The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin had been developing his theory of evolution for more
than a decade when he received a letter outlining the same theory from
the naturalist A.R. Wallace. In response, Darwin published The Origin
of Species earlier than he had intended. As a result, it is filled with
To treat this subject properly, a long catalogue of dry facts ought to be given; but these I reserve for a future work. Or,
In my future work this subject will be treated, as it well deserves, at greater length. At times, the book feels like a kind of Borgesian gloss on another, unwritten work.
The difference being that, for Borges, the exercise would have lasted eight pages. In the Harvard Classics edition, The Origin of Species spans 553 pages. And I can state unequivocally that over the past week I looked at every one of them. However, I'm not sure that I could fairly say that I read them all.
Don't misunderstand: there is much to admire about Darwin's writing. He structures his argument elegantly, and goes to great lengths to anticipate and respond to objections. (The complexity of the human eye is often cited by advocates of creationism and intelligent design as fatal to evolutionary theory, so I was interested to find that Darwin himself had addressed this concern.) But precisely because its argument is so lucidly outlined and so extensively argued, The Origin of Species, more than any other book I've read in the past months, fairly demands to be skimmed. The book is chockful of sentences like this one:
Mr. Wollaston has discovered the remarkable fact that 200 beetles, out of the 550 species (but more are now known) inhabiting Madeira, are so far deficient in wings that they cannot fly; and that, of the twenty-nine endemic genera, no less than twenty-three have all their species in this condition!
Granted, the exclamation mark provides some comic relief. But even now I could hardly keep from skimming long enough to transcribe this line. Which is not to say that such facts aren't useful to Darwin's argument, or that they wouldn't be of interest to the fellow naturalist who were the book's presumed audience. But they are of limited value to the generalist reader of the Classics. And then there is the fact that Darwin's theories have been significantly modified over the past 150 years. Darwin was handicapped, for example, by a dearth of knowledge about the process through which characteristics are inherited. One of the key assumptions behind the Classics is that it is always useful to strip away the secondary material and go back to the source. But I found myself, this week, wondering whether I wouldn't be better off reading Daniel Dennett or Stephen Jay Gould or some other modern day writer, who could tell me how evolultionary theory had, itself, evolved.
--CRB, March 25, 2007