Saturday, December 13, 2008
David Sloan Wilson’s “Evolution for Everyone” truly lives up to its title. Written in an engaging, accessible style, it is hard not to be carried away by the author’s enthusiasm for his topic. Although I am usually suspicious of authors who claim one pet theory can explain every known phenomenon under the sun (think of Freudians, behaviorists, etc.), Wilson ably demonstrates how evolution can indeed be applied to a variety of academic disciplines, and more importantly, to explain a variety of phenomena that one encounters in everyday life.
In this book, the author’s initial aim is both to introduce the reluctant reader to the basics of the theory of natural selection, as well as to clear away misconceptions about what it is and isn’t. In doing this, he seeks to demythologize science, assuring the reader that the scientific method consists of nothing more than “ensuring accountability for factual claims,” which when accumulated can build a sturdy scaffold to support a theory. Wilson repeatedly states that science is simply a “roll up your sleeves” activity like gardening or construction, that requires hard work and sweat, yet like gardening and (some) construction work, can be practiced by anybody.
I found the strongest parts of his book to be in the first half, in which he proceeds from a basic description of natural selection to fascinating examples of how adaptive behavior and traits evolve in various species, and eventually, how the theory can be applied to broader topics such as personality traits, perceptions of beauty, and social behavior. One of the underlying premises of his book is that evolutionary theory, even though it doesn’t always lead to behavior in the wild that humans would think of as benign (e.g., beetles and monkeys practicing infanticide), nevertheless favors cooperative social behavior in the long run, rather than the popular notion of “nature red in tooth and claw.” Although I found myself skeptical of some of the broader treatments of evolutionary life applied to nations and religions in the latter parts of the book, his cheerful and humane style disarms the reader, and keeps one engaged with his argument.
In short, I would heartily recommend this book.
Incidentally, on a related note, anybody who is interested in learning more about Wilson and his research should check out his website at http://evolution.binghamton.edu/dswilson/ . He refers to it several times in his book, and posts quite a few publications--not just his own but those of his students as well. And for those of us Stanford students from the Fall 2008 Darwin seminar, if you didn't get your fill, you should check the related link to a program that Wilson leads, EvoS, the Evolution Studies Program at Binghamton University. Their website is at http://evolution.binghamton.edu/evos/ .
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882. Edited by Nora Barlow. New York: WWW. Norton & Company, Inc. 1993. Reissued 2005.
Darwin’s autobiography has gone through several evolutions of its own, and finally emerged in its intact, original & intended form about fifty years ago. It was later published in paperback by Norton Paperback and was reissued in 2005. That is the edition under review.
An autobiography is generally expected to provide insights on the author’s thoughts and feelings and experiences. In reality, most autobiographies are just another face that the author (or the author’s family, in this case) carefully presents to the world.
The author creates a persona he wants known as his “real self” – a persona that may contradict the known facts – or the author may edit out significant events of his or her life in order to create a perfect reality.
To gauge the extent that Darwin’s autobiography follows this strategy we’ll review, the origin of the autobiography, its publication history, as well as the content and omissions.
Genesis of the Autobiography
Darwin tells us, as a way of introduction, that the autobiography was suggested to him by a German editor; Darwin thought “the attempt would amuse me and might possibly interest my children or their children.” He began writing on May 31st, 1876, when was already sixty-seven years old, and almost seventeen years had passed since the publication of On the Origin of Species. Clearly, it was written at a time when Darwin had much to look back on. He may have taken this opportunity not just to amuse himself and his descendants but also to set the record straight, so to speak.
According to the introduction provided by Nora Barlow, Darwin’s granddaughter, Darwin wrote his autobiography in about three months but then expanded it by an additional sixty seven pages in the last six years of his life. The current edition represents the original draft plus the additions, grafted into the appropriate chapters.
