Monday, February 21, 2011

Brief Thoughts Concerning Darwin Day

The 12th of this month was Darwin Day, i.e., the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (incidentally also the 202nd anniversary of Lincoln's birth) whose On the Origin of Species changed the study of biology forever. Having become a strong proponent of the biological doctrine of evolution over the last several years I've been meaning to get around to actually reading all of Darwin's works especially On the Origin of Species. And so I made one of my study goals for the year to do just that. However, I had read many times before that there were two works in particular which Darwin said greatly influenced his thought, and since I have a strong interest in the intellectual debt that writers/thinkers owe to those that have preceded them I decided it would be valuable to read these two works before reading Darwin.

The first of these was "An Essay on the Principle of Population" first published in 1798 and written by the famous political economist and demographer Thomas Malthus. Against the then dominant utopian visions of the time which emphasized the evolving perfectibility of human nature, Malthus in this work argues that the chief human paradigm is actually one of suffering because the relationship between food production and population growth is an inverse one. In other words, while food production is essentially geometric, population grows at an exponential rate which means that population at some point inevitably outgrows the rate of food production which in turn leads to certain miserable factors such as famine, pestilence, war, etc that must act as a check on population growth so as to preserve equilibrium in nature. So Malthus:
"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world". (p. 61, 1st ed)

Here in this brutal notion of the inevitability of certain segments of the population dying out for the sake of population equilibrium lies the germ for Darwin's doctrine of the "survival of the fittest". In fact, on the influence of Malthus for his work Darwin wrote:
"In October 1838... I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population... it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species." (Autobiography, p. 128)

I was able to mostly finish Malthus' population essay some months ago and actually found it to be a rather easy and pleasant read except for some of the tedious chapters in which Malthus criticizes various utopian authors and their proposals for possible checks on population growth. I decided not to read his last few chapters in which he engages Adam Smith because one of my other study goals for the year is to read Smiths' works. Once this is accomplished I then plan to finish Malthus. But again this was a pretty enjoyable read.

I wish, however, I could say the same for the second book that I just recently finished that influenced Darwin's thought, namely, Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (three volumes first published between 1830-33). Now ever since I read the abridged version of Les Miserables in high school and was confused as hell with the plot I've harbored an utter disdain for abridged works of any kind. But, admittedly, in this case I'm glad that I ended up with the abridged version of Lyell's mammoth three volume work on geology. It wasn't his prose that made the work a difficult read or anything like that but rather the tedious use of example after example to support his arguments.

And yet it is for this very reason that Lyell's work was so persuasive and basically closed the door on prior geological theories. Before Lyell the "discipline" of geology wasn't really a science per se in the sense of Newtonian mechanics at the time. It tended to be more of a philosophical system and prior as well as during Lyell's time the debate was essentially between catastrophists and uniformintarists. The former basically argued that the so-called "old" features of the earth could be attributed to cataclysmic fits of great upheavals and so could still fit with a young earth worldview. In contrast, the latter argued that the causes in the changes to the earth are essentially of a uniform, slow-moving nature and therefore are better explained by a theory that views the earth (and consequently the universe) as very old. It was this latter camp that Lyell eventually fell into being influenced by the works of James Hutton and John Playfair (the former more via the latter though according to the Penguin introduction).

Lyell's contribution made possible by his extensive travels and hands on work with the various geological features of the earth was to essentially popularize uniformintarianism and raise geology to the level of a proper scientific discipline as well as to greatly reduce the influence that the Anglican clergy had previously held in the realm of the sciences. And it was essentially Lyell's persuasive argument for the very ancient nature of the earth which influenced Darwin whom religiously read PG while traveling around the world aboard the H.M.S. Beagle.

But what was surprising to me as I read PG was a chapter Lyell devoted to arguing against what he termed "the theory of the progression of species" or in modern parlance, evolution. Many make the mistake of thinking that Darwin (and Alfred Russell Wallace) invented the notion of evolution when in fact the idea that species may change over time was actually a rather ancient one. Furthermore, in Lyell's day a popular view among biologists was the transmutation of species a doctrine having been advocated by the french naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who argued that species transmutated over time into newer species and also inherited acquired characteristics of their parents. This "evolutionary" belief is what Lyell argues against in this chapter. I was of course puzzled by this until I read the Penguin introduction to PG. (I've developed the habit of delaying the reading of introductions until I've actually read the work in question). There it is explained that Lyell's reluctance to accept evolution was based more on moral and less on intellectual reasons. In fact it wouldn't be until late in life after he had developed a deep friendship with Darwin and after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species that Lyell would (though still very reluctantly) accept the tenets of evolutionary theory. Eventually, this acceptance made it into the last few editions of PG Lyell published before his death. The Penguin abridged version retains the very 1st edition; hence my puzzlement.

Anyways, it's a good feeling to be done with these two books. Now I can finally proceed to read Charles Darwin on his own terms.

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