Mares: Reading Darwin today

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(HOST) A literary anniversary has inspired commentator Bill Mares to tackle a book this summer that he always thought would be hard to read – but isn’t.   

(MARES) This year is the 150th anniversary of one of the seminal works of all intellectual history, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  Last week, I began another chapter in my continuous program of self-improvement when I sat down to read it.  All of it.  In college I had read only excerpts.

I was steeled for turgid and tendentious prose; but I found instead a highly detailed, lively, and occasionally lyrical narrative, as Darwin built his case for the revolutionary new world view of natural selection, instead of an instant creation by the Judeo-Christian God.

Since he writes for the general public as much as for the scientific community, reading his text is like having your brightest scientist-friend explain his magnum opus to you.  He never wrote down to his readers.  His fascination for nature’s creatures and processes shows on every page.  The book is infused throughout with the confident yet modest tone of "I may be wrong, but I doubt it."

Darwin’s thinking was much influenced by the early 19th century priest and economist Thomas Malthus, who contended that geometrical growth in population would outrun the arithmetic growth in food supply.  Of this competition for food Darwin wrote: "We forget that each species, even where it most abounds, is constantly suffering enormous destruction, at some period of its life, from enemies or from competitors for the same place and food."

Since the planet could not support the unlimited increase of species numbers, only the strongest and fittest would survive.

But, Darwin theorized, this process happened ever so slowly.  He had a favorite Latin phrase he got from Carl Linneaus, the famous Swedish taxonomist: Natura non facit saltum.  "Nature does not change by leaps and bounds."

Darwin’s theory shocked and enraged Biblical literalists on three counts: first, humans were part of a chain of beings going back to the apes and beyond; second, creation was a process of millions of years – not of an instant, or six Biblical days; finally, nature was in charge of selection and creation – not God.

This head-to-head conflict between natural selection and Biblical creation resonates today in the schoolyard brawls over teaching "evolution" vs. "intelligent design."

I’m a beekeeper, and my favorite part of the book was Darwin’s description of how, over millions of years, bees instinctively developed the hexagon to be the most efficient and strongest shape for storing honey and brood while conserving precious wax.

As Darwin wrote: "He must be a dull man who can examine the exquisite structure of a comb, so beautifully adapted to its end, without enthusiastic admiration."

I’d say the same thing about Darwin’s compelling volume.

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