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Monday, June 19th, 2017 09:31 am
Some scattered thoughts on Origin of Species and Descent of Man, which I listened and read over the last month.

I knew the basic story that Darwin, upon hearing that Wallace was about to publish something very similar, rushed Origin of Species into publications after sitting on it for years. Given that, I was surprised how openly this was acknowledged in the book itself, and how often and generously he credited Wallace's observations. It was still a bit hinky, using his famous naturalist connections to beat Wallace to publication, but it made me feel a lot more kindly towards him.

One thing that surprised me was the explicit uses of Lamarckian mechanisms. The common story puts Darwin as rejecting all that, but in fact he very frequently included it in lists of inherited traits upon which natural selection would work.

Darwin's understanding of inheritance is, of course, quite terrible. It makes me even more surprised that his ideas caught on at all at the time. There is no hint of thinking of genetics in a quantized manner (except, of course, for sex), which would fatally wound Darwinism from the very beginning. Analog traits just couldn't spread in the way needed. But I suppose the general lack of real genetic understanding prevented that flaw from being properly understood as well?

It's interesting to note that Mendel was publishing in the 1860s, but it was basically ignored by the scientific world, and Darwin never even became aware of it. It's not hard to imagine that evolutionary biology and genetics would have been fully accepted decades earlier if that synthesis had been made. And there was absolutely no good reason it didn't happen, just poor communication. Remember that whenever someone starts talking about "steam engine time" or similarly naive theories of history!

I thought it was fairly charming how Darwin often phrased sexual selection in terms of the appreciation of beauty. As in, at what level of development are animals advanced enough to appreciate beauty, and thus self-select for ornamentation?

Overall, I thought the first held up quite well. If you ignore everything it says about inheritance, it seemed decent as an intro to the concept of evolution. Descent of Man was a bit rockier, involving a lot of very uncomfortable "maybe humans are actually multiple species?" speculation. For his time, though, he still came across as a decent, humane guy. Someone I'd like to hang out with. And that's not an impression I often take away when reading the works of important scientists!