't know if that's the flavor that I'm looking for, so this time, I'll see if I can't come up with something a little more engaging.

In reading the first Chapter of Origin of Species, Variation Under Domestication, I found myself stopping and re-reading sections of the text over and over. This was due to several factors acting in concert. Among them is the slightly archaic language that is being used. Shakespeare it isn't, but it's certainly not the way in which modern writers communicate, and this is the only text from this particular time period that I've actually read, and Darwin is English, rather than American.

But the most interesting part of the book thus far has been Darwin's tendency to speculate. In a day and age in which DNA and genetics are commonplace, it's sometimes jarring to realize that people in Darwin's time weren't aware of this, leaving him ignorant of things that any modern high-school biology student would be able to tell you. (I expect that Mr. Darwin would be a holy terror in the present time, running around gathering DNA samples from anything that would stand still long enough.) The science of biology has advanced a lot in the approximately 150 years since the Sixth Edition of The Origin of Species was published, and I find myself having to remind myself that while Darwin was clearly a very smart and observant man, he wasn't a stand-in for Nostradamus, and couldn't see into the future. Therefore, my unconscious expectation that Darwin will always prove more knowledgeable about this subject than I am is very much misplaced. In fact, it's easy to forget that I'm reading this to understand Darwin and his book (and the contexts around them), not the theory of Evolution itself, which has progressed far beyond Darwin's original ideas.

An entire section of the chapter is devoted to pigeons, as Mr. Darwin had spent some time keeping and breeding them. An interesting tidbit that can be gleaned from this section is that the world is still crawling with Englishmen - Darwin's countrymen in India and Persia favoring him with bird pelts from those lands. Again, it's only to be expected, but I suspect that at some point in the future, people would find it strange to recall the presence of large numbers of American soldiers in Japan and Germany, regardless of whether or not their history books informed them that these places were once occupied, and then home to military bases. Darwin goes into a good amount of detail about the differences between the various breeds of domesticated pigeons, with which I was completely unacquainted. I had heard of carrier pigeons, but that was about it. Short-faced tumblers were something completely beyond my knowledge.

There is an interesting point raised in the overall discussion of pigeons - namely that many pigeon breeders would not begin to credit the idea that all of the various breeds of birds could have had a single common ancestor species, sometime in the distant past. I suppose its the same thing with modern dogs. One doesn't look at a toy breed, like a Bichon Frisé, and a massive working dog, like a Great Dane, and immediately come to the conclusion that both of these animals share a common parent. Darwin takes on a chiding tone here - if naturalists are willing to credit disparate breeds of animals as having a common parent species, animal breeders shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the idea, he says.

This caution is especially interesting in light of the fact that the next section of the chapter deals with mankind's efforts to alter the characteristics of animals through selective breeding. Good breeders have an almost magical ability to effect changes in successive generations of animals, and Darwin holds their abilities in very high regard. Darwin concludes the first chapter by discussing the ways in which people both purposefully and accidentally enhance or degrade certain characteristics of animals, and the particular circumstances that make it easier to do so. The next chapter deals with Variation Under Nature.

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