History of Publication
That there was desire to mold and control the public perception of Darwin is never clearer than in the introduction provided by Barlow. The first publication in 1887, which was controlled by Darwin’s wife and surviving children, went through an editing process that excised some significant passages pertaining to Darwin’s religious beliefs, as well as some occasional commentary that may have offended still-living friends or colleagues of Darwin.
The need to protect the public image of Darwin would certainly be paramount to the family; though apparently some members thought that Darwin would have wanted the unexpurgated manuscript published. I think a case could easily be made for the latter viewpoint, after all Darwin certainly wrote it after a request from an editor. And the fact is he never instructed otherwise (that is, not to publish).
Barlow suggests that in reality Darwin’s thoughts were never intended for publication and certain family members (Henrietta Darwin, in particular) believed that publishing the manuscript as-is would damage his reputation. As a member of the succeeding generation, Barlow believed that the omissions were not of such great consequence as to necessitate expurgation. In fact, she had them restored in the 1958 edition of the Autobiography.
After reading the Autobiography, I would have to concur with Barlow – perhaps the passage of time and the general change in the centrality of religion was the significant factor affecting the perception.
Summary of the Text
Aside from the posthumous editing, the Autobiography is rather short—only about one hundred pages for the proper autobiographical section; that is, excluding the appendix, and notes.
The Autobiography briefly discusses growing up; his education; the seminal event of his life: the voyage of the Beagle, his marriage and; and finally his life at Down House, working and raising a family.
Upon my initial reading of the Autobiography, I was struck by how modest Darwin sounded. He downplayed his achievements (how could he only take a mere one hundred pages to tell the story of his long eventful life?) and exaggerated his faults.
To the degree that I was unfamiliar with his large body of work and the details of his efforts in producing the work, I fell for this humble act. I genuinely believed that he’d been extraordinarily lucky and it might well have been someone else who could easily have come up with the theory of evolution, much as he had done. Once I began reading his works, I realized how wrong I was.
Darwin was certainly modest, and the paragon of politeness and decency – his letters show his solicitousness. But, in his Autobiography I think the missing detail of his day-to-day work (captured in his notebooks and his actual publications) makes it hard to assess his industry and originality.
Darwin’s recollection of his time in Edinburgh and Cambridge as dissipated seems to be an obvious act of humility or simply the statements of an overachiever. He made too many scientific connections to have just been idling. He presented his first scientific paper at the age of 18 to the Plinian Society in Edinburgh. Rebecca Stott claims in Darwin and the Barnacle that Charles and his brother Erasmus checked out more books from the library during his first term at the University than most students did during the entire year.
Another interesting episode is that of the first publication of On the Origin of Species. He lets others take the responsibility (eg: Hooker and Lyell) for co-opting Wallace. Clearly, Darwin wanted to maintain his distance from the rough politics of science. And he certainly let T.H. Huxley fight his battles, after publication!
In the Autobiography, Darwin emerges as a solid family man, who loved his wife and children dearly. He was also a decent human being and a genius.As an introduction to Darwin or simply for insight into Darwin’s personality, I strongly recommend the Autobiography. But, do read some of his other works, or at least get an overview of the scope of his work. I think the Autobiography highly understates him.
Monday, December 8, 2008
Friday, December 5, 2008
For example, have you heard of Ilkley (or Otley) in Yorkshire? Well, Darwin stayed here “taking water cure treatments when On the Origin of Species was published in November 1859.”
The map can be accessed here: http://www.darwin200.org/darwins-britain/index.html
The map forms part of the Darwin200 website. The group’s mission is to celebrate Charles Darwin’s scientific ideas and their impact through a national program of events during this bicentenary year. Check out their website to see what they have planned at: http://www.darwin200.org/
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Keynes, Randal. Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution. London: Fourth Estate, 2001 (Published in the North America in 2002 under the title Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution: New York: Riverhead Books, 2002)
If you’re curious about Charles Darwin, the man, look no further than Randal Keynes’ touching biography of his great-great-uncle. It’s all here: from the Darwins’ marriage and first home in London to the details of life at Downe House, Emma’s widowhood, and Annie’s Box, a writing-case which symbolizes the heartbreaking death of Darwin's ten-year-old daughter. The account spans from the time Darwin decided to “Marry – Marry – Marry. Q.E.D.” in 1938, dipping into some history at Cambridge and aboard the Beagle, until Emma’s death in 1896, and includes a deeply personal look at life along the way.
