Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Darwin's Bulldog

I recently bumped into an interesting review of Darwin's The Origin of Species. (Read it in its entirety here.) Written by one Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin's Bulldog") and published in the April 1860 issue of Westminster Review, I find it a fascinating read for several different reasons. There's the struggle to understand inheritance ("the offspring tends to resemble its parent or parents") without any knowledge of genetics; the hubris of confidently proclaiming that "science will some day show us how this law is a necessary consequence of the more general laws which govern matter" and the attempts to make sense of that; the elegant and concise arguments; and the biting wit.

Most of all, it's writing like this that make it a worthy read:
Everybody has read Mr. Darwin's book, or, at least, has given an opinion upon its merits or demerits; pietists, whether lay or ecclesiastic, decry it with the mild railing which sounds so charitable; bigots denounce it with ignorant invective; old ladies of both sexes consider it a decidedly dangerous book, and even savants, who have no better mud to throw, quote antiquated writers to show that its author is no better than an ape himself; while every philosophical thinker hails it as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism; and all competent naturalists and physiologists, whatever their opinions as to the ultimate fate of the doctrines put forth, acknowledge that the work in which they are embodied is a solid contribution to knowledge and inaugurates a new epoch in natural history.
You have to admire someone who can write like that. And this little snippet remains (mostly) true now, almost 150 years after it was written!