I like to let authors try to convince me. Whatever it is that they're selling, I've always been the sort of reader who is willing to let them try their darndest before I pass any judgments. I have firm beliefs that don't change every time some philosopher makes a snappy turn of phrase. But I'm not a reader that tries to disprove what I'm reading as I go along, since I believe that to do so would be to brush off the arguments of an author before giving them their proper due. Particularly when facing my first four texts of the semester, I am focusing on allowing the Masters of Suspicion to do their work on me in a way that allows me to fully engage with what they are saying. I want to let the problems brought up be problems; I want to sit with the issues these men are fighting so diligently to understand.
So, without any further ado, my knowledge of Darwin before reading his Origin of Species:
Rode to the Galapagos Islands on a ship called The Beagle. Got seasick. Watched swallows.
Is responsible, along with H.L. Mencken and Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, for the Scopes Trial and therefore a play called Inherit the Wind. Which I inexplicably had to read not once, but twice in my public school career.
Makes Christian parents of public-schooled adolescents very, very angry.
Other than these little factoids, my understanding of Darwin's general project was very basic. While I was familiar with the scope and thrust of his arguments, I had neither actually read nor deliberately studied Darwin's work; and I had certainly not done so in an environment that was not openly biased either for or against him.
The things that have struck me most deeply after reading the 500+ page Origin of Species are as follows:
-Darwin's arguments for microevolution are intuitive, convincing, and generally correct to my understanding.
I have never understood better the adaptation that occurs within a species over time. Also, it is mind-boggling to note that Darwin drew his highly sophisticated conclusions based only on observation, and was able to predict some of the principles that genetics wouldn't be able to prove until decades after his death.
-Darwin brilliantly explains the effect of man's domestication of certain plant and animal life on the rest of the planet.
His comments about livestock, pets, and crops demonstrate his idea that that mankind performs its own artificial natural selection on its surroundings that changes nature to most benefit man. He also rightly, in my opinion, points out that while we do affect nature strongly, the changes we cause happen quickly and do not last unless we maintain them; on the other hand, the changes that occur over time in nature are extremely slow to develop, lasting, and directly benefit the survival of the species experiencing the change.
-Although the book is long, it is entertaining.
I found that in order to make my deadline for this text, I had to read it much faster than I would have liked. His examples from nature (the pigeons! Let us not forget the pigeons!) were fascinating and frequent, and held my attention in most cases.
And perhaps the point that stuck with me most:
-Darwin calls his book a scientific collection of observations, but the text is a deliberately crafted rhetorical argument that poses each step as though it is a logical, scientific conclusion.
In effect, he is not merely presenting his findings and hypotheses on the properties of evolution within a species. By the end of the book, I found myself almost satisfied that Darwin had proved macroevolution to be a fact of nature, which a) I hardly noticed he was doing, and b) I don't believe could possibly be true. After thinking about how he pulled this off, this is what I found--
The chronology of the book is proof that Darwin is trying to prove a point. The book begins by analyzing the state of the parts of nature man has domesticated, and then moves backward in time to trace examples of natural selection in reverse. In this section Darwin effectively proves that microevolution is a fact of nature, and his argument is strengthened by this backward movement in time from what the reader is experiencing in the present to what the reader can understand to be true of the more recent past.
However, at this point in the book Darwin interrupts his reverse chronology with an argument for the application of the principles of microevolution to the notion of macroevolution, or the development of one species into a new species. He follows this detailed argument by jumping to paleontological evidences found in fossils-- abandoning his project of moving slowly backwards in time. He then slowly moves forward from fossil proof, moving from age to age giving evidence for the hand of macroevolution in the planet's development. The use of time in the text proves that Darwin is structuring his book around one point: that macroevolution explains the development of our planet from a single species into the complex variety we know today.
The final interesting thing I'll note about Darwin is that he strongly believes that nature is slowly moving toward perfection. With each change, be it micro- or macro-, every organism and species is closer to evolving into the perfect version of itself. I was surprised to find something so cheerfully optimistic in the pages of this book; it didn't seem to fit with the hard-hitting, coldly scientific personality that had been constructed over the years in my head. I still believe, as I did before, that Darwin's theory of macroevolution is incorrect. But now I know personally that Darwin was a pigeon-fancying naturalist who got a lot of things right, and believed that while it was far away, man and nature would eventually achieve perfection on this earth-- a much more charitable image of the man than I originally had.