Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gearing up for Mr Darwin

As the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of The Origin of Species unfolds, no.... I am not about to start reading The Origin again. I did read it a few years ago, and continue reading a few sections now and then.

But I am reading two new blogs on Darwin. The first is by John Whitfield called Blogging the Origin. He is a science writer who fessed up he hadn't read The Origin. So he is blogging about his reading experience every few days. The second is a blog run by Science magazine. Don't need a subscription to read it. It's called Origins, a history of beginnings.

Also my alma mater Florida State University will be holding 2 week long celebrations in honor of the great man under a program titled Origins 09. Lots of talks and shows. Science Friday will host a special from Tallahassee on March 20th.

Is The Origin these days a phenomenon like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time? Everyone nods reverentially on how great a book it is, but how many have actually read it? Certainly, it is not required reading for geologists. I guess though not many biologists have read it either. Biology and evolutionary theory has moved on over the last 150 years since The Origin and you don't need to read it to understand evolution. It would be very worrying indeed if you still had to rely on a 150 year old book.

Off course you can't do without it if you want to understand the history of evolutionary thought. You do get an immediate sense reading The Origin of how extraordinary a thinker Charles Darwin was. His insistence on accumulating as much evidence in support of his argument, his talent for detail, his visionary exploration of many fields near and far from his immediate area of expertise, and the realization that creeps on you of how right he was about so many of the important questions on evolution. All this makes reading The Origin still a treat.

Speaking of geology, David Bressan over at Cryology and Co. has a very nice post on Darwin the geologist. Geology did figure prominently in The Origin enough for a separate chapter of its own. Darwin used his knowledge of geology to ram home the point that the fossil record is incomplete as deposition of sediment is not continuous over space and time. There are taphonomic controls too on fossil preservation. So scientists should not expect to see a fine gradational series of fossil forms. He also understood the significance of unconformities and used it to explain why entire groups of new species appear suddenly in and disappear from the rock record.

A quote from the chapter Imperfection of Geologic Record:

For my part, following out Lyell's metaphor, I look at the natural geological record, as a history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly changing language, in which history is supposed to be written, being more or less different in the interrupted succession of chapters, may represent the apparently abruptly changed forms of life, entombed in our consecutive but widely separated , formations. On this view, the difficulties above discussed are greatly diminished , or even disappear.

Who said Victorian English is a pain to follow? One long argument he called his book. And he won nearly all the arguments he made.

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