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Darwin for the Many, With All Due Respect to the Few

What follows is a response from Daniel Duzdevich, author of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Modern Rendition, to Michael Ruse’s review of his book in Reports of the National Center of Science Education. As a fitting close to Darwin week, we thought you might be interested in Duzdevich’s effort to bring Darwin’s classic to a wider audience.

Darwin’s masterwork is the most important book in the history of biology—everyone knows it—and yet few have actually read it. There are many reasons for this, but one major obstacle is Darwin’s language. Don’t get me wrong. At his best, Darwin is poetic, but for some readers, Origin is a trial of clumsy syntax, run-on sentences, and a Victorian tone that can be decidedly dreary to the modern ear. I am not the only one to notice this. Darwin found his own style “incredibly bad” while working on the proofs. To lessen this obstacle I decided to translate Origin into clear modern English.

Professor Michael Ruse reviewed the result for Reports of the National Center for Science Education (2015, 35(6): 16.1–16.3). He contends that this translation is not worth the money, and that Darwin’s version is just as clear. Of course, I disagree. I could respond to his comments point-by-point, but I prefer to let the Modern Rendition speak for itself. So, here are two examples to demonstrate how Origin can be rendered more readable without compromising content. First, from Darwin’s original:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real (Darwin 1964:186–187).

A passage of beautiful argument and clever ideas, but so tricky to follow. I have to read it two or three times just to appreciate the logic, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Now try the Modern Rendition:

To suppose that the eye—with its inimitable contrivances for focusing objects at different distances, admitting different amounts of light, and correcting for spherical and chromatic aberration—could have been formed by natural selection seems absurd. But reason tells me that actually—though it seems so hard to imagine—the difficulty is not real. Natural selection can indeed act as the mechanism for the formation of a perfect and complex eye if the following three conditions are met: (1) if we can show that there are numerous gradations from an imperfect and simple eye to a perfect and complex eye, and that each intermediate form is useful to its possessor; (2) if the eye does vary, even a little, and those variations can be inherited, which is certainly the case; and (3) if any variation or modification in the organ is ever useful to an animal in a changing environment (p. 115).

I attempted to make the changes as noninvasive as possible while still affording greater clarity. My goal was not to rewrite Darwin entirely, but to make his ideas more accessible. Next, here is Darwin’s introduction to Chapter IV:

How will the struggle for existence, discussed too briefly in the last chapter, act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can most effectually. Let it be borne in mind in what endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. Under domestication, it may be truly said that the whole organisation becomes in some degree plastic. Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favorable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection (Darwin 1964:80–81).

The argument here is uncomplicated, but buried. How does the Modern Rendition fare?

How does the struggle for existence influence variation? Does selection—so potent in human hands—apply in nature? I think it does, most effectively. Recall the strength of heredity and the endless peculiarities in domesticated organisms, and to a lesser extent wild organisms. (Under domestication the whole organization becomes somewhat plastic.) Also recall the complex and close-fitting relationships of all organisms to one another and to their physical environments. If variations useful to humans have occurred, then surely variations useful to each organism in the great and complex battle of life also sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations. Accepting this and adding that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive, can it be doubted that those with even a slight advantage will have the best chance of surviving and propagating their kind? Moreover, it is certain that even slightly detrimental variations are destroyed. I call this preservation of favorable variations and rejection of detrimental variations “natural selection” (p. 50).

Again, not a complete rewrite, but a reorganization and tightening up to bring the argument into focus.

Ruse admits, ‟Perhaps I was just the wrong person to ask to review this book,” commenting that he thinks “Darwin writes well.” But this book isn’t for philosophers of science who have engaged with Darwin’s prose their entire careers. Consider instead the perspective of a student who finds Origin daunting, as I did, or perhaps someone who has never even read Origin! For readers interested in the still-fresh ideas, the brilliant concepts, and the argument itself, the language of the original can prove little more than a hurdle to understanding. The Modern Rendition aims to bring the content of Origin to the broad audience it so deserves.



Daniel Duzdevich is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University. He is a 2012 recipient of an award from the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans and more recently a Josephine de Kármán Fellowship, both in support of his ongoing research into how cells make copies of their DNA.




What We’re Reading

This week in “What We’re Reading”, a special treat—NCSE’s very own original, peer-reviewed article in Science magazine. Also, depression, anxiety, dinosaur sex, and the latest on “what did fossil fuel companies know, and when did they know it?” Enjoy!

  • NCSE inside!

