What I hadn't realized before today is that there are two different Darwin books in the Harvard Classics -- "Voyage of the Beagle," which the previous Darwin readings had come from, and the big one, "Origin of Species," which is the source of today's reading. Imagine -- those old folks in 1909 doubled down on the greatness, the Classic status, of Darwin. If Harvard were starting this series over again -- of course, there's no need to, you can probably pick up volumes at two-thirds of all yard sales -- I question whether they'd have the guts to be so pro-Darwin today. Gotta move units, etc. It reinforces my basically lazy idea that Culture used to be a more top-down enterprise back in the day; people were expecting to be dictated to by a bunch of Ivy League professors -- that's what they were buying. Today the Ivy League guys have to prove they can bowl.
Anyway this excerpt -- which is from the "Struggle for Existence" chapter -- is more exciting than the Voyage of the Beagle ones, but not in a way I can point to specifically. It's more that Darwin seems so excited about his theory, he sees it everywhere, and he wants to show it to you. The theory, itself, can almost be summarized by its section headings: Geometrical Ratio of Increase, Nature of the Checks to Increase, Complex Relation of All Plants and Animals to Each Other in the Struggle for Existence, Struggle for Life Most Severe between Individuals and Varieties of the Same Species. (Actually, they read like New York Times subheads used to.) But Darwin wants to show you the pains he's taken:
Seedlings, also, are destroyed in vast numbers by various enemies; for instance, on a piece of ground three feet long and two wide, dug and cleared, and where there could be no choking from other plants, I marked all the seedlings of our native weeds as they came up, and out of 357 no less than 295 were destroyed, chiefly by slugs and insects.Darwin, or someone who works for him, dug a six-square-feet bed just to see the weeds come up. I like the idea that it was someone who works for him, just because I can envision the following dialogue:
Darwin: See here, Murgatroyd, I want you to dig up a piece of ground three feet long and two wide.
Murgatroyd: That's a lovely bit of fluff, innit? And what should I to plant there, guv'nor?
Darwin: Nothing, by Jove. I just want to observe the bloody weeds.
Murgatroyd: 'Allo, 'Allo!
(One of my best qualities as a writer is my great ear for the way people actually speak.)
The "Beagle" excerpts are pretty mellow. But in this excerpt, he's all excited:
...what war between insect and insect—between insects, snails, and other animals with birds and beasts of prey—all striving to increase, all feeding on each other, or on the trees, their seeds and seedlings, or on the other plants which first clothed the ground and thus checked the growth of the trees!Its opponents find evolution depressing, but Darwin finds it literally marvel-ous. It's hard to come away from this excerpt without finding the opponents of this theory a little tight-assed and afraid to dig up their lawns to see what happens.