Book – Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species

It always me amazes that so many Americans refuse to accept the fact of evolution, a century and a half after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. It’s still a fascinating book, though of course many of the details have changed.
The full title of the book is “On the Origin of Species by Means of natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. What’s interesting is that the ideas in the book were already under discussion before publication, and as the years went on, Darwin , worked to provide answers to criticisms he knew would occur, spending several chapters refuting his critics. So each subsequent edition of Origin was slightly different, the closest Darwin’s time could come to blogging.

What’s also amazing is the sheer number of people with whom he corresponded. The book is written in a very conversational style, and Darwin frequently uses information gathered from his many correspondents. He states his ideas clearly, then methodically brings in evidence to support them across a wide range of fields. One of the common arguments by creationists is that the eye couldn’t have ‘just happened’, but Darwin anticipated this line of reasoning, and creationists should read his discussion of the many ways in which optical apparati have evolved in multiple creatures, often for original purposes other than sight.
The final paragraph of the book bears repeating, [and Stephen J Gould used it as the inspiration for his monthly magazine columns]:

“There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”
This passage also reminds us that, again, contrary to what creationists might say, Darwin did not address the Origin of life itself. Instead, he describes the scientific background that permits the development of species after life started.
Much has changed since Darwin’s time – remember that his era didn’t even know what genes were, much less had any concept of the process by which DNA encodes the entire organism. So it’s no surprise that Darwin got some of the details wrong. No scientist has ever been 100% correct, but that’s the beauty of the scientific method. Unlike religion and other dogmatic faiths, science thrives on criticism, rethinking, and experimental demonstration of hypotheses. This makes the Theory of Evolution one of the most solid intellectual constructions of all time. It is the basis for our understanding of the natural world, and supports modern biology.

Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution


How the Renaissance contributed to the Scientific Revolution

Unintended Consequences of the Renaissance

The re-birth of learning during the Renaissance had many unintended consequences. Historical fiction if well done can demonstrate this.  Dorothy Dunnett while re-telling the story of Macbeth in ‘King Hereafter’describes what Phillip Bobbitt calls the transition from Princely states to Kingly states where the ‘monarch’ might actually hold little land, and whose power relied on holding together an amalgam of territories that had no natural borders (Eg, the widespread and disjointed Hapsburg Empire). Her Nicolo and Lymond series are excellent portrayals of politics and economics in these times. These states were supported by concepts from Greek Philosophy such as Plato & Aristotle’s ideas of government, and especially Aristotle’s ideas that nature could be deduced from first principles. No need for experiment. This reliance on revealed truth rather than observation and experiment gave way first with the Protestant Reformation, then with the experiments of artists and proto-scientists like Leonardio da Vinci and Vesalius artists and proto-scientists like Leonardo da Vinci and Vesalius.

Ultimately, the Renaissance started a series of revolutions – First , Copernicus and Bruno rejected the received idea that the earth was the center of the universe. Later scientific exploration showed that even the sun was only a tiny star amid vast galaxies. Finally, Darwin, standing on the shoulders of early scientists like Hooke, Galton, Newton, and Leibniz, knocked human beings from their pedestal as god’s primary focus, by showing that we are but one species in the sprawling network resulting from evolution.

Teleology, if not theology was dead.

Science & Democracy evolve from the Renaissance

Another consequence of Renaissance ideas was the concept that man might make his own rules, not being ruled from above. Venice had a constitution that was more republican or oligarchical than democratic. Various smaller experiments in city-state communes of medieval Europe followed, including the long struggles against Medici domination in Florence described by Machiavelli in The Prince. The 17th century saw further concepts democracy in philosophy and practice, especially in England and the new Dutch Republic. But it was the enlightenment of the 18th century that gave violent birth to the major democratic revolutions in America and France. What had started with Kings employing painters to glorify their reigns ended by replacing those dynasties with modern democracies.

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy is a magnificent journey through 17th century Europe. Politics, and especially economics, are major foci, as the characters learn and adapt to the evolving capitalist system of venture capital and stock markets, Kings and Princes take a back seat to merchant traders and entrepreneurs.


Fernand Braudel – Civilization and Capitalism
15th-18th Century.

Fernand Braudel’s epic 3 volume work is Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century. These are heavy lifting,
both physically and mentally, but well worth it, and you can see the influences he had on Dunnett and Stephenson when they prepared their fictional narratives. Braudel’s scope is phenomenal, touching details across centuries of history and different civilizations. Fantastic maps and charts illustrate the concepts, along with period pictures.

