Tuesday, June 10, 2008

This Week at the Library

Books in this Update:
  • The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
  • The History of Science from the Ancient Greeks to the Scientific Revolution, Ray Spangenburg
  • Charles Darwin: the Naturalist Who Started a Scientific Revolution, Cyril Aydon

I began this week with The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. I read this book for historical, rather than scientific, reasons. I imagine that it is of little use as a scientific text today as it was published in 1859 -- before heredity and DNA were discovered. I decided to read it to see what the book was like, since it caused such a sensation in its day. I would do the same for other historically important texts -- The Wealth of Nations, The Communist Manifesto, The Jungle, etc. As a student of history, and a fledging student of the history of science in particular, I'm quite interested in this book. It also helps to be armed with facts for those chance encounters with fundamentalists who are prone to saying "Darwin said…". I figure if I read The Origin of Species, I could call them on their BS promptly. (Some people hunt. I call BS. We all have our sports.)

The Origin of Species, despite being written in the Victorian era, is actually rather readable. The edition of the book I'm reading features commentary (sometimes corrective) to help put things into perspective. While Darwin's book introduced the idea of descent with modification to a larger audience than the Royal Society, his chapter on "The Struggle for Existence" bespeaks of ecology to me. I do not know enough about the history of ecology to say if many naturalists had observed it, Darwin certainly did. Take, for instance, this passage:

I am tempted to give one more instance showing how plants and animals are bound together by a web of complex relations. I find from experience that [b]umblebees are almost indispensable to the fertilisation of the heartsease and some kinds of clover. [B]umblebees alone visit red clover, as other bees cannot reach the nectar. Hence we may infer that, if the whole genus of [b]umble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. The number of [b]umblebees in any district depends in a great measure on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests. Now the number of mice is largely dependent on the number of field mice, which destroy their combs and nests. Now the number of mice is largely dependent […] on the number of cats; and as Col. Newman says, 'Near villages and small towns I have found the nest of [b]umblebees more numerous than elsewhere, which I attribute to the number of cats that destroy the mice.' Hence it is quite credible that the presence of feline animals in large numbers might determine, through the intervention from mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district. "

How else to describe ecology rather than 'plants and animals bound together by a web of complex relations'? Wikipedia says that "ecology" was coined in 1866, and that its founder was Eugenius Warming. I may read more on ecology later on; it's an interesting topic. Most of the chapters are fairly interesting. I thought "Instinct" was a little dull, but other chapters, like "Geographical Distribution", made up for it. That chapter was particular interesting, as Darwin describes his experiences in probing to see how seeds could be transferred from one island to the next. Three methods he came up with were (1) seeds carried by seawater, (2) seeds in dirt clumps attached to natural debris that is shuffled from island to island through the currents, and (3) through animal scat, since birds can often be blown hundreds of miles from their natural routes by prevailing winds. Darwin actually tests these ideas -- submerging seeds in seawater to see if they would germinate, liberating seeds from animal feces and successfully planting them, etc. The man was meticulous.

Next I read The History of Science from the Greeks to the Scientific Revolution. I am enjoying a growing interest in the history of scientific thought. It combines my lifelong interest in history and a newly awakened and burgeoning affection for science rather nicely. This book was quite excellent, I thought, in presenting its information. The book is divided into three parts. The first starts the development of natural philosophy in the Greek world and its progression and moves through the death of the classical world to the rebirth of knowledge in the medieval era with Copernicus. As I read about Copernicus and Galileo (who promoted Copernicus' idea of heliocentrism), it struck me that all Copernicus had to substantiate his claim that the Earth and planets moved around the Sun rather than the reverse was simple math. All either Copernicus or Galileo could do was observe the movement of the planets and other celestial happenings and say "This is what we think is happening. It seems to fit the facts at hand." There was no hard, undeniable evidence outside of the math, and there wouldn't be until the space age. Imagine that! For hundreds of years, people were taught that the Earth moved around the sun not through undeniable evidence but through simple rational and math. As I read about this, I realized that the same was true for both Darwin and Mendel. Darwin spent years observing the natural world, just as Copernicus and Galileo observed the heavens, and then made an observation. As I found out in a later reading, Darwin's initial title for The Origin of Species began with "An Abstract of an Essay On…". Darwin's idea was just that, an idea: a mental abstraction, just like Copernicus'. Here's where it gets interesting: Darwin saw natural selection as the basis for evolution, but had no idea what made that work. How did parents pass on traits to their children -- faster limbs, bigger brains, etc? Mendel figured that out when he realized what we now call genetics, but he lacked the tools to find the actual genes that were doing what he described. Later on, DNA was discovered, meshing Darwin, Mendel, and Watson's discoveries together. I find this sequence of events uncommonly fascinating. Anyway, after finishing the introduction, the book is split into two more sections: the physical sciences and the life sciences. Both are interesting in themselves. The history of medicine isn't something I know a lot about other than what I learned in Theories for Everything, but this book's section contained a wealth of information. Speaking of Theories for Everything, I wonder if the thrilling narrative presented by that book is what prompted my interest in the history of science?

