Darwin anniversary

David Stack, Head of History at Reading, writes:

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On 24 November 1859 a book containing ‘the best idea anybody ever had’ was published. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by means of natural selection had been twenty-one years in the making and was written in a hurry.

Over a century and half later the significance of the book is (almost) universally acknowledged, but still often misunderstood.

The Origin did not introduce the idea of evolution. Evolutionary ideas had been around since the time of Aristotle, and in the ‘Historical Sketch’ which Darwin added to the third edition of the Origin he identified over 30predecessors). Nor did it announce the death of God, Darwin was still a theist when he wrote the Origin. And far from proclaiming that men were descended from monkeys, the Origin avoided the subject of human evolution altogether until two pages before the end, where Darwin tantalised his readers with the enigmatic comment that if his theory proved to be true ‘Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history’.

What then was the significance of the Origin? Why did it matter? And why does it still matter today? The answer is simple: because in ‘one long argument’ the Origin outlined the mechanism by which evolution works: natural selection. This was what the philosopher Daniel Dennett meant by ‘the best idea anybody ever had’.

Whereas earlier evolutionary accounts had been teleological, the Origin showed that evolution worked by an unscripted process of variation, branching, and differential survival rates. Nature was a ‘struggle for existence’, and evolution occurred by a merciless ‘survival of the fittest’ (the phrase was Herbert Spencer’s, but was incorporated by Darwin into the 1869 edition of the Origin) in which the best adapted survived and passed on their relative advantages to their offspring.

On page after page of the Origin, Darwin showed by example laid upon example, how feature after feature of the natural world could be explained not by Special Creation or an interventionist Creator, but by the simple incremental process of natural selection. This did not demand the death of God: the Origin was concerned with the origin of species – i.e. with explaining divergence and variety – not the origin, let alone the meaning, of life. But Darwin did demand the death of Design.

The target he had in his sights was the Anglican theologian William Paley whose ‘watchmaker analogy’ was the foundation of both nineteenth century natural theology and science. Science and religion, it should be remembered, were not at war in the early nineteenth century. They were at one in reasoning from Nature up to Nature’s God. As an undergraduate Darwin in the 1820s had occupied Paley’s old rooms in Christ’s College, Cambridge, and had been impressed by the theologian’s arguments. By 1838 he had hit upon natural selection as the mechanism to explain evolutionary change.

But if Darwin had, as he later put it, ‘a theory by which to work’ in 1838, why did he then wait twenty-one years before telling the world? The question has divided historians in recent years, with ‘internalists’ stressing Darwin’s proper scientific caution, and ‘externalists’ suspecting Darwin’s acute awareness of the potential social and political consequences – for himself, for his family, and for society –  of unleashing his dangerous idea.

Whichever explanation one favours — and as is the case in most historiographical disputes, the truth probably lies somewhere in between two caricatured extremes – what is undeniable is that the delay made the Origin a better book. It allowed Darwin to flesh out his understanding and systematically work through possible objections. As a result one of the most persuasive features of the Origin is Darwin’s ability to anticipate objections and tackle them head on. Indeed, much of the book is a master class in anticipatory refutation. Even some of the chapter titles – ‘Difficulties on Theory’, ‘On the Imperfection of the Geological Record’ – acknowledged the difficulties he faced, and indicated his determination to rebut every possible criticism.

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Why then was this work, so long in the making, ultimately written in a hurry? The answer is three words: Alfred Russel Wallace. The ‘perennial afterthought’ in histories of evolution, Wallace was a naturalist working in the field in south-east Asia, who during a bout of malaria had an idea for a scientific paper, which he entitled ‘On the tendency of species to depart indefinitely from the original type’, and sent it to Darwin in June 1858. When Darwin read the paper he was flabbergasted. Wallace too had hit upon the theory of evolution by natural selection. ‘All my originality, whatever it may amount to,’ Darwin wailed, ‘will be smashed’.

He would delay no longer. His plan for a multi-volume doorstopper to be entitled Natural Selection was set aside, and he set to work on a crisply composed outline sketch. Darwin proposed calling it An Abstract of an Essay on the Origin of Species and Varieties through Natural Selection, until his publisher demanded something snappier.

