Among the small thrills of encountering canonical works for the first time – Homer, say, or the King James Bible, or Star Wars – are the moments when you come across some turn of phrase so well-used it has been worn flat into the surface of everyday speech and think: so that’s where that comes from. I’m thinking that the same might be true of the Origin, but in a different way.
He is off to a good start
Something else strikes me about the woodpecker being the first animal mentioned in the Origin. Darwin had been round the world and knew of all sorts of animals and plants with outlandish physiques and habits. And yet the route into his theory begins, not with something obviously ‘extreme’, like an elephant or a giant squid, but a bird that you would be pretty much guaranteed to see on a stroll in the woods around Down House.
Similarly, the first plant he mentions is the equally common mistletoe, “which draws its nourishment from certain trees, which has seed that must be transported by certain birds, and which has flowers with separate sexes absolutely requiring the agency of certain insects to bring pollen from one flower to the other”.
One reason for this is surely to use examples that his readers would be able to picture. Also, of course, any general theory for the origin of species needs to explain woodpeckers as much as it does squid. But what makes me happy about Darwin’s use of woodpeckers and mistletoe here is one of the things that makes me happy about science in general, that it makes the familiar strange (and vice versa).
If he continues this way, he might persuade me to give it another try. I got stuck on the pigeons too.
Don’t forget to read the comments to find out stuff like this.
Darwin had another reason for highlighting the woodpecker. The woodpecker’s tongue was one of the examples used in William Paley’s ‘Natural Theology’ to show that evolution, in the form proposed by Charles’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, could not explain adaptations. Charles was very familiar with Paley’s work, and his own theory of natural selection is aimed at showing that adaptations of the kind discussed by Paley do not need to be explained by ‘intelligent design’.