On the Prose of Darwin

We are always slow in admitting any great change of which we do not see the intermediate steps.

tumblr_lzaqjlF3b21qcnn8do1_500The theory of evolution owes its survival to Charles Darwin. Not just the reputable scientist, but the intuitive writer whose eloquence shook society.

Darwin brought the idea to life in November 1859 with the publication of On the Origin of Species, instigating the greatest ideological revolution in the history of science. Discussion of evolutionism was not unique to Darwin’s work. However – as the only major scientific treatise written as popular literature, the accessibility of Origin rests on the structure of Darwin’s argument and the lyrical nature of his language.

His theory carried credibility due to copious amounts of evidence in the fields of morphology and paleontology. Darwin owed his scientific integrity to the five-year journey on the Beagle of the 1830s, when he filled countless notebooks with observations of the natural world. He also conducted experiments in his large home garden, studied the classification of species, and experimented by cross breeding.

With his intellectual honesty and submission to detail, Darwin then required from his readers a degree of flexibility. He understood the perceived limitations of his theory, writing that “the mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of a hundred million years.” Thus Darwin extends a level of understanding, while presenting empirical details that intuitively suggest a process of evolution. These elements combine to form a text that is both subjective and objective.

Darwin’s tone in Origin has been compared to that of a personal testimony. Despite the fact that he has to make a convincing scientific case, it has to be persuading emotionally. He uses inclusive language in the first person, asking the reader to be wondered by the same details that he finds stimulating. Unlike Copernicus, Einstein or Newton, whose writings are all highly specialized, Darwin is writing an address to the general public given the lack of technicalities in his vocabulary.

Instead, Darwin opts for metaphors, and perhaps the most infamous one is “natural selection.” Another one eloquently employs how cliffs formed by coastal waves point to human inability to grasp the concept of infinite time. In promoting this level of honesty along with his passion for the material, Darwin manages to show rather than tell his readers how exactly evolution unfolds, where “every production of nature…has had a history.”

At the time, his work stood out due to his insights from a tenacious accumulation of fossil evidence and animal breeding. Yet, he still remains unique when analyzed as a scientific writer whose form of argument and lyrical artistry sustained his persuasion.

Once the reader affirms to the pillars of his argument rested on empirical data, Darwin unveils a world where “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved.”

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