Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The evolution of the Origin revisualised

A few years back, Peter Robinson and Barbara Bordalejo, both textual scholars, came to work here in Birmingham. They, along with local New Testament scholar David Parker, have been at the forefront of efforts to exploit computers in textual scholarship and use the kind of phylogenetic approaches used on biological sequences to unravel the patterns of evolutionary branching among manuscripts. Peter and Barbara had worked extensively on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but shortly after her arrival here, Barbara was searching for a fresh project. David Parker, perhaps rather provocatively for a Reverend Professor, suggested that Barbara, Peter and I work together on the evolution of Darwin's Origin of Species, treating Darwin's publications as "textual genomes". We did some preliminary work on this and submitted a proposal to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, but alas it was not funded...

But the best proof that one is working on something worthwhile is when someone else comes up with the same idea quite independently (cf Wallace on Ternate!). So it is gratifying to see two examples of people doing the kind of analyses and developing the same kind of visualisation tools that we envisaged:
  • The (En)tangled Word Bank is the work of computer scientist Greg McInerny and London-based visual artist Stefanie Posavec (see Science Blog Post) and is certainly pretty, although whether it can be used by scholars to unravel Darwin's thinking is unclear.
  • Ben Fry's The Preservation of Favoured Traces looks more useful and provides a more intuitive view of changes, but sadly appears to lack a zoom tool, so that one can only gain a "God's eye" view of the whole text, without been able to look closely at individual sections.
But both projects provide a fascinating proof of concept and it would be great to see them integrated more fully into a project like Darwin Online, where they could make a real contribution to Darwin scholarship!

And now a request please! Can either or both projects now incorporate the two forerunners of the Origin: Darwin's 1842 Pencil Sketch and his 1844 essay (both transcribed here), so we can see quite how much of the Origin was written over ten years before Darwin started on his "big book"  Natural Selection (which should also be included). It always amazes me how much of the structure of Darwin's argument was laid out in those two manuscripts from the 1840s, but it would be nice to see visually how many of the words are in common too.

1 comment:

arnulf said...

Actually, there is a, admittedly very small-scale but still, zoom-tool in Ben Fry's visualization -- the underlying text shows up if you mouse-over the respective section It's even highlighted in the same color-coding for the different editions as the graphical output. However, I'm not sure how deletions are displayed here.