Next, I read Charles Darwin: the Naturalist Who Started a Scientific Revolution. I found this book and the one preceding it by searching for "scientific revolution" at my local library in the interests of expanding my knowledge of the history of science. It's a biography of Charles Darwin. I recently watched a video that piqued my curiosity about the life of Charles Darwin, and specifically the voyage of the Beagle. As far as narratives go, I have to say this one is excellent. Biographies can be dull despite being about an interesting personality, but this book is anything but dull. The author presents a lively telling of Darwin's life, drawing conclusions about why he was able to do what he did based on his surroundings. The book concludes by saying that Darwin was marvelously fortunate. He was born into the landed gentry, which made his life as a naturalist much easier. His father supported him financially, allowing him to spend his time doing research and writing. He married a woman who gave him immense emotional support, and he was able to surround himself with some of the leading minds of the day, who inspired and encouraged him. This book gave me new insight into Darwin and his book. I got a good laugh when perusing the "Suggested Reading". The author mentions Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, and says that Dawkins has taken Alfred Huxely's role as "Darwin's bulldog". The author says that 'like Huxeley, he is a tremendous popularizer [of science], and like Huxeley he takes no prisoners.' That's one way to characterize Richard Dawkins: a bit like saying FDR had a way with speeches.

I have other books -- namely, The History of the Ancient World, Modern Germany: Its History and Civilization, and Biology: Demystified. However, each presents problems: the first two are large, while the last is a self-teaching book, and as such I cannot read it straight through. I have to re-read sections to make sure I remember everything. I checked out Biology: Demystified in the interests of helping me better understand biology (as you might imagine) and thus far it is -- although I do have problems with the book, which I will elaborate on should I finish it and include it here.
Instead of trying to make more progress with those larger books, I decided to visit the library today (I had the day off of work because we had no work to do) and fetch some other books. I began with The History of Science in the 18th Century, which is the second book in the series that The History of Science […] to the Scientific Revolution began. Next I checked out Christopher Hitchens' god is not Great: How Religion Ruins Everything. I should note that I have read Hitchens before (his biography of Thomas Jefferson) and didn't really like his tone, which seemed to be…overly academic. I've seen the guy in interviews and enjoy him there, but not in that book. You can probably guess the book's theme from its title. I'm only reading it to say I have: I'm actually not interested in books about atheism. It does get old.

Next I'm reading -- or attempting to read -- Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. I have tried to read this book twice before, only to be stymied by the fact that my brain yelps and hides under the couch when it encounters genetics. I know a smidge more about genetics now than I do the last time I read this book two years ago, but as evidenced by the slow progress I am making in Biology: Demystified, this subject does not come easily to me. I've heard that the third time's the charm, but even if I can't get through it, I will try again. I will continue trying to read the book until (1) I die or (2) Athena tells me not to. I don't know how long I have before case one is reached, but I doubt case 2 will be realized any time soon. Why am I so determined to read this book? Because I tried once, and failed. I won't have it said of me at my funeral that a book got the better of me -- even if it was written by an Oxford professor.

Next I checked out a book on Greek mythology and I finished my round with a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov. I think that's everything. I was thrilled to find the Asimov collection: I was concerned that I had read all of his short-story collections at the library.

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