    Climate Confusion Among U.S. Teachers
    , Science, February 13, 2016 — Don’t miss this week’s Education Forum in Science magazine—it’s by Eric Plutzer, Lee Hannah, and NCSE’s Josh Rosenau, Minda Berbeco, me, and former NCSE staffer, Mark McCaffrey. The article gives an overview of the results of the first ever national representative survey asking teachers what and how they are teaching about climate change. The survey was conceived and funded by NCSE, and executed in collaboration with the Pennsylvania State University. Take-home message: lots of teachers are covering climate change (yay!), but the concerted effort to cast doubt on the science has had an impact on classrooms (boo!). The great news is that teachers expressed a lot of enthusiasm for learning more about climate change. The full article is here. You can read additional coverage of the survey in all these places (and more): The New York Times, New Scientist (by Michael Mann), Inside Climate News, Newsweek, New Scientist, Mother Jones, Guardian, Time, Washington Post, Scientific American, Ars Technica, Pacific Standard, Ottawa Sun, International and Business Times.
  • Evolution and Angst: Charles Darwin Was a Worrier, Scientific American, February 11, 2016 — Just in time for Darwin Day, Claudia Kalb describes the great naturalist’s anxiety and discusses the varying explanations offered for it. The article is excerpted from Kalb’s Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities (2016).
  • The Link Between Neanderthal DNA and Depression Risk, The Atlantic, February 11, 2016 — Does it matter how closely you’re related to Neanderthals? A new study described here by Ed Yong suggests that it might: “It seems Neanderthal DNA has an effect on systems that regulate our moods or behaviors.”
  • An Evolutionary Journey, BioLogos, February 10, 2016 — Robert C. Bishop, a professor of physics and philosophy at the evangelical Wheaton College, describes how he was led away from young-earth creationism by discovering the proclivity of its proponents for using misleading quotations from scientists.
  • Romancing the Raptor, Extinct: The Philosophy of Palaeontology Blog, February 8, 2016 — Adrian Currie offers a serious and completely non-prurient call for paleontologists to pay more attention to dinosaur sex: “I want to know how dinosaurs bonked, and with what equipment. I want to know positions, mechanics—the length and intensity of climaxes—the ins-and-outs of getting busy in the Mesozoic.”
  • Idaho Legislature rejects new science standards, KPIV, February 9, 2016 — Idaho lawmakers rejected new K-12 science standards because, among other reasons, the standards include global warming and evolution.
  • Oil Industry Group’s Own Report Shows Early Knowledge of Climate Impacts, InsideClimate News, February 5, 2016  — An American Petroleum Institute-commissioned report from 1982 indicates that the oil industry learned of the threat posted by climate change far earlier than they say they did. 

Fossil* Friday!

Happy Darwin Day, everyone! To celebrate, I bring you this photograph:

You’ll say two things right away: 1) this is not a fossil, 2) this is very clearly one of Darwin’s finches. And you’re right on both counts! But since I didn’t have any photos of fossil barnacles handy, this seemed like an appropriate choice for a celebratory, if not unusual, Fossil Friday.

Your mission this week is a little different than usual. You not only have to provide the species and common name of this finch, but also need to complete and source this (relevant) quotation: ___________ do more with ___________ than ___________ did with ___________.

Good luck!

Chatting with Charles

A month or so back, NCSE got an e-mail from John Pollock asking if we’d be interested in reviewing his new app, and it somehow ended up in my lap. Now, I’m not really an app person, but this app was right up my alley: The Darwin Synthetic Interview. Basically, Pollock and his colleagues have brought Darwin to life—on our portable devices, anyway—and made it possible for us to ask him questions. It’s not quite as cool as it sounds because you can’t ask him anything (“Mr. Darwin, do you like the blogs I write?”), and you don’t talk to him directly. But it’s still pretty darn cool, just won a Parent’s Choice Award, and has arrived just in time for Darwin Day! Hooray!

To create the app, the first thing Pollock did was to ask more than 1,000 adults and K–12 students, “if you could ask Darwin anything, what would it be?” He then picked the 199 most popular questions and passed them off to David Lampe, a professor at Duquesne University. Lampe was given the task of composing the responses, using Darwin’s own words from his notebooks, books, letters, and autobiography.

So many topics, so little time.

I spent about five hours exploring the app on Monday—and even then I only got through about one-third of the available material. There is, simply put, a lot there. After you select your question, Darwin (in the form of actor Randy Kovitz, who plays Darwin with charm and aplomb) answers following Lampe’s script. If the experience was limited to just interacting with Darwin, I probably could have gotten through all 199 questions easily. However, many—if not most—questions include supplemental answers provided by living experts. Many are scientists, of course, but there are also some theologians and historians. Vic Walczak from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, who helped to litigate Kitzmiller v. Dover, even contributes some legal commentary.

In some cases, these outside voices are necessary to fill in some gaps. If you ask Darwin about the Scopes “monkey trial,” for example, he replies: “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Putting monkeys on trial? That sounds ridiculous. In what unfortunate place did this occur?” Luckily, historian Edward J. Larson, the all-around awesomesauce biologist Ken Miller, and Vic Walczak are there to help Darwin out. In other places, these voices complement Darwin’s answers, providing additional Darwin has no opinion on the Scopes trial, but Vic Walczak does.

insights. Darwin didn’t know about mutations, for example, and instead talks about “variations,” admitting that he is ignorant about how these are passed down through generations. The modern voices provide more in-depth answers based on our current understanding of genetics.

