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BOOK REVIEW: How to Read Darwin by Mark Ridley

How to Read DarwinHow to Read Darwin by Mark Ridley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Few scientific ideas have succeeded so brilliantly and elegantly as Darwin’s theory of what he called “descent with modification” but which we know as evolution—least of all not in the wet and squishy sciences. Darwin realized that if a biologic system had three characteristics, one would end up seeing a wide variety of species, but with common characteristics such that one could discern how a species evolved from common ancestors. (BTW: this is invariably what we see in the world.) The three characteristics are: 1.) variation within the population (i.e. members aren’t carbon copies but have varying characteristics); 2.) inheritance (characteristics are passed from parent to child); and 3.) some individuals produce more offspring than others. Under such conditions, those with variations that allowed them to survive better in their particular environment would produce more children (i.e. natural selection.)

Ridley’s book offers readers an outline of the work of Charles Darwin that’s more extensive than Cliffs Notes but less daunting than the original works written in mid-19th century prose. (Darwin is generally credited as being quite readable for a scientist of that era, but it’s still a large lump of work.) Of course, the book is presented not as an alternative to reading the three major works of Darwin addressed herein (i.e. “On the Origin of Species…,” “The Descent of Man…,” and “The Expression of Emotion…,”) but rather as a preparatory guide.

The question arises as to why one should bother reading such a book if one intends to read Darwin anyway. One reason is to help put Darwin’s discoveries in the context of his time. For example, while Darwin knew of heredity, he didn’t have an understanding of genes and genetics. In other words, a neophyte looking back may not know where to put Darwin’s discoveries amid the important scientific ideas that came before and after. Another reason is to see how the critical claims that have arisen since Darwin’s time are dealt with. Darwin’s theory immediately came under attack (and has continued to) because it is inconsistent with the literal interpretations of most major religions’ creation myths, and, adding fuel to the fire, everything we learn has supported evolution to the detriment of creation myths.

The book consists of ten chapters. The bulk of these chapters (Ch. 1 through 6) lay out the argument made in Darwin’s most influential work, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” These chapters explore what Darwin described as “one long argument” for natural selection, but in doing so address vital concepts like hybridism, biodiversity, and geological succession. These chapters also discuss the case for Evolution, and the charges that have been leveled against it.

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 describe the ideas of Darwin’s “Descent of Man,” which examines both human evolution and sexual selection. The last chapter introduces the reader to the topic that Darwin took up in his 1872 book on “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.” This is an early look at what has continued to be an intriguing field of study, namely what is the evolutionary advantage of conveying emotion and why are we so good at reading other people—or, at least, capable of being good at it.

This book is one in a series of brief summaries of the ideas of important scientists, philosophers, and influential (sometimes infamous) thinkers. Other volumes cover the works of Freud, Hitler, Nietzsche, the Marquis de Sade, Wittgenstein, Foucault, Heidegger, Jung, Marx, Derrida, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare.

The book has no graphics and not much by way of ancillary matter. It does present a timeline of Darwin’s life and achievements, and has a “for further reading” section. Each of these features is just a couple of pages.

I found this book to be concise and readable. It’s only about 100 pages, and doesn’t get into supporting detail (that’s what reading the original work is for.) It does pull key paragraph length excerpts from the source material to discuss ideas in the modern context. I’d recommend this book for someone who intends to read Darwin, who has read Darwin but was left with a lack of clarity, or—even—someone who wants to understand the gist of the argument but doesn’t have time for hundreds of pages of 19th century prose.

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