Starting with human life in the centuries before industrialization, he examines the machinery of exchange as a whole, from barter to the most sophisticated  capitalism. After a survey of the instruments of exchange, he then moves on to look at the effects of markets on the economy. Eventually, traders cease to be mere movers of goods from one place to another and start to build production facilities in far off places. Again echoed by  Dunnett & Stephenson

• Vol. I – The Structures of Everyday
• Vol. II – The Wheels of Commerce
• Vol. III – The Perspective of the World

Evolution – Books & Resources

Charles Darwin and the Origin of Modern Biology
Creationism exposed
Misconceptions about EvolutionMore Maps and charts of  evolution, plate tectonics and geology
Map – 1997 – Human Evolution – National Geographic Map – 1989 – March Toward Extinction
Map – 2000 – The Peopling of the Americas Map – 1993 – North America in the Age of Dinosaurs

More Maps and charts of  evolution, plate tectonics and geology

The Evolution of God

The Beak of the Finch

This book explains one of the most famous examples of evolution – Darwin’s finches. The original population from the mainland Ecuador became isolated on the Galapagos islands, and different paths led to variants; eventually if isolated long enough the variants can be recognized as separate species

Meanwhile, on the mainland any beneficial changes would quickly spread through the entire population, so that group would also differ from the original colonizers. The book follows current researchers in the Galapagos

Species is really an artificial construct – for most large animals, it’s easy, say, to tell lions from tigers. but yaks and cattle interbreed and their offspring are backcrossed leading to many intermediate forms. Thus you’ll never ‘see’ a species jump out of nothing. it’s only after the 2 populations have changed enough that you can declare there’s a new species

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors -Nicholas Wade.
An excellent recap of the last half century of research into human origins.

Easily the best book on evolution for the non-scientist since ‘Beak of the Finch’. ‘Before the Dawn’ will be familiar to anyone who reads the NY Times Tuesday Science section – many of the discussions in the book started as articles Wade has written over many years there. Now he synthesizes those pieces and shows how a new consensus is developing and how once heretical theories like Greenberg’s on language are being supported by new research in genetics and molecular biology. As others have mentioned, some of his suggestions need more support, but in a time when scientific ignorance is getting worse, this is a great book to recommend for anyone.

Evolution of Cooperation
Robert Axelrod — If living things evolve through competition, how can cooperation ever emerge? Despite the abundant evidence of cooperation all around us, there existed no purely naturalistic answer to this question until 1979, when Robert Axelrod famously ran a computer tournament featuring a standard game-theory exercise called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. To everyone’s surprise, the program that won the tournament, named Tit for Tat, was not only the simplest but the most “cooperative” entrant. This unexpected victory proved that cooperation–one might even say altruism–is mathematically possible and therefore needs no hidden hand or divine agent to create and sustain it.Wisdom of the Genes
The intersection of genetics, evolutionary science and molecular biology has produced remarkable findings in recent years. Jumping genes–pieces of DNA that move about the chromosomes–have been found to play an influential role. Parasites that actually live inside DNA can trigger mutations. Many biologists, among them UCLA professor Wills, believe that the process of evolution has grown easier over the eons because certain gene patterns turn some species into ever-more-agile adapters to environmental changes. How
butterflies mimic look-alike cousins, the mix of marsupial and placental mammals in Australia and South America and the reign of the therapsids during the 50-million-year stretch before the dinosaurs are some of the intriguing phenomena Wills discusses in this lively primer of modern evolutionary theory. He uses apt analogies and examples but avoids oversimplification. Illustrations.     From Publishers Weekly

The Evolution Game in Action:

 Science Fictionalized:

Hopeful Monsters shows the interplay of biology, physics, philosophy and politics. Skipping the usual banal comparisons, we’re embedded in the period between the world wars. Themes of uncertainty, quantum mechanics and relativity weave the plot. Following a British boy and a German girl, the book proceeds in a series of back looking narratives that take place in the major cockpits of the 1920 – 1930s – from Weimar Berlin to Bolshevik Russia and Civil War Spain. With Fascism and Communism playing for dominance across the continent, politics is brutal and vital. But the characters also try to find a way to create a meaningful life. Significant characters whose views permeate the book include Wittgenstein, Heideigger, the Lamarckian scientists Kammerer and Lysenko, Einstein, and many others. Never a didactic presentation, the novel presents a clear understanding of the major intellectual trends of the 20th century. Others have set their stories in this fermentive period but usually just as a background. Here it’s an essential element to the plot.

Great for book club discussions – you’ll find no end of ways to interpret and discuss this book

Science Books – Reviews & Recommendations