January’s Quarterly Discussion included three separate chapters from Darwin’s Origin of Species. We held two discussions on these chapters, and it is always amazing how different the conversations can be about the same readings. This is, of course, what makes shared inquiry so fun! Darwin really is a great read. If you have yet to read Darwin, I definitely encourage you to do so. Much of his work has been summarized for us and repeated for a variety of applications, but really, none of these capture the depth of knowledge, the innumerable amount of data that he collected, and his absolutely eloquent language. Our discussion began with a number of questions on the various chapters, and as is inevitable, we ended with more questions than we answered. A few of the notes are posed below for your review. Feel free to join the conversation and post a comment. Also, check back next week when we continue with a little bit more analysis of The Origin of Species.
The third chapter of Origin of Species is titled “Struggle for Existence”. Darwin concludes this chapter with the following sentence, “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” This phrase interested the group in a number of ways. First of all, most of the chapter is an actual analytical review of the progress, modifications or extinction of various species. In these descriptions, there is struggle, triumph and defeat, but completely Darwin describes all of this emotionlessly. And so when the reader discovers this sentence, which is much more idealistic and emotional than any other in the chapter, the obvious question as to why arises. Does Darwin intend to cheer on his readers for some reason? If he believes that his data supports the conclusion that the healthy and happy survive, why does he feel the need to lift up our spirits? The emotional elements of this final sentence is really curious because it implies that humans are also involved in struggle, which would definitely have shocked his readers. This puzzle also leads us to the question of whether or not Darwin intended for humans to be included in his idea of natural selection. It truly is difficult to pinpoint one statement that absolutely negates or confirms this view.
The idea of the ‘war of nature’ arises a number of times. Darwin concludes the entire book with the following: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is 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.” Once again, the reader finds an uplifting and emotional sentence. Keep in mind, Darwin is a terrific writer, so the eloquence of the statement is not unusual, but the emotional weight and perhaps even moral implications are rare in Darwin’s work. It also seems ironic that such beautiful language is meant to describe a competition for survival. Many of the participants also wondered at this first mention of Creator, a word which was edited out of later versions of The Origin of Species.
The idea of human intervention also arose. Is the fact that humans like to try to control nature a natural part of life, part of natural selection or purely indicative of human spirit? We also wondered whether an invasive species is, in fact, invasive. Darwin writes, “Genera which are polymorphic in one country seem to be, with some few exceptions, polymorphic in other countries, and likewise, judging from Brachiopod shells, at former periods of time. These facts seem to be very perplexing, for they seem to show that this kind of vulnerability is independent of the conditions of life.” This implies that species have always traveled outside of their natural habitat. Some successfully, and some not as successfully. These ideas may puzzle the human mind since human life expectancy is so short in the grand scheme of things. It may be difficult to understand whether or not an invasive species is actually a problem, or if it is just the ebb and flow of the balance of nature. Darwin insists that nature provides its own system of checks, so that when one species overpopulates an area, disease or famine will limit the overpopulation. Proving that this is true, however, can be difficult.
Finally, a curious aspect of Darwin’s book is that he titles his books and chapters with terms that he continually re-defines, such as variety and species. Darwin seems to negate the importance of relying upon them since they are fuzzy categories at best.
Reading and discussing Darwin is always a pleasure! Thanks to all the participants. Look forward to another Quarterly Discussion in April on Milton’s Paradise Lost! Information will be posted on Facebook and HMU’s home page.