Home > Uncategorized > What we can learn about ideas from a book about evolution

What we can learn about ideas from a book about evolution

The development of the book, “The Origin of Species,” is a subject that might also be useful for examining some things about ways of thinking, knowing and marshaling ideas. The book was its author’s life’s work. Its inspiration and some fundamental facts came to the author when he was a young man who was given an unusual opportunity to observe the natural world in the round. He was given special considerations as a naturalist aboard a vessel sent to circumnavigate the world, primarily for collecting scientific observations meant to serve navigation and commerce. The idea grew, nurtured by conversations, the sharing of information, guesses, deductions, and the results of experiments and surveys of information fostered by a web of well-connected experts and associates. However much information was shared, however, the central thesis was kept secret from most colleagues and friends. He developed it privately himself, and through his own experiments and information gathered from his expert correspondents, he built peripheral supports, slowly and meticulously shoring up the central thesis with a lifetime of work.

The book itself shows the most carefully laid-out argument, it shows a wealth of experimental data brought to add credibility to the claims and implications of the theory. But the book does not show everything. It does not show what Darwin learned, during years of silence by others who spoke, whether rashly or not. It does not show the political canniness that caused him to delay, presenting his thesis to the world while he privately gathered information from far and wide to shore it up.

In the debates about how the internet is affecting our minds, our memory, our intelligence, our standards of knowledge and our standards for discussion I found this opinion about gaining knowledge from the web versus from books:

Knowledge takes on a different shape when its medium is hyperlinked.

Books have favored long-form, sequential chains of thought that lead readers to the author’s conclusion. That’s one useful way of thinking, but it reflects the limitations of paper. The author has to try to keep us on the bus rather than letting us explore more widely because paper knowledge is hard to traverse. The author has to anticipate objections, rather than entering into real-time conversation with readers, because paper knowledge is only made public once it’s done.

And it has given us the overly-simplistic idea that a world as complex and chaotic as ours ultimately reduces to long, knowable sequences of logic.

Networked knowledge instead lives in webs of hyperlinked ideas — some of which may indeed be long-form arguments — that explain, argue, differentiate, and extend ideas. There is more value in these webs of knowledge than there is in the individual expressions…although it’s also true that these webs inevitably include dumb and venal misunderstandings.

And this leads me to wonder, how would Darwin have written “On the Origin of Species” if he had to do so in a climate of information availability and openness, as our own? How would his thesis have fared if he had our speed of correspondence, our ability to disseminate ideas?

I think we can conclude that he would have had to be less meticulous if he had any hope of being known as the originator of his thesis at all.

In many other ways, our kind of information technology and culture probably would have helped. He would have been able to get in touch with relevant experts much more quickly, he would be able to search the literature for answers to many questions instantly. But the same technology that would give him an increased opportunity to find relevant information would also give it to everyone else. It would be a lot easier for characters outside his social stratus to connect with the same experts. It would make it easier for people with a dimmer inkling of how varieties of living things had proliferated to publish their guesses, sloppy and full of misunderstandings as they might have been.

A corollary of this ability to publish without detailed arguments and experimental results, and presumably without some of the same caution, and political canniness that made Darwin wait so long, is that the ideas, once out there, might become harder to censor or censure.

In such a climate, there is no way Darwin could have won any claim to precedence, not if he were the cautious, meticulous thinker is book and its circumstances of publishing reveal him to be. He could have come afterwards, and bit by bit tried to shore-up a theory that would have seemed poorly developed, and full of problems, and might have made it kind-of respectable in time. But the whole method of his work seems to have been dictated, not only by the limitations of the media he had to work in, but in the availability and the reputation of the controversial idea.

The idea of evolution has expanded considerably from Darwin’s time. A few books that mention evolution, but are sure not to be included in the Syntopicon are Frederich Hayek’s “The Fatal Conceit” in which the extended market order is described as a heritage that lies between instinct and reason, “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, which introduced the word meme, which since the rise of the internet, and LOL-cats, has come into common usage. I also learned from “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan, that some people might consider the development of heavier elements from nuclear reactions in stars, or the development of the modern solar system by physical forces acting on the early planetary disc and earlier primitive planets as a kind of evolution. It is a common observation that Darwinian gradual evolution seems to have been a kind of outgrowth of the young Charles Darwin assessing the geological formations he found around the world in the light of Charles Lyell’s geological gradualism, and that the break with special creation was similar to the break with young-earth catastrophism.

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