Saturday, June 07, 2008

Another decade and chunkster bites the dust

As my family and students are all too aware, Charles Darwin is one of my personal heroes. I think his theories are among the most important ever in the history of science. And yet, at my age, I have never before read his SECOND major book, the Descent of Man, until now. I'm glad I did.

The book is divided into two sections. The first is the Descent of Man which attempts to convince the skeptical reader of how humans really are animals, really are primates, and must be part of the tree of life he discussed in The Origin of Species. The second part is about sexual selection, or how female choice in mates and fighting among males for mates has affected evolution. Both parts are really "very long arguments" that provide much nauseating detail in order to convince a Victorian audience that Darwin felt was dubious. He lays on the evidence and he lays it on thick. All this evidence can make the modern reader a bit, well, bored. Interspersed with the boring parts, however, are moments of typical Darwinian brilliance. And again, looking back at all of the information we have today and now take for granted, all readers of this book must remain in awe of Darwin's prescience. He was a man well before his time and a master at argumentation.

Darwin himself sums up the book in the opening sentence to chapter 5 where he states, "The subjects to be discussed in this chapter are of the highest interest, but are treated by me in an imperfect and fragmentary manner". The entire book is rather like that. Very important indeed, but not as clearly and concisely written as his "The origin of species". I did find it interesting how hard he had to work to try to convince his Victorian readers that females could actually THINK about things such as who to mate with. Females were not given much credit in that era.

I'm damn glad I read this book. I'm a better evolutionary proponent and educator for it. But I'll probably never read it again, while I may very well read The Origin again and The Voyage of the Beagle again. Any of the two or perhaps three readers of this blog who want to read this book may want to go with Carl Zimmer's abridged version that is now available. Carl provides summaries and commentary on each chapter also, that is very helpful.

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