Saturday, September 07, 2013

Discoveries that Transformed the World

Darwin's CenturyDarwin's Century 
by Loren C. Eiseley

"As a young man somewhere in the high-starred Andean night, or perhaps drinking alone at an island spring where wild birds who had never learned to fear man came down upon his shoulder, Charles Darwin saw a vision.  It was one of the most tremendous insights a living being ever had.  It combined the awful roar of Hutton's Scottish brook with a glimpse of Smith's frail ladder dangling into the abyss of vanished eras.  None of his forerunners has left us such a message;  none saw, in a similar manner, the whole vista of life with quite such sweeping vision." Loren Eiseley, Darwin's Century. p 352.

This is one of the books that spurred my interest in the history of science. In this instance the history of the concept of evolution. It is the nineteenth century that is rightly called "Darwin's Century". Darwin's discovery was more than this it was a synthesis of ideas that had been developing ever since Francis Bacon. Loren Eiseley describes these ideas and with them narrates the story of the change in the view of time that had been in place since the Biblical era. The story shows how the view of Catastrophism gave way to progressionism and the emergence of the uniformitarianism of James Hutton and eventually the expansion of this view with the discoveries of Sir Charles Lyell. Eiseley comments "that evolution, to a very considerable extent, arose out of an amalgamation or compromise which partook largely of progressionism, but drew the important principle of continuity and adaptive response largely from uniformitarianism."(p 115)
With this background and the teachings of his grandfather Erasmus along with other minor contributors Charles Darwin arrived at the right time for his discoveries when he set sail on the HMS Beagle. The rest of the story is here as well with a discussion of the initial reception of Darwin's ideas and the challenge from Henry Wallace who could rightfully claim some of the credit for his own independent development of evolutionary thought. Perhaps the best aspect of this book is the beautiful prose of the author. For Eiseley is a poet and a brilliant essayist (for an example see his book, The Star Thrower, with an introduction by W. H. Auden) and these talents make this an outstanding book in the history of science.

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Brian Joseph said...

I really should read this. I am so interested in scientific thought. While not completely unaware of the history of science I have not dug as nearly as deeply as I want to.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. This was one of the books I read in college for History of Science. I had an inspirational professor, David Lindberg, and have continued to read books about science ever since (actually I read about science well before college as I remember enjoying biographies of scientists like Faraday, Carver, and others at an early age). Loren Eiseley is unique among naturalists in his writing ability and I would recommend any of his books. Regarding evolution it is hard to top Darwin himself as his Origin of Species was a joy to read.