Keynes pays particular attention to Darwin as husband and father. Darwin, who adored his family, exhibited “a fine degree of paternal fervour” with his ten children, playing on his hands and knees with them, never silencing their "howls and screams,” and even allowing them into his study while he worked. Of all the children, Darwin doted most on Annie, his cherished, eldest daughter, who was the apple of her devoted father's eye.
On April 23, 1851, just two days after Easter, Annie died, possibly from tuberculosis. Paradoxically, Darwin’s religiosity suffered its final blow at this holiest time of year for Christians. Separated from his wife during Annie’s demise, Darwin could not draw on Emma’s religious fortitude to comfort him or to interpret Annie’s death, and he could not find the consolation he needed from the Church. Although Darwin’s theory of evolution was already well developed by the time Annie died, Keynes juxtaposes Darwin’s darkening sense of nature (and his efforts to understand suffering and death) with his continued work on the Origin of Species.
Keynes’ ultimate thesis is that Darwin’s private "life and his science were all of a piece," which he aptly portrays. The narrative left me with a greater appreciation of an iconic, and often misunderstood, man, someone who was both a brilliant scientist and a loving human being who made time in life for the things that matter most: family and friends.
(Posted as The Heart of Charles Darwin’s “Insufferable Grief” on Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1841150606/ref=cm_cr_mts_prod_img)
Shubin, Neil. Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the Human Body. New York: Pantheon, 2008.
Neil Shubin, an evolutionary biologist who works as Provost of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, clearly chose the right career. In Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the Human Body, Shubin traces the history of our anatomy with a passion that leaps off the page. His conversational writing style, coupled with animated anecdotes and crisp descriptions, energized my reading so that two hundred pages seemed more like twenty.
The title of the book, Your Inner Fish, refers to the evolutionary history we humans share with other animals. Shubin, who also acts as Professor of Anatomy and Associate Dean at the University of Chicago, opens with the tale of how he co-discovered Tiktaalik roseae, sometimes called the “fish that crawled out of the water,” in the Canadian Arctic in 2006. This groundbreaking find provides compelling evidence of an intermediate stage between fish and early limbed animals, and serves as an illustration of the “history of life within us,” one example among many that Shubin highlights.
Of course, Charles Darwin predicted that transitional forms would illustrate a gradual evolutionary shift between two distinct groups, and Tiktaalik fits the bill. Like most fish, Tiktaalik possessed gills, scales, and webbed fins. Yet, it also sported innovations like wrists, lungs, and a mobile neck, and it denotes the earliest creature to possess all the bones of our arm, wrist, and palm. Previous to Tiktaalik, fish did not exhibit these joints. Thus, this creature laid the stepping-stones for later vertebrates to transition onto dry land.
The author tells us why we should care about this: "Virtually every illness we suffer has some historical component. ... [D]ifferent branches of the tree of life inside us – from ancient humans, to amphibians and fish, and finally to microbes – come back to pester us today … show[ing] that we were not designed rationally, but are products of a convoluted history."
He pinpoints the evolutionary history of our senses of smell, sight, and hearing, as well as that of our wrists, teeth, jaws, and skull, and he explains such common ailments as hiccups, hernias, and sleep apnea.
In a poignant passage about dissecting the human hand, Shubin recalls his personal introduction as a student to human anatomy. After spending months dissecting internal organs, he felt detached about the task before him. Seeing the hand jolted him back to reality: “[s]uddenly this mechanical exercise, dissection, became deeply and emotionally personal.” Similarly, when he examined Tiktaalik’s modified fin for the first time, he felt that he had “uncovered a deep connection between my humanity and [that of] another being,” which is the whole premise of his book.
