Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Interesting 1860 review of Origin of Species

Via Yglesias, I came across this 1860 New York Times review of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Clearly, the reviewer understands the importance of the book:
Meanwhile, Mr. DARWIN, as the fruit of a quarter of a century of patient observation and experiment, throws out, in a book whose title at least has by this time become familiar to the reading public, a series of arguments and inferences so revolutionary as, if established, to necessitate a radical reconstruction of the fundamental doctrines of natural history.
But does the reviewer actually agree with Darwin's central thesis? No:

Ten times the space given to this article would not suffice for any adequate treatment of this vast and complicated subject. In a very general way, though, we may touch on a few topics. To this and every hypothesis which assumes the gradual transition from species to species, from genus to genus, geology opposes the irrefragable fact of the utter absence of all transitional links, and the clean and clear identity of specific forma. As on Mr. DARWIN's theory an interminable number of intermediate forms must have existed, linking together all the species in each group by gradations as fine as our present varieties, we have a perfect right to ask, why do we not see these linking forms all around us? Why are not all organic beings blended together in an inextricable chaos?

Mr. DARWIN answers this difficulty by urging the extreme imperfection of the geological record. That the geological record is imperfect all will admit; but few will be inclined to admit that it is imperfect to the degree Mr. DARWIN's doctrine requires.

Not enough transitional organisms in the fossil record. Sounds familiar, actually. Opponents of natural selection cling to this objection to this day.

Despite disagreeing with Darwin's central thesis, the reviewer correctly predicts that Darwin's ideas will provoke a revolution in taxonomy (the classification of organisms into groups):
And in respect of the great spinal thought of Mr. DARWIN's theory, we are persuaded that the doctrine of progressive modification by Natural Selection, will give a new direction to [???]ry into the real genetic relationship of species, existing and extinct, -- will, in fact, make a revolution in Natural History.

It will give a new and sure basis of classification. Indeed, this grand fact of the grouping of all organic beings seems inexplicable on any other theory. Read the interminable disputes of the naturalists as to what are species and what varieties, and you will see what a scientific chaos classification up to this day is. How the cumbersome catalogues of species increase ! Meanwhile the difficulties increase, also, instead of diminishing with the extension of their researches.
The reviewer also sees the revolutionary philosophical and metaphysical implications of what Dennet calls "Darwin's Dangerous Idea":
DARWIN puts himself abreast these same tendencies. And just as LYELL has banished from Geology the notion of sudden cataclysms, DARWIN threatens to banish from Zoology the notion of sudden creations. Together, we feel justified in saying, they have laid the foundation of one of the mightiest changes in philosophical thought.
Some reactions:
  • I thought this was a pretty good review. It lays out the ideas in the book quite clearly.
  • I like the archaic feel of the capitalization of names.
  • I love reading this kind of prose: the elevated diction, flowery vocabulary, complex sentence structure. It feels like writing for grown ups. So much of what I read these days seems hastened, dumbed down. It feels refreshing to go back to that kind of writing. How much better would blogs, Facebook, and Twitter be if people knew how to write? If they struggled to write better, to compete to see who could craft the most beautiful prose? Not everyone will be a great writer. But we can certainly be better writers. Maybe we should critique each other or something. But what a public service it would be if we could but raise the bar a little, or better yet, help people to see that raising the bar will make the world more beautiful and is worthy of at least some small effort.


Blogger grishnash said...

In 1860, I think, there's some room for the reviewer to have been skeptical, being before the discoveries of DNA, plate tectonics, fossils from before the Silurian, and radiometric dating to name just a few. But those same arguments are silly when presented 150 years later.

9:41 AM, May 13, 2010  

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