Origin of Species - General Overview

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Origin of Species - General Overview

Post #1

Post by otseng »

The intent of this thread is to allow us to express general comments of the book as we're reading it. The purpose is not really to debate the book here. That will be reserved for the chapter debate threads as they are created.

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Re: Origin of Species - General Overview

Post #2

Post by Greenbeard »

otseng wrote:The intent of this thread is to allow us to express general comments of the book as we're reading it. The purpose is not really to debate the book here. That will be reserved for the chapter debate threads as they are created.
I'm ready.

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Re: Origin of Species - General Overview

Post #3

Post by lao tzu »

otseng wrote:The intent of this thread is to allow us to express general comments of the book as we're reading it. The purpose is not really to debate the book here. That will be reserved for the chapter debate threads as they are created.
I think this might be the right place to discuss the contemporary context of Darwin's seminal work as well.

In Darwin's preface, he traces out an historical sketch, listing some 34 authors supporting modification rather than fixity of species, principally from the 18th and 19th centuries. The idea that species are changeable dates back at least as far as Aristotle, as Darwin acknowledges. His own principle contribution was in providing natural selection as a mechanism to explain these changes. In this preface (from an unknown edition), written after the publication of the first edition, Darwin gives precedence for the idea of natural selection to Willam Charles Wells and Patrick Matthew, whose work was previously unknown to him. Matthew himself drew attention to his priority, according to the preface, in an article published on April 7, 1860.

Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, then in the course of being written, was arguably an indispensable influence on Darwin's theory. Prior to the introduction of deep time, there simply wasn't enough room for evolution of species through natural means. The first of the three volumes of Lyell's "Principles" accompanied Darwin as he set off on the Beagle, with the second volume delivered to him in South America. Lyell's formulation, that "the present is the key to the past," though written of geological processes, provided the young Darwin with an insight into how immense changes in biological structure could be accomplished by gradual changes over time.

It is important, I believe, to place Darwin's language in its proper context as well. Where we today speak of "evolution," in Darwin's time the word suggested a fixed outcome, as suggested by the original Latin evolutio — to "unroll like a scroll," and so instead the preference was toward terms such as Lamarck's "transmutation." Another difficulty addressed at length in "On the Origin of Species" is what is to be understood by "species," a concept that suffered from the lack of definition available today. A common misperception stemming from the title revolves around the word "race," used by Darwin as an alternative to "variety," especially of non-human species, where today's detractors would prefer to see "favoured races" not merely as a reference to "race" as used today to describe varieties of humans, but to somehow extend this misperception into a criticism of Darwin's social and political views.

While presenting less difficulty than truly "ancient" texts, especially the sacred texts used in modern religious practice, the same contextual pitfalls that plague theological exegesis must be avoided in any discussion of Darwin, with the added caution that unlike works credited to divine revelation, scientific works are commonly improved by later additions. Where adherents of revelatory faiths look for changes from the original autographs in order to exclude them, scientists look to include the most recent changes in order to maintain themselves at the edge of the art. Notably, in the field of biological evolution, a PubMed search shows research proceeding at a pace of nearly 7000 new papers a year, or nearly 20 papers a day, the equivalent of an additional "On the Origin of Species" presented to the public every morning.

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Re: Origin of Species - General Overview

Post #4

Post by RyanP »

lao tzu wrote:In Darwin's preface, he traces out an historical sketch, listing some 34 authors supporting modification rather than fixity of species, principally from the 18th and 19th centuries.
I would hardly say he "traces" it out: everytime, in the first chapter, when he refers to someone else's work or even general work in an entire field, he comments about not having the space in his book to go into the details.

I'm still reading through the first chapter and, personally, I'm not getting much out of it. I'm still debating whether its my own stupidity or his poor presentation but I'm waiting because the first chapter is still a preface really: he's describing artificial selection as a parallel to natural selection but he isn't talking about evolution yet. (I wonder if Darwin even uses the word "evolution" or if that was ascribed to him over time.)

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Re: Origin of Species - General Overview

Post #5

Post by RyanP »

lao tzu wrote:It is important, I believe, to place Darwin's language in its proper context as well.
Tell me about it: it took me some time to figure out what "&c." meant.

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Re: Origin of Species - General Overview

Post #6

Post by RyanP »

lao tzu wrote: While presenting less difficulty than truly "ancient" texts, especially the sacred texts used in modern religious practice, the same contextual pitfalls that plague theological exegesis must be avoided in any discussion of Darwin, with the added caution that unlike works credited to divine revelation, scientific works are commonly improved by later additions. Where adherents of revelatory faiths look for changes from the original autographs in order to exclude them, scientists look to include the most recent changes in order to maintain themselves at the edge of the art.
I'm not sure how you read that out of the book (or even was led to it by the content) but feel free to throw in some general pre-established opinions in there.

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Re: Origin of Species - General Overview

Post #7

Post by lao tzu »

RyanP wrote:
lao tzu wrote:In Darwin's preface, he traces out an historical sketch, listing some 34 authors supporting modification rather than fixity of species, principally from the 18th and 19th centuries.
I would hardly say he "traces" it out: everytime, in the first chapter, when he refers to someone else's work or even general work in an entire field, he comments about not having the space in his book to go into the details.