Your Inner Fish provides a fascinating overview of the history of our own evolution, an introduction that is both readable and inviting. I suppose the simple explanations and introductory tone Shubin uses might give more well-read students seeking in-depth analysis or discussion, reason to criticize, but for a non-scientist reader such as myself, Shubin strikes the right note for piquing my interest further. And simply by asking what evolution from our animal ancestors really means for us, Shubin makes the book personally relevant in a modern context.
Shubin concludes with an inspiring message: "I can imagine few things more beautiful or intellectually profound than finding the basis for our humanity, and remedies for many of the ills we suffer, nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that ever lived on our planet."
(Posted as "Our Evolutionary Branch, Demystified" under the hardcover version on Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Your-Inner-Fish-Journey-3-5-Billion-Year/dp/0375424474/ref=pd_rhf_p_t_1)
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
On Monday night, when George Levine recommended Darwin’s Plots, a book first published in 1983, he didn’t mention that he wrote the foreword to this book, penned by Gillian Beer. But the tie is far from surprising when one considers the topic — the evolutionary narrative found in Darwin’s writing.
Levine’s more recent Darwin Loves You, though original and enjoyable, echoes many of Beer’s notions, from the importance of considering Darwin’s metaphors and language to reconsidering Darwin “as much of a believer in cooperation” and “mutual aid as in ruthless competition.” Darwin’s Plots also pushes readers to consider Darwin as a careful writer and an ongoing influence on modern literature and language. In fact, Beer (and Levine) place Darwin in the realm of literature, alongside the likes of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Virginia Wolf. But Beer, through careful analysis of Darwin’s writing, notes that Darwin was also influenced by these writers and others. Beer notes similarities in Darwin’s prose and the likes of Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Dickens. She also labels the Victorian naturalist a “Romantic materialist,” which seems akin to calling someone a “nostalgic agnostic.” Considering Darwin as a Romantic materialist was, for me, considering him in an entirely new light. Additionally, Beer reminds readers that to skim Darwin’s writing is to miss out on his writerly charm and, on occasion, intended meaning.
Also, having spent time researching Victorian writer Edward Bulwer Lytton, I am fascinated by Beer’s notion that science was often considered fiction (or, perhaps, a twist on an old cliché — science was stranger than fiction):
“Most major scientific theories,” she explains, “rebuff common sense. They call on evidence beyond the reach of our senses and overturn the observable world. They disturb assumed relationships and shift what has been substantial into metaphor... Such major theories tax, affront, and exhilarate those who first encounter them, although in fifty years or so they will be taken for granted... When it is first advanced theory is at most fictive. The awkwardness of fit between the natural world as it is currently perceived and as it is hypothetically imagined holds the theory itself for a time within a provisional scope akin to that of fiction” (1).
Beer overlays Darwin’s language on the outline of the novel, and shows readers that his writing can be read as both science and poetry. Both Darwin and fiction writers tackle the notions of natural selection (er, daily life) through courtship, matchmaking, beauty, and utter brut force. To this day, as Levine points out, we still can reinterpret and reconsider Darwin’s prose. Amazingly, much of his writing and ideas still read fresh and relevant.
On November 21, the New York Times reported that a scientist in New Zealand found another species of penguins, while looking through museum specimens hundreds of years old. The scientist, Sanne Boessenkook of University of Otago was investigating the history of the yellow-eyed penguin, trying to determine if it had been more abundant in the past. It turns out that museum specimens included a completely undocumented species that is now extinct.
Another recent (Dec 1) article in the same magazine talks about the discovery of a new form of amoeba that throws into question the how of evolution of life on earth. Up until now, scientist have believed that multi-cellular organisms that have two halves that mirror each other came about in the pre-Cambrian period explosion of life (more than 500 M years ago). This idea was based on fossilized tracks. The thinking was that only a complex, bilateral form could leave those tracks. However, the new giant amoeba, called Gromia is unicellular and is capable of locomotion and leaves tracks very similar to those in the fossil record. The full article can be found here:
These findings reinforce that continued research is necessary to really understand evolution.
