[Clearing out my drafts folder while I wait for my meeting to start and discovered this. Dunno if it’s any good or why I wrote it.]
Splendid wrap up of the Darwin Anniversary last year in the London Review of Books (it’s not short).
The reviewer focuses on the questionÂ Why Darwin? After all, there are plenty of people (ok…not plenty of people…a few people) who have made as big a contribution to science as Darwin – Einstein, Newton, Gallileo – why is Darwin such a big hero?
According to Dawkins, Darwinâ€™s idea wasnâ€™t just a great one (â€˜the most powerful, revolutionary idea ever put forward by an individualâ€™), it is essentially the only idea you need to explain life and all its phenomena: â€˜Charles Darwin really solved the problem of existence, the problem of the existence of all living things â€“ humans, animals, plants, fungi, bacteria. Everything we know about life, Darwin essentially explained.â€™
After a roundabout tour that disses evolutionary psychology and the New Atheists, the reviewer settles on the idea that, even without Darwin, someone would’ve come up with Natural Selection [er…they did – ed] just as someone would’ve discovered oxygen without Priestley [er…. -ed] orÂ figured out calculus without *Newton [now you are just messing with me – ed]. But Darwin’s great contribution was not that he was one of the greatest scientists of all times. It was that he was a great writer.
You can still say, with perfect accuracy, that the Origin is much more than its â€˜essentialâ€™ theory of natural selection: it is a book, a magnificent theatre of persuasion, â€˜one long argumentâ€™ (as Darwin called it), supported by masses of arduously compiled evidence, ingeniously organised and vouched for by a special individual, with known special virtues and capacities.
It so happens that I am reading The Descent of Man at the Moment, so I have recent experience of Darwin’s writing. It really is magnificent. When you think that he was writing about cutting edge science – not a popularization – and that, in fact, he was the one doing the cutting… it just takes your breath away.
If you have tried reading The Origin and got stuck at the pigeon chapter like I did, give Descent a try. You won’t regret it.
* For all the received wisdom about the inevitability of discovery, it was surprisingly hard to come up with a third example to make my joke work.