I'm still reading through the first chapter and, personally, I'm not getting much out of it. I'm still debating whether its my own stupidity or his poor presentation but I'm waiting because the first chapter is still a preface really: he's describing artificial selection as a parallel to natural selection but he isn't talking about evolution yet. (I wonder if Darwin even uses the word "evolution" or if that was ascribed to him over time.)
Greetings Ryan, and thank you for your thoughts.

The preface linked above does not exist in the first edition, and is distinct from the first chapter, making me wonder whether we are on the same page here. Are you commenting on the passage that begins, "I WILL here give a brief sketch of the progress of opinion on the Origin of Species"? I believe any specific comments on the first chapter should probably be saved for the thread on that chapter itself. I included my comments on the preface because it will not be covered in any of the ensuing threads, especially not if we remain focused on the first edition.

In fact, Darwin does not use the word "evolution" in OTOoS, for the reasons described above. It would not have had our modern meaning at the time of his writing. The difference is the association of a fixed outcome at the time of Darwin's writing, an association that would not be made today. The phrase you should look for instead is "mutability of species."
RyanP wrote:
lao tzu wrote: While presenting less difficulty than truly "ancient" texts, especially the sacred texts used in modern religious practice, the same contextual pitfalls that plague theological exegesis must be avoided in any discussion of Darwin, with the added caution that unlike works credited to divine revelation, scientific works are commonly improved by later additions. Where adherents of revelatory faiths look for changes from the original autographs in order to exclude them, scientists look to include the most recent changes in order to maintain themselves at the edge of the art.
I'm not sure how you read that out of the book (or even was led to it by the content) but feel free to throw in some general pre-established opinions in there.
This thread is described as a place for general comment rather than for debate. I hadn't thought any of the above to be at all controversial, but if you have reason to take issue, please feel free. Interpretive pitfalls do exist in any work read outside its contemporary context. Revelatory faiths drawing on copied documents do attempt to recover original language through textual criticism. The authors of scientific works, other than review articles, are expected to perform a current literature search in order to assure the novelty of their findings. I don't believe any of these claims need be qualified as pre-established opinions. They are instead matters of well-established fact.

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Re: Origin of Species - General Overview

Post #8

Post by RyanP »

lao tzu wrote:While presenting less difficulty than truly "ancient" texts, especially the sacred texts used in modern religious practice
Are you saying evolution is simpler than creationism? Because, for me, veracity aside, creationism is a hell of a lot simpler because there's less to it.

lao tzu wrote:Where adherents of revelatory faiths look for changes from the original autographs in order to exclude them, scientists look to include the most recent changes in order to maintain themselves at the edge of the art.
Well, that's true and untrue: it's true because only God wrote the Bible but He wrote it by inspiring people and we assume that only the original authors were inspired so later changes are heresy. On the other hand, what you said is untrue because of the plethora of versions (too many really these days) that are trying to "adapt" the Bible to a modern audience.

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Re: Origin of Species - General Overview

Post #9

Post by lao tzu »

RyanP wrote:
lao tzu wrote:While presenting less difficulty than truly "ancient" texts, especially the sacred texts used in modern religious practice
Are you saying evolution is simpler than creationism? Because, for me, veracity aside, creationism is a hell of a lot simpler because there's less to it.
Greetings again, Ryan,

The direct answer is no. You've apparently misread my response, or so it seems to me from the truncated clause you've abstracted. The subject of the full sentence was "contextual pitfalls." As Darwin's work is more than two millennia more recent than, say, the book of Daniel, and written in English — even if it is not truly modern English — it "presents less difficulty" to the reader seeking to determine authorial intent.

As to the relative simplicity of creationism, I disagree, for reasons that are probably off-topic for this thread, though I might be interested in discussing it elsewhere.
RyanP wrote:
lao tzu wrote:Where adherents of revelatory faiths look for changes from the original autographs in order to exclude them, scientists look to include the most recent changes in order to maintain themselves at the edge of the art.
Well, that's true and untrue: it's true because only God wrote the Bible but He wrote it by inspiring people and we assume that only the original authors were inspired so later changes are heresy. On the other hand, what you said is untrue because of the plethora of versions (too many really these days) that are trying to "adapt" the Bible to a modern audience.
Setting aside our disagreement on the authorship of your personal sacred texts, and independent of the number of variant translations and interpretations, the difference in focus between the texts of revelatory faiths and scientific pursuit remains. As an example, a factual error in a revealed tradition cannot be corrected without calling the revelation itself into question. Relevant to this discussion, factual errors in Darwin's OTOOS are of little more than historical interest given the mutable nature of science, a distinction of emphasis I feel deserves the participants' attention.

On a side note, would you mind mentioning your denomination and preferred translation of your sacred texts?

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Re: Origin of Species - General Overview

Post #10

Post by RyanP »

lao tzu wrote:As Darwin's work is more than two millennia more recent than, say, the book of Daniel, and written in English — even if it is not truly modern English — it "presents less difficulty" to the reader seeking to determine authorial intent.
Ok, yeah, I'll concede that.

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