Thursday, February 12, 2009

A New Challenge: Reading for Darwin

Have you actually read Charles Robert Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species? That’s both a question and a challenge that I’m posing to you today on the occasion of his 200th birthday. If you have not, I want you to consider – as you ponder the meaning of his life and work – reading (or re-reading) his magnum opus. If you have studied the volume, perhaps you might want to pick it up again; I would be quite surprised if you aren’t filled with a sense of awe when you contemplate Darwin’s actual words.

If you aren’t familiar with it, what you might immediately observe about Origin of Species is the sheer vastness of this work. The book is a comprehensive synthesis of Darwin’s knowledge, as well as his own experiments and observations, from his beginnings as a naturalist to his maturation as a scientist. But its significance is not in its sheer volume. Rather, the vastness of his work reflects his breadth and meticulousness as a scientist and, more important, the magnitude of evidence he used 1) to demonstrate that biological evolution is a scientific fact and 2) to formulate his argument for evolution by means of the mechanism he named natural selection.

These points may seem rather mundane in light of other recent articles and blogs circulating around the virtual world in Darwin’s anniversary year. Yet I feel compelled to review some very basic information about Darwin and to stress the importance – now more than ever – of reading primary sources and understanding them in their historical contexts. It’s easier than ever to access the body of Darwin’s work. Thanks to some very dedicated scholars, digital technology and the information highway, you can read the complete works of Charles Darwin – a virtual library – online at It’s even possible at this marvelous site to see drawings of specimens that Darwin collected during the voyage of the Beagle, to read his natural history treatises and other important books, and to pour over every single page up through the 6th edition of his most famous – and one of the most groundbreaking – books in human history.

Charles Darwin’s work – and the results thereof – has been a guiding force in my life since I was a little girl. I remember the first time I heard his name – a memory that occupies the same compartment of my brain as those that recall picking up fossilized corals and shells while roaming fields near my home in Arkansas and seeing my first dinosaur skeletons extending up toward the high ceilings of the Denver Museum of Natural History. My parents have always been voracious readers and one of their greatest gifts to me was the love of learning – through books, museums and even the fields beneath our feet. Early in my childhood, my mother, a sociologist, followed her fascination with humankind into the discipline of anthropology where she discovered physical anthropology, or the scientific study of human evolution and variation. A few years later (circa 1964), she introduced a handful of college students to topics like natural selection, fossil evidence for human evolution, and biological variation. Meanwhile, both of my parents helped to fend off the less informed; the latter included at least one biology teacher who was convinced that men had one less rib than women and those who leaned on me to make a false choice between “the Bible” or “Darwin.”

So, today, in honoring Charles Darwin, I also want to honor those individuals who introduced me to his work and modeled for me an understanding of its relevance for our lives today on this tiny planet. My parents showed incredible courage in navigating the often circuitous and confusing course required by the life of the mind. Mom taught evolution before it actually became legal to do so in the state of Arkansas in 1968. I would’ve otherwise been denied the opportunity to learn about Charles Darwin and natural selection until I reached college (1971).

Ultimately physical anthropology became my academic home where I taught for close to twenty-five years before my recent retirement. Several semesters into graduate school at the University of Colorado, I took a seminar in Evolutionary Theory taught by Professor David L. Green. It was there – around a long seminar table, worn with age – that I first experienced the true excitement about biological change over time as we read and discussed Origin of Species in its entirety, along with works by Thomas Henry Huxley, Teilhard de Chardin, Ernest Mayr, George Gaylord Simpson, and Jacques Monod (among others). As can be inferred from my presence here today, physical anthropology remains my passion. Link by link, my education as a physical anthropologist was forged; Professor Dennis Van Gerven helped me learn to recognize and interpret variation in ancient, prehistoric and modern skeletons and Dr. Alice M. Brues – a key founder of physical anthropology – took me right to the historical roots of physical anthropology – through gross anatomy and natural history. Most important, she led my friends and me into the foothills surrounding Boulder where she taught us to view the world around us – the birds, wildflowers, trees and, even, the mountains themselves – through the eyes of a naturalist with whom Darwin himself would’ve felt completely at home. It was altogether fitting, then, when Dr. Brues was named recipient of the inaugural Charles R. Darwin award by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. I thank these people – and I thank my former students and colleagues, who continue to challenge and teach me with their questions, discoveries and perspectives – as I remember the life and work of Charles Darwin today.

Thus, I challenge us all – in a world where knowledge and understanding of science is absolutely essential for our continued life on this planet – to read and continue to talk about Charles Darwin’s greatest contribution to science by November 24, 2009, the 150rh anniversary of publication of Origin of Species.

Let the learning begin and the conversation never cease!


gwright said...

Barnes and Noble has a very inexpensive "B&N Classics" copy of Origin, which has an introduction by George Levine, PhD of English Lit at Rutgers which I suggest reading: It's elegantly written and points out several things that are worth stopping and thinking about. However, I also noted the $35.95 hardback "Illustrated Origin of Species" that combines a lot of historical information, beautiful photography and the full 1st edition text. If, of course, you can afford it.

MK "Doc" Sandford, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Graeme, I am going to re-print your comment for a few more blogs, and I hope you will continue to publish your reflections as you continue to read Darwin.