Thursday, December 27, 2012

Loren Eiseley: Darwin's Century

Actually, the full title of this book by Loren Eiseley is Darwin's Century:  Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It.  The most significant word is "Men" which spells outs Eiseley's thesis that there were many threads in the tapestry of the development of evolution.  Darwin's book, The Origin of Species, published in 1859, did not appear in a vacuum, but was the culmination of several centuries of theorizing and debating the origin of  the various types of plants and animals found on this planet. Eiseley does not present a defense or a detailed explanation of evolution: that is not his purpose here but rather to spell out the various forerunners and then the defenders of evolution against various attacks made against it.

Eiseley begins with the early theories about the creation of life including that from The Bible in Genesis and hints of a evolutionary process by various thinkers, including those from Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.  Eiseley points out the irony that the Great Chain of Being, created by Christian thinkers, which was designed to demonstrate the completeness of God's creation by presenting creatures in an ascending sequence from the lowliest creatures at the "bottom level of creation" to humans at the top.  Evolutionists later borrowed this scheme and used it for their own purposes.  Eiseley then discusses many thinkers and theorists  who had put forth their own small piece of the puzzle: Lamarck, Linnaeus, and Malthus, among numerous others.

Eiseley then brings in one of the most important works for the further development of  evolutionary theory; Charles Lyell,  whose incredibly influential Principles of Geology,  first published in 1834, argued for a much much longer time span for the existence of the earth than the six thousand years many Christian theologians and thinkers had postulated based on their study of the Old Testament.  Now, with many millions of years to work in, random selection now had the time available to be effective.

Darwin's seminal work, The Origin of Species, does not, as Eiseley argues, appear out of a vacuum.  Rather it draws together many differing threads and ideas, all viewed by Darwin through a perspective gained by his voyage on the Beagle which visited various parts of the world, especially South America, where both new animals and plants appeared along with many that were to be found in Europe and Africa.  This raised the question: why did some creatures, plants and animals, appear in the Old and New Worlds and why were there creatures unique only to the New World.

After the publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin faced considerable opposition from both the Christian defenders of Genesis and from scientists of considerable repute.  He also gained the strong support of Alfred Lord Wallace, who also published a work on evolution shortly after Darwin, and Thomas Huxley, who became known as Darwin's Bulldog.  His grandson, Aldous Huxley, is the  author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception.   The opposition of the scientists was quelled by the discovery of Mendel's work on genetic inheritance and by a greater understanding of the sun.  Some scientists argued that the world couldn't have lasted millions of years because the sun would have consumed itself in much less time. This was caused by an inadequate appreciation of the sun and its processes.

The only weakness in Eiseley's work is his overly optimistic belief that the opposition to evolution has disappeared.  Darwin's Century was published in 1958, approximately a century after Darwin's Origin of Species, and at that time he could not foresee the rise of religious opposition once again to evolutionary theory to the point where a significant portion of the US population does not accept evolution nor any span of time longer than six thousand years of existence for the universe.  

Highly recommended for those interested in the early history of evolution and for those who just en;joy reading anything by Loren Eiseley (readers like me).

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