The thirty-first of March, 2011: a convenient fiction, and where your father does his barnacles

Well, I missed Darwin Day, because I didn’t know there was such a thing. And then I missed Richard Dawkins’ 7oth birthday, on March the twenty-sixth (in my defence, it was a Sunday (the Lord’s day, you know), so I wasn’t Clutterbucking).

I’m going to post a little bit of Darwin to make up for it.

Deciding what to quote is the difficult bit. As Stephen Jay Gould has noted, it’s great being a Darwinist, because Darwin was such a great feller.  I agree with JW Burrow when says:

The Origin is at its most impressive precisely when Darwin seeks out and confronts the most serious objections, even when he cannot fully meet them.

And you could say the same about Dawkins, for instance in the dazzling chapter on the sensory abilities of bats in The Blind Watchmaker (though Dawkins, a hundred and fifty years on from The Origin, can pretty much always fully meet them). So I’d like to quote Darwin in that context – but I won’t.

I’d also like to quote the endearing story about Darwin’s son Francis and the barnacles, but it’s told perfectly well here, so I won’t do that, either.

What I will do is quote Darwin on the field of zoology I know best (birds), in the masterly concluding chapter of The Origin. He reminds us that transitional species needn’t be troubling half-man, half-monkey hybrids (of which more later), but that, rather, ‘transition’ can refer to behaviour as well as to morphology.

How strange it is that a bird, under the form of a woodpecker, should have been created to prey on insects on the ground; that upland geese, which never or rarely swim, should have been created with webbed feet; that a thrush should have been created to dive and feed on sub-aquatic insects; and that a petrel should have been created with habits and structure fitting it for the life of an auk or a grebe! and so on in endless other cases.

But on the view of each species constantly trying to increase in number, with natural selection always ready to adapt the slowly varying descendants of each to any unoccupied or ill-occupied place in nature, these facts cease to be strange, or perhaps might even have been anticipated.

It’s a birdwatcher’s-eye view of evolution in action (I regret, sentimentally, the passing of the time when zoology was natural history – that is, an amateur’s game (and I mean that in a good way)). Anyone who maintains a personal antipathy to Darwin must never have read him.

As an encore, here’s Dawkins (happy belated birthday!), demolishing the whole transitional-species business:

Creationists love ‘gaps’ in the fossil record. Little do they know, biologists have good reason to love them too. Without gaps in the fossil record, our whole system for naming species would break down. Fossils could not be given names, they’d have to be given numbers, or positions on a graph.

Let us use names as if they really represented a discontinuous reality, but by all means let’s privately remember that, at least in the world of evolution, it is no more than a convenient fiction, a pandering to our own limitations.

That’s from The Ancestor’s Tale, with Yan Wong (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004).

I’m going to quote WNP Barbellion again: ‘What splendid people we humans are! If there be no loving God to watch us, it’s a pity for His sake as much as for our own.’ I’d probably insert ‘to read us’ instead of ‘to watch us’. A not unrelated point is made very well here.


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