It is often said that the Origin sold out on the day of publication. This is not quite true. Darwin was no J.K. Rowling, but all 1,250 copies were taken by booksellers and a second edition was in print by January 1860. Four further editions, all slightly modified, appeared in Darwin’s lifetime, and the Origin has never been out of print since.

There is no better way to mark the 155th anniversary of the Origin than by sitting down to read it. Some of the detail of the science is now outdated (largely because subsequent scientists stood so squarely on Darwin’s shoulders), but that is beside the point. The construction of Darwin’s argument is exemplary; the prose is often poetic; his examples are occasionally startling; and his protests against Paleyan Design are as good a riposte to contemporary Creationists and ‘Intelligent Designers’ as you will find. Most of all I defy anyone to read the Origin with an open mind and not share the awe and admiration of Darwin’s insight with which the Origin concludes: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The limits of science

Dr Berry Billingsley from the department of education will be leading the next work-in-progress session of the IRHS on perceived boundaries defining the extent or limits of science. The session will be at 1 p.m. on Monday 3rd of November in HumSS 127. This will be followed at 2 by a wider discussion of the projects being undertaken through the IRHS and projected plans for this coming year. Both parts of the meeting are open to anyone interested in cross-disciplinary work on the humanities and science at Reading.

Talk at the Linnean Society

This Wednesday lunchtime (1st October) I will be giving a talk at the Linnean Society on how poets have responded to changing conceptions of the natural world, from when the eighteenth-century naturalist Carolus Linnaeus first devised an ordered system for classifying plants and animals, to Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s discovery of evolution by natural selection, and beyond. I’ll be looking at a wide range of poets, starting with Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who wrote a speculative account of organic evolution in verse at the beginning of the nineteenth century, moving on to Victorian poets, including Tennyson’s famous account of ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ in his elegy In Memoriam, and ending up with the modern American poet and editor of Darwin Philip Appleman, who is one of the most outspoken atheists writing in America today.

I am excited to be speaking at the Linnaean Society, as I’ll be in the very room where Darwin and Wallace’s theory was first announced in 1858. The audience, now as then, will be made up mainly of biologists, so I am looking forward very much too to this opportunity to show working scientists how poetry can help to explore the world that they are uncovering through their scientific research.

John Holmes

A Pre-Raphaelite Museum

As part of this year’s Oxford Open Doors programme, John Holmes will be giving a talk explaining how the Pre-Raphaelites became involved in the design of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in the 1850s, and how the Museum itself encapsulates in stone, iron, and glass its own scientific conception of the truth of the natural world. The talk will be at 3 p.m. on Saturday 13th September at the Museum. The event is free, but you can reserve a seat by through this website.

New Commission on Science and Literature

Earlier this month I went to the conference of the new Commission on Science and Literature at the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens. The Commission – or CoSciLit – is part of the Division of the History of Science and Technology (DHST) of the International Union for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IUHPST). As Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS), I had been asked to support the foundation of CoSciLit. Its aim is to provide an international forum for research into literature and science, and to demonstrate to scientists and historians of science how important literature is to thinking about what science means, now and over time. Literature is a key source for the history of science. At the same time, it is and has always been the perfect device for refracting the apparently clear light of science into a multitude of different colours, shades and wavelengths.

I was looking forward to the conference very much. It lived up to my expectations. The range of papers was tremendous. I listened to talks by literary scholars from Britain, America and France, scientists and historians of science from Greece, Germany and Austria, and the poet and physicist Iggy McGovern from Ireland. Topics included dinosaurs in American frontier fiction, eighteenth-century satires on the Royal Society, Emily Dickinson’s response to Charles Darwin, mesmerism in nineteenth-century Greece, sexology in civil war Spain, and contradictions in the physics of Jules Verne’s Around the Moon. My own talk was on evolution in modernist epic poems by Ezra Pound, David Jones and Ronald Duncan. It was fascinating to hear so many different examples of literature engaging with science, and of literary analysis shedding light on the science itself. I was especially glad to have the chance to see this from the perspectives of scientists themselves, and from so many different countries. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learnt from the conference as a whole was that science maybe international, but it is conducted in different national contexts, which shape what science is done, what discoveries are made, and how they are seen.

