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dov ospovat and the development of darwin’s theory

i am finally reading dov ospovat’s the development of darwin’s theory. back in 2009 when i was studying the drafting of the forest rights act, i had read the origin of species. interspersed in that book were little paragraphs where darwin described numerous experiments he had conducted in the years after he got off the beagle, testing out answers to different puzzles thrown up by biogeography — the science which studies the distribution of species.

for instance, to understand why similar trees are found in coastal areas, he left a bunch of their seeds in sea water for weeks and months and then planted them and tried to see how many blossomed into plants — this was his test to see whether seeds could be dispersed by oceanic currents, and then take root on farflung shores. similarly, as he says in the book…

I suspended a duck’s feet, which might represent those of a bird sleeping in a natural pond, in an aquarium, where many ova of fresh-water shells were hatching; and I found that numbers of the extremely minute and just hatched shells crawled on the feet, and clung to them so firmly that when taken out of the water they could not be jarred off, though at a somewhat more advanced age they would voluntarily drop off. These just hatched molluscs, though aquatic in their nature, survived on the duck’s feet, in damp air, from twelve to twenty hours; and in this length of time a duck or heron might fly at least six or seven hundred miles, and would be sure to alight on a pool or rivulet, if blown across sea to an oceanic island or to any other distant point.

the book is filled with accounts of similar experiments. passages like this must have filled everyone who read the origin… with wonderment. 18 years lapsed between darwin getting off the beagle and the publication of the origin of species. in this period, he was obviously very busy, fastidiously thinking through the question of how life evolved and spread across the planet, and testing myriad hypotheses.

and then, while reading janet browne’s the secular ark, which traces the — well — evolution of our thinking on evolution, i came across a reference to ospovat’s book.

and guess what it focuses on — on that 18 year period! a history of science, the book painstaking reconstructs the development of darwin’s thinking on what david quammen called the question of questions — the distribution of life on the planet — and locates darwin amongst his peers.

some weeks ago, i finally began reading this book in earnest. i am about two chapters down. i am reading slowly. underlining and scribbling with gusto.¬†this is such a lovely, careful, magisterial book. one filled with such gentle epiphanies that it summons the title of a book by richard feynman to mind — the pleasure of finding things out.

it is also a poignant book to read. dov ospovat died of cancer shortly after finishing the manuscript of this book. he was 33. such a shame that is. such a brilliant, pathbreaking book. and the author taken from our midst so young.

i am thinking that i will finish this book and then start work on a chronology on how human thought on evolution developed. might be an interesting way to trace the incremental, collaborative manner in which ideas — again — evolve and take root. hmmm.

ps – while we are talking of darwin, the last paragraph in the origin has to rank among the finest pieces of science writing ever. it gives me goosebumps.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

ps – indeed. “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Amen.

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1 Comment

  1. Lovely post! I will put Origin of the species and Ospovat’s books on my reading wish list

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