Saturday, March 29, 2008

Natura Non Facit Saltum

I can remember hauling a copy of The Origin of Species around high school, determined to get through that densely packed book. I had some success and managed to complete about a third of the material. But like a lot of my reading, only the smallest and most personally interesting pockets stuck with me.

Later, in college, my reading comprehension skills progressed, thanks in large part to the realization that the study of English literature should not be approached as a kind of mathematics (I know, so obvious! but that's fodder for some later post.)

Anyway, I took at least 3 courses that required re-reading Darwin (his personal letters are particularly interesting) and developed a real appreciation for his prose. Despite his predilection for drawn-out sentences and sometimes poor syntax, the simplicity of Darwin's arguments and his ability to admit ignorance where appropriate continue to inspire. A selection from the final chapter in The Origin of Species:

We can to a certain extent understand how it is that there is so much beauty throughout nature; for this may be largely attributed to the agency of selection. That beauty, according to our sense of it, is not universal, must be admitted by every one who will look at some venomous snakes, at some fishes, and at certain hideous bats with a distorted resemblance to the human face. Sexual selection has given the most brilliant colours, elegant patterns, and other ornaments to the males, and sometimes to both sexes of many birds, butterflies, and other animals. With birds it has often rendered the voice of the male musical to the female, as well as to our ears. Flowers and fruit have been rendered conspicuous by brilliant colours in contrast with the green foliage, in order that the flowers may be readily seen, visited and fertilised by insects, and the seeds disseminated by birds. How it comes that certain colours, sounds, and forms should give pleasure to man and the lower animals,- that is, that is, how the sense of beauty in its simplest form was first acquired,- we do not know any more than how certain odours and flavours were first rendered agreeable.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection