Blogging *The Origin of Species*

That is a worthwhile endeavor and you will find the blog here.  Nonetheless I was shocked (but not surprised) to read the following:

Evolutionary biologist John Whitfield is reading Origin for the first time and writing about it, chapter by chapter.

This is Darwin year, of course, 200 years for his birthday and 150 for The Origin of the Species.  I may end up covering a bit of Darwin myself.  And no, history of thought is not always essential but Darwin is one of the greatest authors I have read.

Comments

I'm not sure why Prof. Cowen is shocked. Has the average economist read "The Wealth of Nations"? I was an econ major, and we certainly didn't read it in class. I wouldn't have understood it to be universal reading in grad school either, though possibly I am misinformed.

Practicing economist for a couple of decades now, and I had not read Wealth of Nations either.

My wife did give me an illustrated "Origin of the Species" for the holidays. Darwin starts out his argument for natural selection by drawing a simile to animal husbandry. Very clever.

The best in any academic field generally read the great thinkers. Do you think Gary Becker has read Smith? Do you think Richard Feynman and Einstein read Newton?

Once the global explanatory strategy of a field is nailed by a giant like Darwin, all the little ones who come later working on smaller puzzles neglect it, often to the developing incoherence of their science. Philosophers of biology in the 70s, 80s, and 90s showed how incoherent "population biology" had become -- creating tautological constructions that essentially failed to explain. Ernst Mayr -- the giant of biological science _and_ the history of biological thought -- had to step back in to return explanatory coherence and power to Darwinian biology.

Thinking about a disciplines global explanatory strategy -- and its theoretical history -- has a sometimes profound role, as Ernst Mayr proved in the field of Darwinian biology.

And note well, what Mayr did was place Darwin's own explanatory frame back at the center of Darwinian biology.

"Darwin is one of the greatest authors I have ever read." I wholeheartedly agree. "Wealth of Nations" is a wonderful read too. For anyone with pretensions to intellectual curiosity not to have read them by, let us say, their mid-40s at the latest, is very odd.

The history of thought in a discipline is important even in the hard sciences, but at least there it's probably OK for the daily practitioners to just use the latest textbooks and journal articles.

But in the softer sciences it is far more important for people to know the history of the field, because there is not the obvious filter of experiments to weed out BS. Thus the profession can get stuck in a cul de sac. It amazes me how many economists post-1970 have "discovered" insights that "verbal" thinkers wrote about decades before.

I have not read Darwin since I was 10 or 11; but I still recall the quality of some of the Collected Letters I dipped into then (as well as "On the Origim of Species" and "The Voyage of the Beagle"). He is the sort of author who raises horizons.

Perhaps because of that early exposure, I quite often felt that I did not understand what evolutonary biologists were talking about; until the discipline found its way back to Darwin. In lesser degree, I also find my self more at home in economic argument now that more of us are finding our way back to Keynes. (Not to the Keynesians; they were part of the problem.)

Omigosh! I missed an obvious opportunity to mock Tyler. Sorry guys, I'm slipping:

Nonetheless I was shocked (but not surprised) to read...

Barring the involvement of electricity, how can you be shocked but not surprised by something? Does that strike others as impossible, or does that word not mean what I think it means?

I'm nearly certain that Gary Becker has read both the Wealth of Nations and the Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Can you get a degree in economics without reading at least an abridgment of the Wealth of Nations? If so, that's too bad.

Can you get a degree in economics without reading at least an abridgment of the Wealth of Nations? If so, that's too bad.

I am man enough to admit it: I have read very little of WoN. And what I did read, was just for fun in my high school library. So heck yeah you can get a degree in econ without reading it. In fact, you could get a PhD in econ from a top-20 school without reading any book, I would say. You would have to read a bunch of journal articles, and large portions perhaps of a few textbooks, but in terms of sitting down and reading a book? Nah, at least not at NYU.

Why do you think all the econ principles textbooks are so -may I put it thus?- dismal. They are nothing but mechanical recitations of the going models with no breadth, no scope. I don't think the people who write the texts have any serious understanding of history or of anything else but their narrow conception of economics. For instance, every text spends many pages on cost curves, thereby wasting much of the students' time. Perhaps the authors don't even know it is a waste of the beginning student's time. Cost curves are essential, but not in 101. In 101 they just give the course the illusion of being meaningful by making it technical. And since one author does it, they all do. George Stigler once asked (in a humorous piece, to be sure) whether modern texts were really better than Smith. He implied the answer was no and I agree.

Is it really necessary to read "The Origin"? There's no denying the importance of the ideas, but if you wade in, you'll find an awful lot of rather prosaic animal husbandry in there. Interesting, I suppose, to realize how much greater appreciation 19th century readers presumably had for domestic animal breeding than we do, but I found just a taste of that was plenty and didn't feel the need to consume the whole book.

Darwin's genius in using so many everyday examples was to show how evolution is all around you, you just have to open your eyes to see it.

Agreed, and that's one reason why anyone genuinely skeptical of natural selection (by which I mean, skeptical but open-minded) could do a lot worse than to pick up Darwin's book. The man builds his case so carefully that it seems obvious by the time you finish. As Huxley said, "How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that."

-- The other problem is that there is *no* good introduction to evolutionary theory out there, that I can find. They tend to either be too pop-culture (the Scopes trial!) or too esoteric for the non-biologist reader (Mayr's What Evolution Is, tho it's still the best of an unsatisfactory lot). Dawkins's books are okay but too narrow in scope -- trying to convince the reader of Darwinism, rather than explaining the various aspects & issues.

The "prosaic animal husbandry" was part of Darwin's rhetorical strategy in selling evolution. Everyone in England at the time knew about animal and plant breeding. Breeders selected the most productive plants and animals and made them reproduce. The less productive were just eaten. Everyone knew this led to higher yielding grains and bigger steers.

Nature, said Darwin, is just like a breeder. The better individuals survive and breed. The lesser lose out. Eventually, there is enough change for new species to develop.

It was a phenomonally successful strategy.

Ironically, anti-Darwinians now use a similar strategy when they argue that "micro-evolution" is possible but "macro-evolution" isn't. Thoroughbred horses are no longer getting faster, they say. We seem to have used up all the genetic diversity in that direction.

The "prosaic animal husbandry" was part of Darwin's rhetorical strategy in selling evolution. Everyone in England at the time knew about animal and plant breeding. Breeders selected the most productive plants and animals and made them reproduce. The less productive were just eaten. Everyone knew this led to higher yielding grains and bigger steers.

Nature, said Darwin, is just like a breeder. The better individuals survive and breed. The lesser lose out. Eventually, there is enough change for new species to develop.

It was a phenomonally successful strategy.

Ironically, anti-Darwinians now use a similar strategy when they argue that "micro-evolution" is possible but "macro-evolution" isn't. Thoroughbred horses are no longer getting faster, they say. We seem to have used up all the genetic diversity in that direction.

Your shock arises in part from a misunderstanding. John Whitfield is not an "evolutionary biologist." He describes himself on Blogging the Origin as a freelance science journalist whose primary interests are in ecology.

As a professional academic ecologist with many colleagues in evolutionary biology, I can say that many of them have read the Origin, often multiple times. Others have not, of course. I have no idea what fraction of professional evolutionary biologists have read it.

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