Darwin Did Not Work Alone


For the first two weeks, Dr. Fritz is talking about what exactly is natural selection and artificial selection. This is what Darwin painstakingly described in On the Origin of Species. And he did so very carefully, avoiding references to humans for the most part. So, no talk about us coming from apes in this book. If you are curious about what is artificial selection (think wiener dog versus sheep dog) and natural selection (white bears in snowy regions versus brown bears in forested regions), check out Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’s second episode. It explains it much better than I could—and can be streamed on Netflix. (I cannot love this series more.)

After Dr. Fritz explained the concepts within Origin, I spent Thursday’s class talking about Darwin the man. The class read the preface and first chapter from Rebecca Stout’s Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. This chapter is set right after Origin’s publication during Christmastime at the Darwin family home, Down House. Darwin is tormented with eczema and anxiety about the book. His daily mail bag has tripled, his wife is asking him to stop worrying, get out of his study, join the family—but his mind is not there. Instead, he’s worried about his intellectual predecessors. What he had forgotten to do, and what many naturalists and scientists were then writing to him about, was include a historical sketch explaining whose ideas had come before his—and made his theory possible. This was later remedied in the third edition and the American tradition. But what a mistake. What’s worse, Darwin had meant to include this list of scholars, had even started writing a list of names a few years earlier. But in the rush to publish quickly so as to beat Alfred Russel Wallace—who had also come up with a similar theory—Darwin had forgotten to include this list. So human. In the end, Darwin included thirty-eight names in his historical sketch and another eight European evolutionists in a footnote. I encourage anyone to read the historical sketch as it is a great reminder that “theories” in science aren’t something just concocted in a moment of genius or inspiration. Perhaps a hypothesis is. But a theory, no. That’s something we will talk about more on Tuesday.

For now, I’ll end with this quote by Virginia Woolf: “Masterpieces are not single solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.”