Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"Adios theory": on the importance of careful reading.

Charles Darwin, pencil sketch, 1839.
[Courtesy of Cambridge University Library]
People care very much about what Charles Darwin wrote. They should, his theory of evolution by natural selection is a fairly big deal, after all. People care a lot about what he thought, and about how he came to think what he thought - and why not? As an historian I certainly think it's important to work out the history of ideas as well as events - and the interactions between the two.

People who care about what Darwin wrote tend to read a lot of what he wrote - those of us who care about the Origin, for instance, read the various editions that he wrote across his lifetime. If you care to do so you can read every edition of all of Darwin's published works online, beautifully scanned and searchable thanks to the work of Dr. John van Wyhe, at the Darwin Online Project.

There are even variorum editions published that track these changes, but my very favourite has to be this online research tool, courtesy of Ben Fry.

Fry's "Origin of Species: The Preservation of Favoured Traces" is wonderful - it makes research easy and fun, and I have yet to teach a class that has not contained at least one student who has instantly gone out and used it as the basis for a research essay. Nice work Mr. Fry, thank you.

Ben Fry's "Origin of the Origin"
Changes in each edition are colour-coded
We also have the Charles Darwin Correspondence Project. Big green weighty tomes in the library, on my bookshelf, and now online too. We can track changes in the various editions of Origin, for instance, and then find out what Darwin was writing to his friends, family and colleagues for added insight. My favourite example of this is the famous insertion into the Origin's last paragraph of 'the Creator' from the second edition onwards. It has often been cited as evidence of Darwin's religious belief.

He also cited the Anglican naturalist Charles Kingsley in support of this reading of his intentions. Kingsley had written to him saying that Darwin's theory gave him an even greater conception of God than he had held before (I've given you a picture here, but go and check it out... all the tools are right there for you!! )

Page 488 of the second edition of Origin. Darwin quotes Kingsley.
Insert shows an excerpt of the letter from Kingsley to Darwin,
November 18th 1859.
[Origin picture courtesy of the 'Darwin Online Project'.
Kingsley letter courtesy of the British Library.]
So, what might we make of this? Darwin clarifying things in light of all the accusations of the atheistic tendency of his theory? - I live in Oklahoma where many of my students have deep religious convictions, and this is a happy conclusion for many of them - an embrace of evolution without challenging their faith. However, let's turn to the correspondence. A few years down the line, when things were a little more settled, Darwin wrote to his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker about inserting the whole "creator" thing. "I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion", he wrote.

Most recently, courtesy of a collaboration between Cambridge University and the American Museum of Natural History, we now have access to the notes and marginalia that Darwin made in the books he read at the Darwin Manuscripts Project.

Overkill? - I don't think so. Here we get to see not only what Darwin read, but what he thought about it, and - by cross referencing with his reading notebooks (Appendix IV of Volume IV of the correspondence) - when he read it!

How cool is that?  Very cool. - Cool enough to have excited a recent NPR blog post by Robert Krulwich.

Robert Krulwich wonders... but doesn't read as carfully as he might
The subject of Krulwich's blog is original thoughts - or, as he puts it "Thinking Thoughts No One Has Thunk" - What has attracted Krulwich's attention is some wonderful marginalia added to the second volume of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1832). It was in the second volume of Lyell's work that the famous geologist had given a clear outline of the scandalous evolutionary views of the French naturalist Jean Baptist Lamarck, only to refute them. Krulwich notes that alongside an account of Lamarck's views Darwin scrawled in his makeshift Spanglish, "If this were true adios theory". Darwin even from the first, then, saw his own theory as distinct from that of Lamarck - Right? Well, er actually, no.

Darwin was certainly anxious to distance his views from those of Lamarck when he published Origin in 1859 - in part to preserve his claim to originality, in part to prevent association with the radical political views of many Lamarckians, but that was not what was going on here.

On the importance of careful reading:
I've often told my students about the importance of careful reading, and the dangers of quote mining - even when it's late and the essay is due first thing in the morning. "Put the text in context" I tell them, by which I mean that they should both look at such juicy small excerpts of text in the context of the broader argument that the author is trying to make, as well as putting the argument as a whole in the context of the intellectual and social debate of which it is a part. Mr. Krulwich would get an 'F' on the first of these, I'm afraid.

Darwin's copy of the second volume of
Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology 
Thanks to the wonderful people at Chicago University Press I have on my shelf a facsimile copy of the first edition of Lyell's Principles of Geology. I saw one once in a second hand book shop, but didn't have a house to mortgage at the time, and so I have been ever grateful for these affordable facsimile copies.  

(In the intersts of full disclosure I should confess that I have a contract with Chicago for one book I am writing and meet with one of their editors about a contract for my Political Descent book in a couple of days... as I say, they really are nice people!)

Well, thanks to CUP I turned to this passage only to find that Lyell is not in mid rant against Lamarck at this point, that was his theme for the previous two chapters, certainly. Here, however, Lyell is laying out his own views on the species question. He makes six points, the section that Darwin annotated is the fourth. Lyell writes:

"4thly. The entire variation from the original type, which any given kind of change can produce, may usually be effected in a brief peiod of time, after which no farther variation can be obtained by continuing to alter the circumstances, though ever so gradually,-indefinite divergence, either in the way of improvement or deterioration, being prevented, and the least possible excess beyond the defined limits being fatal to the existence of the individual." (Lyell, Principles, Vol. II, Chicago UP, p.65).

Lyell concludes (in point six) that "From the above considerations, it appears that species have a real existence in nature, and that each was endowed, at the time of creation, with the attributes and organization by which it is now distinguished." (Lyell, Principles, Vol.II, p.65).

So, as historians have long known, Lyell was determined to undermine Lamarck, and in the process gave a careful outline of exactly what Lamarck had said. He then - in this six point summary, gave his own conclusions as to why Lamarck was so wrongheaded. Darwin, however was more convinced by the Frenchman's argument than by Lyell's rebuttal.
When he read Lyell's account, he noted in the margin:

"If this were true, adios theory."

Please note: although I think marginal notes in books are way cool, this is only the case if you own the book. If it's a library book, DON'T.