On the last day of the conference I was appointed along with the organizers, George Vlahakis and Kostas Tampakis, to a small committee charged with putting in place a constitution for the Commission and holding the first elections to its official executive committee next year. We’ve also been asked to start planning CoSciLit’s future, including another conference in a couple of years, and its involvement in the next of the DHST’s huge fourth-yearly congresses in Rio de Janeiro in 2017. (The last one was last year in – less excitingly, but very appropriately – Manchester.) I am looking forward very much to working with George and Kostas to help build on the foundations they have laid, and to get more literary scholars, scientists and historians from around the world involved in the rich discussions they have begun with their excellent conference.

If you’d like to find out more about the plans for CoSciLit as they develop, and more widely about work being done and conferences being held on literature and science, take a look at the websites for CoSciLit and the BSLS.

Diachronic change in Bantu noun classes

We are holding our last work-in-progress session of term next week at 1 o’clock on Wednesday 2nd July in HumSS 175. Annemarie Verkerk from the School of Biological Sciences will be speaking on ‘Diachronic change in Bantu noun classes: an investigation using phylogenetic comparative methods’. She will present a case study of the use of phylogenetic comparative methods in linguistics by looking at Bantu noun classes. In this talk, Annemarie will be contributing to work describing diachronic change in Bantu noun classes (e.g. Katamba 2003, Maho 1999) by looking at ancestral state reconstructions and rates of change. Please do join us if you can.

 

Science in Modernist Poetry

The IRHS has been invited to give a panel at the British Association of Modernist Studies conference this week at Senate House in London. We will be giving three talks on science in modernist poetry at 1.30 on Saturday 28th June. Stephen Thomson will be talking on ‘Fables of Science and Subjectivity: Paul Valéry’s Descartes’, John Holmes on ‘Teleological Evolutionism in Modernist Epic Poetry’, and Fathi Nasaif on ‘Science and Technology in Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead”’. We hope that the panel will open up new avenues for approaching the complex relationships between a range of modernist poets and poetics and different scientific theories and conceptions of science itself.

Medieval Meteorology symposium

The Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies at Reading is holding its Summer Symposium this year on Medieval Meteorology, Science and Divination. The Symposium is on Wed 2nd July, 10.30-4.00,  in Palmer Building, Room 109. Speakers include:

  • Dr Marilina Cesario (Queen’s University, Belfast), ‘Wind Prognostics in Anglo-Saxon England’
  • Dr Stephen Johnston (Museum of History of Science, University of Oxford), ‘Whatever the Weather: Sun, Seasons and the Astrolabe’
  • Dr Anne Lawrence (University of Reading), ‘The Weather, the Stars and the New Technology’
  • Dr Alexandra Harris (Liverpool University), ‘Talking about the Weather’

Registration costs £10, including lunch. For more details email Anne Lawrence (a.e.mathers-lawrence@reading.ac.uk). To book your place for the Summer Symposium click here.

Evolution and Victorian poetry

John Holmes’s essay ‘The challenge of evolution in Victorian poetry’ has just been published in Evolution and Victorian Culture, edited by Bernard Lightman and Bennett Zon. This is the first book to take a look at the  significance of evolutionary thinking across the arts in the Victorian period, from fiction to dance, cinema to architecture. To take a look inside, and get a flavour of the book and its coverage, visit the CUP page for the book by clicking here.

Science in modernist poetry

Our next work-in-progress meeting will be on science in modernist poetry. The IRHS was invited to submit a panel to the conference of the British Association of Modernist Studies, so Stephen Thomson and John Holmes will be sharing their work in progress towards this panel on Wednesday 4th June at 1 p.m. in URS 2n10. Stephen will be talking about the place of Descartes within the thought and poetics of the French poet Paul Valéry, and John will be looking at the significance of evolutionary ideas within modernist epic poems by Ezra Pound, David Jones and Ronald Duncan. Members of the IRHS and non-members are both welcome.