Under my byline

Looking and seeing

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 11 February 2009

Charles Darwin in the late 1830s, by George RichmondOVERLEAF 16

There is a certain exhilaration that comes of reading of great deeds done and thoughts thought by one who describes himself as an ordinary and flawed individual, albeit lucky in some particular ways, and an almost unwitting beneficiary of events and personalities. There’s a lengthy tradition of such writing, from St Augustine’s Confessions to Richard Feynman’s brilliant and humane books on his own life. I felt that exhilaration again upon reading the short but warm-spirited autobiography of Charles Darwin — 22,000 workmanlike words by a man who changed the world.

This year is the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth (February 12) and the 150th anniversary of the first publication of On the Origin of Species (November 24), in which he first systematically described his theory of evolution by natural selection. It is his most famous work.

The theory is not difficult to understand. Slight differences between individual organisms of the same species can confer upon some of them a survival advantage. The likelier they are to survive, the likelier they are to reproduce and pass on their advantageous traits, and for those traits to become more common in the population. The process continues, generation after generation. In time it can yield new lifeforms, without “older” species coming to an end. That is, humans and amoebae can exist at the same time, because both are well adapted to their own environment.

Perhaps because the idea is simple, and touches so nearly upon ourselves both as individuals and representatives of our species, it has from the very start been seized upon, fought over and put to diverse uses by scientists, fundamentalists, social theorists, leftists, rightists, publishers of management books… In fact, the very first edition of Origin was bought sight unseen by its publisher John Murray, who obviously did see the book’s blockbuster potential. “The first small edition of 1250 copies was sold on the day of publication,” Darwin writes proudly and with what sounds like incredulity, “and a second edition of 3000 copies soon afterwards. Sixteen thousand copies have now (1876) been sold in England; and considering how stiff a book it is, this is a large sale.”

Darwin's first diagram of an evolutionary tree, 1837It isn’t as stiff as he says. Darwin wrote nothing in a hurry, spending months or years analysing his data, even for his many papers on comparatively obscure topics. “On May 15th, 1862,” for instance, he writes, “my little book on the ‘Fertilisation of Orchids,’ which cost me ten months’ work, was published: most of the facts had been slowly accumulated during several previous years.” He also read, corresponded, argued, and re-checked his conclusions unsparingly. The outcome was, by and large, polished and measured and, in the case of his major works, something that a clever high-schooler of today could read.

Observation was key to Darwin’s success. “I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind,” Darwin writes, of his five years (1831-1836) as the HMS Beagle’s naturalist, because “I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved, though they were always fairly developed.”

His particular genius — and genius it was — lay in being able to see through vast quantities of data to the animating pattern. From a sampling of things-as-they-are, where others might have seen only variety or category, he was able to see change — and, moreover, grasp how that change came to be. Thus he turned his “flat” data into a story with the added dimension of time. (So it’s no surprise that Darwin was at first devoted to geology.) It’s the purpose of all scholarly method, but one that few scholars use so effectively — after all, it also needs imagination. Turning observation into narrative is the core of all scholarship, and it is the common ground between science, the liberal arts and economics. They were not as far apart in Darwin’s day as they are today.

Darwin, in the manner of his age, wrote a great deal. Apart from his wide-ranging scientific work and the autobiography, there are essays, travel accounts and thousands of letters. All this leaves us much to measure the man and his ideas with — ideas which still make headlines today, as the foundation upon which rests an enormous industry in popular opinionising, from the fundamentalist to the atheist.

He summed up his own most important qualities as: “the love of science — unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject — industry in observing and collecting facts — and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense”. If only his silly detractors on school boards around the world could hope for as much from their pupils.

Darwin's "Thinking Path" near his home, Down House

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