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Did Darwin Write The Origin Backwards by Elliott Sober

1/07/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

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pub: Prometheus Books. 230 page indexed illustrated small enlarged paperback. Price: $ 21.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-230-8.

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The title, ‘Did Darwin Write The Origin Backwards’, does not mean that Charles Darwin wrote any of his ‘Origin Of The Species’ (he revised some parts in later editions, especially version five) using a reflection in a mirror (not too crazy as some chap called Da Vinci did that) nor started with the last chapter first. The sub-title of this book is ‘Philosophical Essays On Darwin’s Theory’ will probably make many of you no wiser.

Essentially, now that I have your attention, Elliott Sober’s book centres on whether or not that Darwin had his theory of evolution and natural selection before he found the proof. Considering that his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had a book out called ‘Zoonomia’ pointing out that all animals came from a single remote ancestor, this might not seem to far removed from reality. Shame really that Sober kept this fact in the intensive background notes at the back of the book rather than in the main text because I thought this was rather telling in itself. I mean, it points out that it was his grandfather who was pointing the direction and his grandson his sought the proof. To relegate this to a footnote makes no sense.

There are a lot of scientific hypothesises, even from the most flimsy of initial evidence, that are thought of first of all and then evidence is sought to either prove or disprove or find something even more revealing. It would be hard to make connections working out of vacuum without some theory developing from the start.

One of the things Sober points out is Darwin was pointing out that there was more than a single species source, although looking at the graph on page 23, many of them were evolutionary dead-ends and I would have preferred to have known which all these species were. Although I doubt if Darwin would have known this, I couldn’t help think about odd variants in spiders where many of them have copper not iron-based blood which was practical anti-freeze for cold temperatures proves that a major survival mechanism change can spread quickly if it’s effective.

Occasionally, I find Sober is at odds with his own information as there is a need to apply the information he discovers from his investigations. Take the bee. Maturing queen bees will fight amongst themselves, whereas worker bees don’t. As the latter don’t breed, it would be unlikely for them to breed a version that doesn’t kill themselves because if there was a variant that didn’t lose its sting then it wouldn’t be passed onto another generation.

Sober focuses on the mention of the ‘creator’ or god at the opening an ending of Darwin’s book but I think he under-estimates the religious dogma that existed at the time. Evolution would have been a hard thing to swallow when in the nineteenth century, the belief that God had created the world was still flying high. I think Darwin very subtly ensured that he would get people reading and making up their own mind and go for evolution rather than religion. Things didn’t work out quite that way or Thomas Huxley wouldn’t have stood up for the failing health Darwin in debates.

Something that would have thrown a spanner in Darwin’s evolution theories was the little understanding of sports or mutations that were throwbacks and not specific to what he showed. We have a far greater understanding of this these days and in some respects those with religious beliefs didn’t understand it neither because it would have risen all kinds of things that creationists hold dear today related to spontaneous species.

Again, much of this is covered again in Sober’s notes at the back of the book. I know it’s often university technique to have a thesis with lots of elaborate notes pointing to various additional research like after-thoughts to the main argument and in many of the non-fiction books I’ve read recently, these have mostly been book references. Here, though, Sober makes his most telling points there. With the day of the word processor, it is far easier to incorporate such notes into the main text as, I suspect, many people tend to avoid footnotes altogether unless it’s on the same page, especially when there are so many of them that you have to keep flicking between pages for. The length of Sober’s notes would swell out the pages they are connected to and although I’m not picking on Sober deliberately on this as other writers do the same thing, I do hope there is a rally call to sort this out in books.

Considering that ‘The Origin Of The Species’ is such a well-known book, it is also one that I doubt if many people, including myself, have ever read. Then again, how many people have read Newton’s books on gravity or Einstein’s books on relativity? All these books tend to be proofs or evidence of their findings. Understanding and appreciating the conclusions is far easier.
Although I doubt if this book will appeal to everyone there is some insight into evolution as appreciated by Charles Darwin. I do think Elliott Sober could have arranged some of his information better you will realise most of the aspects of evolution here.

GF Willmetts

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