By Matthew Harrison (@MattHurrison)
Most who read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species for the first time will attest to their previous knowledge of the book having been based in pop-culture. What these references lead readers to expect are complicated diatribes about the impossibility of God coupled with chapters about humans being bipedal pieces of the animal kingdom. What is found instead is a modest and enthusiastic book that asks tough questions about what had previously been accepted about the development of species. This piece will dissect the aforementioned suppositions held by myself and others before reading Darwin as well as some of what a first time reader can expect to find.
It came as something of a surprise to me that Darwin makes no argument one way or the other regarding the existence of a Creator. At no point does he venture into disputes of religiosity as his focus never wavers beyond aspects of biology and geology that can be proven or disproven using data acquired through field observation and experimentation. Darwin’s research does not dispute the existence of God but instead that an omniscient Being created each species of bird, dog, or otherwise in their present form. It was by following the patterns of variation and descent Darwin was able to prove his theory, one which leaves theoretical wiggle room for the existence of a God to account for the origin of existence rather than the origin of each particular species.
Another ignorant assumption made about Darwin is the depth to which he explains human beings place within his theories. There is a notable absence of direct human connections throughout, however it is continually explained that these theories -natural selection, variation, “survival of the fittest”- apply to all biological beings. The same examples of variation that apply to pigeons and dogs can also be found in roses and heads of cabbage. It is made clear that no biological being is exempt from these rules of nature. The fact that human beings are included in this equation is only ever inferred rather than explicitly stated.
The nearest Darwin’s theories are made applicable to human beings comes in chapter three, Struggle For Existence. Much of this chapter emphasizes the necessity of balance among life forms in an ecosystem. Simply put, if a species continually and rapidly reproduces with a comparatively and increasingly low mortality rate, all other beings will suffer due to the abundance of a single species. This particular idea lead me to the consideration of whether Darwin, having seen this equation prove itself in nature, foresaw the present day human population crisis and the effects of such a crisis on the global environment. While he does refer to our own capability of running these same roads of population increase, he only vaguely mentions it one day becoming problematic. He writes that “even slow breeding man has doubled [in population] in twenty-five years, and at this rate, in a few thousand years, there would literally not be standing room for his progeny,” a statement in which his vast exaggeration of the point seems to minimize the legitimacy of what was to occur in a more realistic time frame from whence he wrote. This emphasises the pattern in Darwin’s work of never binding humanity and the natural world together, but rather momentarily presenting the pieces side by side and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Finally, what few will expect to find is much of the scientific research in this behemoth text can be clearly understood from the layman’s perspective. To many, scientific studies are impossible to grasp due to esoteric vocabulary pertaining to already unfathomable concepts. Contrary to this, Darwin’s acquisition of evidence, as well as the explanations of the importance of what he found, is written in clear terms.
Among his experiments, Darwin left seeds to float in salt water to test how long they retained the ability to grow after having been sent adrift to another patch of land. He also picked seeds out of bird poop to run a similar test of life’s vigour after having studied the time it takes for a bird to produce excrement and cast seeds elsewhere of their origin. All of this was done to make sense of how plants can possibly cross lakes or oceans. Darwin measured the limitations of life’s potency after finding potential avenues of distribution from what he observed to be occurring in nature. Experiments such as these not only answer what was otherwise impossible to answer, they are logical steps toward comprehensible conclusions. This is clearly presented scientific data that can be understood by any literate person.
In conclusion, the truly most surprising part about Darwin’s work is the passion he creates in the reader. This book is unexpectedly engaging and works to awaken a silent introspective curiosity about human beings and our connection to the natural world. Charles Darwin was not only ahead of his times scientifically, but he was also the ideal voice to have written this vastly important book. Over 160 years have past, yet the fervor he wrote with remains alive.