09 July 2008

The Origin: worth your time


The New York Time's science columnist Olivia Judson argues that, nearly 150 years after the publication of its first edition, The Origin of Species is well worth reading, even (or especially) for scientists. She rattles off the usual reasons that biologists avoid Darwin's magnum opus -- page after page of natural history observations, occasionally unreadable Victorian prose -- but then gets down to the point:
[Darwin] has a sophisticated view of how natural selection works, and the circumstances that make it powerful; indeed, his descriptions of the forces of nature — starvation, predation, competition and disease, to name a few — are as good as, or better than, those in most textbooks today. He appreciates that the biggest problems that most living beings face come not from features of the physical environment, such as climate, but from other organisms, whether of the same species or a different one. And in our current age of specialization, where deep knowledge of an animal or a plant often comes at the cost of broad knowledge of other members of the tree of life, it is deeply refreshing to come across writing that is so much about all of nature.
I read the Origin my first year of grad school, and it was hard going in parts. But elsewhere, it was indeed a great read.

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