(Image source: New York Times Online)
New fossil discovery shows how turtle may have evolved their shells. Chinese scientist, Chun Li and other colleagues have come up with a new ancestral turtle species based on fossils found in Guizhou Province in southwestern China. The species they named Odontochelis semistestacea lived about 220 million years ago and was likely aquatic.
The unique characteristic that differentiates it from other later turtles is that it only has half a shell.
Based on its skeletal structure, the scientists believe that the shell evolved from skeletal changes.
The article appeared in the New York Times,
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Inside: evolve your beliefs
The company believes it fills a niche, noting that “[n]early 15% of Americans identify themselves as ‘non-religious,’ [while] … surveys show that 95% of Americans celebrate Christmas.”
They offer eight designs at http://www.atheistholidaycards.com/ or http://www.cafepress.com/orderofstnick/6179512.
Inside: the evolution of tradition
Here’s a link to The Colbert Report episode (note: the segment begins at 14 minutes in):
Inside: It’s an evolutionary advantage
Happy Holidays, Everyone!
Monday, December 1, 2008
In Darwin’s Gift: To Science and Religion, Francisco Ayala provides a clear, concise, and readable introduction to the myriad ways in which evolutionary theory has been applied in the century and a half since Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species. Although the motivation for writing this book appeared to be that of countering the views of “intelligent design” creationists, it can also be read by anyone interested in a brief overview of evolutionary theory. While not focusing at length on Darwin, this book does an effective job of explaining what the theory of natural selection consists of, and how it has been applied to such fields of study as paleontology and genetics in the century since Darwin. In fact, I’ve recently been reading of a number of works discussing evolution and have listened to a number of lectures on this topic (all as part of a university-level course on Darwin), and for a non-scientist like myself, I would’ve been helped much if I had read Ayala’s book first.
Of course, it is evident from the title that Ayala intends to allay any fears that religious believers may have about evolutionary theory, and he effectively demonstrates how this theory can complement rather than threaten the foundations of religious belief. The basis that he rests this view on, as noted by other reviewers, is the concept of NOMA, or the “non-overlapping magisterial areas” of science and religion, popularized by Stephen Jay Gould. In other words, it isn’t the business of religion to concern itself with strictly scientific questions, nor is it that of science to expound upon religious and philosophical questions (although this doesn’t mean that individuals who are religious can’t have an interest in science, and vice-versa). With this view as a departure point, Ayala shows not only what a gift Darwin’s theory has been to science—with ample description of the ways in which evolutionary theory has been applied to a number of areas of study—but also to religion. In explaining aspects of nature that seem cruel or poorly designed, he shows that a refutation of “intelligent design” and acceptance of natural selection lets God off the hook, so to speak, by providing a plausible explanation for an imperfect world. In a similar vein, he follows the lead of the theologian John Haught (who he cites) and the paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who he doesn’t) in showing how evolutionary theory can also provide an alternative explanation to the question of the existence of evil in the universe, solving the problem of theodicy (although admittedly this explanation doesn’t have much to say about individual evil, such as how Hitlers and Stalins come to be).
Yet, even aside from the big questions of religion and science, Ayala’s treatment of natural selection and evolution do a good job of demythologizing these concepts. For example, I found it helpful to learn that the process of natural selection is not the random, purposeless path it is often made out to be: while the mutations that lead to new species are indeed random, the process of natural selection that leads to such mutations becoming firmly established is not, but is instead a common-sense response of organisms adapting to a given environment over time.
In a time when the stridently atheistic views of bestselling evolutionists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have received much attention, it is refreshing to read the work of someone like Ayala, who can calmly make the case for the peaceful co-existence of both evolution and religion.