Wednesday, December 15, 2010

March 13, 1871 New York Times book review of Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man

Here it is from the New York Times, 140 years ago:


March 13, 1871, Wednesday
In reviewing this book of Mr. DARWIN'S we shall endeavor to give an impartial outline of his arguments, without discussing at present the opinions set forth, still less desiring it to be understood that we concur in Mr. DARWIN'S conclusions. Our aim now is to make the reader acquainted with the general line taken by Mr. DARWIN.

Here's a quote from The Descent of Man:

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shows us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. ... This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honored and practiced by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion.
-- Charles Darwin; The Descent of Man, 1871

Some more recent information about The Descent of Man from the New York Times:

Evolution, Revolution March 13, 2009

Darwin is to biology as Einstein is to physics, a towering genius so far in advance of his time that people thought he was out of his mind. His theory of evolution, the foundation of modern biology, was largely rejected and ignored when it was first published in 1859. And for decades scientists were skeptical about natural selection, the process that Darwin proposed to account for evolutionary changes.

But time has taken his side on these and so many other things, including his still widely debated theory of sexual selection, a sub-branch of the theory of natural selection that he put forward in his 1871 book “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.” Sexual selection, Darwin proposed, accounted for certain evolutionary traits in animals and birds used to attract partners, like the gorgeous plumage of male peacocks.

The Origin of Darwin By OLIVIA JUDSON February 11, 2009

Some paragraphs from Olivia Judson's article:

MY fellow primates, 200 years ago today, Charles Darwin was born. Please join me in wishing him happy birthday!

Unlike many members of the human species, Darwin makes an easy hero. His achievements were prodigious; his science, meticulous. His work transformed our understanding of the planet and of ourselves.

He was not right about everything. How could he have been? Famously, he didn’t know how genetics works; as for DNA — well, the structure of the molecule wasn’t discovered until 1953. So today’s view of evolution is much more nuanced than his. We have incorporated genetics, and expanded and refined our understanding of natural selection, and of the other forces in evolution.

But what is astonishing is how much Darwin did know, and how far he saw. His imagination told him, for example, that many female animals have a sense of beauty — that they like to mate with the most beautiful males. For this he was ridiculed. But we know that he was right. Still more impressive: he was not afraid to apply his ideas to humans. He thought that natural selection had operated on us, just as it had on fruit flies and centipedes.

As we delve into DNA sequences, we can see natural selection acting at the level of genes. Our genes hold evidence of our intimate associations with other beings, from cows to malaria parasites and grains. The latest research allows us to trace the genetic changes that differentiate us from our primate cousins, and shows that large parts of the human genome bear the stamp of evolution by means of natural selection.

He published important work on subjects as diverse as the biology of carnivorous plants, barnacles, earthworms and the formation of coral reefs. He wrote a travelogue, “The Voyage of the Beagle,” that was an immediate best seller and remains a classic of its kind. And as if that was not enough, he discovered two major forces in evolution — natural selection and sexual selection — and wrote three radical scientific masterpieces, “On the Origin of Species” (1859), “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” (1871) and “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872).

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