“Chatting” with Darwin was really enjoyable, and I imagine that for people who are unfamiliar with his life and work, there are a lot of surprises to be had. But even those familiar with Darwin will have fun. For example, I already knew that Darwin’s ideas got a huge boost from the discovery of Archaeopteryx shortly after the Origin was published. But it was a hoot to hear about it from Darwin himself, especially since he starts his answer about “missing links” by gently chiding, “Missing links, as you call them…are probably better called transitional forms.” That’s right, Darwin, it’s a terrible term, I agree! And you didn’t use it, so we know it’s not your fault. Then, when describing Archaeopteryx, Kovitz gets as close to giddy as I imagine Darwin would have dared.

Of course, I have some quibbles, and being me, I was on the lookout for misconceptions. Thus I wasn’t thrilled with Darwin’s answer to “What is evolution?” as he replied that it was the process by which “species change gradually over time and adapt to their environment by the process of natural selection.” But what about the other mechanisms of evolution? (The real Darwin made a point, in the sixth edition of the Origin, of complaining, “as my conclusions have lately been much misrepresented, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection, I may be permitted to remark that in the first edition of this work, and subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous position—namely, at the close of the Introduction—the following words: ‘I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification.’”)

Sandra Olsen

I also wasn’t thrilled that Edward J. Larson described “survival of the fittest” as “survival of the strongest, fittest, ablest.” I mean, where’s the love for the showiest, smelliest, or most similar to wasp lady parts? Luckily, not only did Darwin give a better answer in the app, but so too did Ken Miller and Sandra Olsen. Similarly, there are a couple not-so-great/very Lamarckian answers from Darwin’s “helpers” to the question of vestigial structures. But Ken Miller set the record straight by making it clear that, just because a structure, such as a human tailbone, is reduced, it “doesn’t mean that it’s nonfunctional, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t serve a purpose.”

These are minor complaints. I didn’t find any question where there wasn’t at least one quality answer available, and the excellent answers far outweigh the ones that made me wince. For example, if you ask Darwin whether humans evolve, he will say,

I think there is no reason to think that humans are an exception from the general process of common descent…Humans, in fact, appear to be a modified great ape… To take any other view is to admit that our own structure and that of the animals around us is a mere snare meant to entrap our judgment. But that’s not all. My theory makes certain predictions. If I’m right, we should find human fossils one day that validate my hypothesis.

And of course, we did find human fossils to validate his hypothesis—tons of them. Darwin offers a similarly great answer to the question “If humans evolved from monkeys, why are monkeys still here?” He explains that “when we talk about evolution, entire groups don’t disappear when new ones evolve” and that “humans did not evolve from monkeys,” they are our “cousins, not direct ancestors.” (I couldn’t have said it better myself!) Ken Miller follows this up by posing the question, “Where did Protestants come from?” His point is that if there shouldn’t be monkeys, given the evolution of humans, then there shouldn’t be Catholics, either, given the emergence of Protestants.

In fact, and perhaps this is my bias coming through, I think that Ken Miller almost steals the show. His answers are universally clear, concise, and misconception-free. Another expert that shines is the astronomer and Jesuit priest George Coyne, who tackles questions of perceived evolution/religion conflict forthrightly and plainly. When asked if fossils are the result of Noah’s flood, for example, he answers, “No. I think the scientific answer is no. Noah’s flood is a story that conveys a lot of truth in scripture, but it is not scientific truth… [Therefore, evolution does not conflict with scripture,] because scripture is not teaching science. Scripture is doing a lot of teaching, but it’s not teaching science.”

“Darwin” talks about natural selection.

While we’re on this topic, I found Darwin’s answers to questions about religion edifying. I knew about his beliefs in broad strokes, but it felt different coming from him, in what I knew to be his own words. When asked if he believes in God, Darwin explains how his beliefs have changed and fluctuated over his lifetime. He says that he is not yet “settled” on this matter, but he is not an atheist; rather, the term “agnostic” best describes his feelings. But Darwin does not advocate for agnosticism in others. Asked if you can believe in God and evolution, Darwin says, “I don’t see why not. It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and an evolutionist at the same time,” and he goes on to give examples of religious figures from his day that supported evolution. It all makes me wish that Darwin were alive today to help us resolve the religion/evolution conflict that is still causing so much trouble.

If you’re interested in chatting with Darwin yourself, the app is available through iTunes, Google Play, and the Amazon App Store. The full version costs $9.99 and a “lite” version (with about 20% of the questions) is available for free. For educators, lesson plans to accompany either version can be downloaded here.

If you download and check them out, please report back and tell me what you think. And keep your eyes on the blog—I’ll have a Q&A with the app’s creator, John Pollock, posted soon.

Are you a teacher and want to tell us about an amazing free resource? Do you have an idea for a Misconception Monday or other type of post? Have a fossil to share? See some good or bad examples of science communication lately? Drop me an email or shoot me a tweet @keeps3.

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