Sunday 24 November 2013

The Origin

24th November should be celebrated with more oommph by bio-atheists.  On this day in 1859 "ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES. OR THE PRESERVATION OF FAVOURED RACES IN THE STRUGGLE FOR LIFE" was published by John Murray.  As any fule kno, Charles Darwin's magnum opus sold out on the day of publication.  It was an expected event among the literate middle class, so they had been able to save up their shillings to buy the book when it appeared.  In our mythology the actual publication is quite a quiet event bracketed by the drama of Alfred Russell Wallace's contact from Indonesia in 1858 duplicating Darwin's great idea and the events of the Oxford Debate in 1860.  The OoS is a chunk of a book at 160,000 words or 6500 tweets but that's less than War & Peace and much less than the King James Bible (30,000 tweets). Nevertheless hardly any evolutionists have actually read the book.  If you're a bio-student at any College in The West, ask a sample of your faculty if they have read our bible.  You'll be disappointed.

When I taught my course Evolution: from primeval soup to hominid nuts back in the 1980s, I used to start with the evidence that Darwin accumulated to convince him that evolution by natural selection was the driving force to explain the diversity of life on Earth.  This identified him as a serious polymath for collating evidence from geology and palaeontology; embryology and development; plant and animal breeding; biogeography and ecology.  He wasn't alone in his polymathistics: in 1850 there was so little data and such a sparse literature that a man with an income might well master all biological knowledge in a short life-time of reading. Darwin was 50 when OoS was published.  After Darwin, my Evolution course then looked at the evidence that had accumulated since he died - he was wholly ignorant about Genetics, which began to be understood by biologists in 1901, for starters.

Twenty years ago, shortly after 5pm, the secretary of the TCD Genetics Department transferred an outside line to me as the only adult person left in the building.  It was the local radio station looking to host a debate between an evolutionary biologist and a biblical fundamentalist who was in town to thump his tub and promote his latest book.  They wanted anyone from Genetics to come down to the studio in 90 minutes time to discuss matters with the visitor.  I refused.  I reckoned that Yer Man would have a well-rehearsed patter and an impregnable position and I would be poorly briefed to counter his set-pieces about the vertebrate eye and archaeopteryx. I on the other hand would be given about 90 seconds to outline the evidence accumulated over Darwin's lifetime or what took me a whole term to lay out for my Evolution course. Why, I couldn't even dissect out the recurrent pharangeal nerve in the time allotted! I only feel a smidgeon of guilt about my refusal to engage - I would be doing rationalism no favours to be seen to be trounced by Dr (PhD in Exegesis from Chatanooga Bible College) Fundamental

I urge you all to get a copy of OoS and read it. It's available in numerous editions on Amazon for $0.01 and of course it's long out of copyright so can be had for a download at Project Gutenberg. Among the relentless accumulation of anecdote and data it has some lyrical passages including the much quoted:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. 
Yes, yes, that single sentence is nearly 3 tweets long so you'll have to gear up your attention span, but you won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. a good decision and as keen an observation of media analysis as you will get!