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Week Two

phyllobates's picture

      Over winter break I read a book entitled Remarkable Creatures, written by Tracy Chevalier.   The story takes place in early 19th  century England, and is based on the real life of Mary Annings.  Mary Annings was a paleontologist who discovered and identified some of the first dinosaur fossils. Her specific specimens later proved critical in supporting the theory of extinction.  As I have gotten further into Darwin I am beginning to see clear parallels between his and her life.  There are the obvious similarities involving the time and place.  Along with these facts is the subject matter, which revolves around past organisms and the history of the earth.

 A less apparent parallel is the cautious approach each took in introducing their work to the scientific and religious communities.   For both Mary Annings and Darwin the idea of extinction, or evolution, challenged God’s perfection and his supposed eternal plan for each creature.  Thus, while we may not care about the pigeons or different types of striping on horses for Darwin every section and detail was critical in corroborating a solid argument for evolution.  Reading the Origin of Species as sort of novel or autobiography there are times that Darwin’s fear of rejection and social dismissal become apparent.  One line in particular, which has shown up several times (and admittedly has become a bit annoying) makes me, a current day reader, almost pity Darwin.  One version of this line is as follows with the repetitious part italicized,  “It is hopeless to attempt to convince any one of the truth of this proposition without giving the long array of facts which I have collected, and which cannot possibly be here introduced” (chapter V).  Clearly anticipation a poor reaction, by publically announcing the hopelessness of his cause due to the lack of facts that he can fit into his book (which in my version is over 630 pages…) Darwin seems to be buffering his expectations for how the public will react.

While there are many other parallels between Darwin and Mary Annings, the final similarity between the two books that I will briefly bring up is my experience in reading them.  In both cases I know the ending, I know how things are today and I understand the significance of Annings’ and Darwin’s work. With Mary Annings I couldn’t help silently screaming it’s NOT a crocodile! With Darwin, however, I am enjoying seeing the elementary facts followed by his derivation of their significance. In class we spent a lot of time talking about the evolution of science, and as I read The Origin of Species I can see how our common knowledge base has changed drastically.  Looking through my book notes, my number one comment is “cute”.  This comment is tied to all the outdated notions and concepts that were once mysterious, but are now common knowledge.  Thus far my favorite explanation involved the ‘random’ appearance of blue pigeons into the non blue population, “After twelve generations, the proportion of blood…from one ancestor, is only 1 in 2048; and yet, as we see, it is generally believe that a tendency to reversion is retained by this remnant of foreign blood” (chapter V).  It is interesting to think about how much of the knowledge that we are learning now will be deemed incorrect in 100 years.  Ah evolution.



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