Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Darwin's struggle: It's OK, but still makes me grumpy!

I have just watched the BBC 4 programme "Darwin's Struggle: the Evolution of the Origin of Species". In general it is nicely put together and doesn't get wholly embroiled in the "Darwin's delay through fears of impact on religion" myth, giving airtime to various other threads in the story (e.g. Darwin's experimental and breeding work; his principle of divergence). But it still makes me grumpy!

Firstly, why is it that a professional film-maker and a professional actor cannot quote Darwin accurately! In the closing words of the Origin of Species, he does not write "whilst this planet has been cycling along"! He writes "whilst this planet has been cycling on"! OK, I quibble, but if they cannot even get that right, it undermines one's faith in their ability to get the less obvious stuff right!

Secondly, we have the usual old nonsense from Jim Moore about Annie Darwin's death and its influence on Darwin's religious belief and what he wrote in the Origin. Not a jot of direct documentary evidence for any of it. I will attempt a detailed dissection of these claims later in the month, but for now, let's just examine the two passages from the Origin which Moore thinks were influenced by Annie's death:

Passage 1
The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.


Well, Darwin came up with the first version of this years before Annie was even born! Here is what he wrote in his Notebook in 1838:
One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the oeconomy of nature. or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones.

He didn't need the death of Annie to come up with that violent image!

Passage 2:
We will now discuss in a little more detail the struggle for existence. In my future work this subject shall be treated, as it well deserves, at much greater length. The elder De Candolle and Lyell have largely and philosophically shown that all organic beings are exposed to severe competition... We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.

But the progenitor of this passage in the 1844 essay carries the same misleading-glad-face-of-nature theme:
De Candolle, in an eloquent passage, has declared that all nature is at war, one organism with another, or with external nature. Seeing the contented face of nature, this may at first be well doubted; but reflection will inevitably prove it is too true. The war, however, is not constant, but only recurrent in a slight degree at short periods and more severely at occasional more distant periods; and hence its effects are easily overlooked. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied in most cases with ten-fold force.

OK, there is a little more detail in the Origin, but in some ways the earlier talk of war and ten-fold force is more violent. I cannot see any effect of Annie's death here! Can you?


1 comment:

Janet said...

Good points - the best way to look for the genesis of these passages.

Did you ever come across a book by Adam Philips called 'Darwin's Worms'? We used to have a copy and I recall it discussed Darwin's 'melancholy'. If you aren't familiar with it this review from the Amazon page gives some indication of content-