From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin
Edited by Edward O. Wilson
W. W. Norton & Company, 2006
Darwin: The Indelible Stamp: the evolution of an idea
Edited, with commentary, by James D. Watson
W. W. Norton & Company, 2006
Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral
By David Dobbs
Pantheon Books, 2005
"Great scientific discoveries are like sunrises," says E. O. Wilson. First they touch just the tips of a few peaks and steeples; then they illuminate the whole world.
The greatest discoveries change everything for us, says James D. Watson: not only our feelings about science, "but about existence."
No discovery has changed us more than Charles Darwin's. Now, thanks to a publishing coincidence, we have not one but two new Darwin readers, one introduced by Wilson, the other by Watson--two of the world's best-known biologists since Darwin. Each volume reprints the same classics: Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, On the Origin of Species, Descent of Man, and Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Each volume even carries the same epigraph. It is the final sentence from Descent, the sentence in which, after decades of dread and delay, Darwin finally allowed himself to drive his idea all the way home: "We must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system--with all these exalted powers--Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."
I've been dipping into these two volumes, rereading Darwin with Wilson's and Watson's commentaries. Like everyone who follows biology, I've read all three men for years. And to me the most interesting thing about this little publishing coincidence is the larger coincidence that these three biologists, who succeeded in opening up new views of life, have also been brilliantly successful popular writers.
Darwin's first book, the story of his five-year voyage around the world as a young man onboard the HMS Beagle, was a best-seller in 1845, even though it said virtually nothing about evolution by natural selection, the great discovery he had begun to incubate in secret. Origin was such a success in 1859 that the first printing sold out before publication, as Watson says in his introduction, "no fewer than one-third being bought by Mudie's Circulating Library, an endorsement of the likely popularity of the book equivalent to a recommendation today from Oprah Winfrey." Even Darwin's last book, a study of earthworms, which he published in 1881, the year before he died, was a surprise best-seller--by Victorian standards, at least. "My book has been received with almost laughable enthusiasm," he wrote, "and 3500 copies have been sold."
In 1953, almost a century after Origin, the young James Watson stood over his sister's shoulder as she typed up a 900-word research paper he had written with his friend Francis Crick about the structure of DNA. "There was no problem persuading her to spend a Saturday afternoon this way," Watson wrote afterward, "for we told her that she was participating in perhaps the most famous event in biology since Darwin's book." The Double Helix, Watson's memoir of his discovery, was a best-seller, too.
As for Wilson, his book Sociobiology caused a scandal in 1975 by speculating about the evolution of human instincts in the same style in which it analyzed the evolution of instincts in bees, wasps and ants. Since then, his skills as a writer have won him two Pulitzer Prizes and an audience as wide as Watson's. Not that the two men have always gotten along. In Wilson's memoir, Naturalist, he devotes a chapter to the period in the 1950s and 1960s when he and Watson were young biology professors at Harvard. Wilson writes, "I found him the most unpleasant human being I had ever met."
How can we explain this coincidence of scientific and literary success in Darwin, Watson and Wilson? (And in many other biologists--too numerous to list?--who have been reviewed in a decades-long parade in the pages of Scientific American.)
One trivial factor has to do with mathematics. There's a publishing rule that every formula you use in a book cuts your potential readership in half. In Origin, Darwin was able to write profoundly about evolution without using a single formula. In Principia, on the other hand, Isaac Newton used so many formulas that if that publishing rule is correct, according to my rough calculations, the book shouldn't even have been read by Newton. Even today biologists such as Watson and Wilson can often do without formulas and still give us deep, wide views of nature. Other kinds of scientists manage that, too, but the trick is harder to bring off if you're a theorist of prime numbers, quantum states or string.
Then there's the power of biology as a subject. Like artists, philosophers, theologians and the rest of us, biologists think about life and death. Because these are subjects we all brood about, we can understand why biologists might care deeply enough to make the science of life their life's work. It is Darwin's love of life (a passion for which Wilson coined a word, "biophilia") that makes his Voyage a perennial pleasure to read. As Watson writes, Voyage is a story of discovery "not only of unknown lands and the organisms that inhabit them, but also of a young man's discovery of his own potential." Darwin's memoir of his years on the Beagle is, as Watson says, "an intimate book in which Darwin reveals much of his character." You could say the same of Watson's Double Helix or Wilson's Naturalist. Each memoir is about the wonders of life and about finding a wonderful life. We can feel Darwin's enthusiasm on his opening page, when he describes the Beagle's first landing, on January 16, 1832, in the Cape Verde Islands. "The scene," Darwin writes, "as beheld through the hazy atmosphere of this climate, is one of great interest; if, indeed, a person, fresh from sea, and who has just walked, for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees, can be a judge of anything but his own happiness."
And there's the style in which Darwin worked toward his theory of the origin of species. He didn't gather a thousand and one facts and then invent a theory to explain them--which was the scientific style that had been urged on the world by the prophet of science Francis Bacon. Instead the young Darwin made a leap of imagination and then worked for decades to find out if his idea really held up. David Dobbs talks about Darwin's revolutionary style of doing science in Reef Madness, a book about Darwin's coral reef theory. (Dobbs's book is a gem; the title is its only flaw.) Darwin's leap of imagination is a feat that an artist can appreciate. He had a powerful vision of the way things are, of the way things go, and then he wrote a shelf of great books that convinced his readers of his vision. As Dobbs writes, "It was a move toward the power of story." Watson and Crick worked the same way in their discovery of the double helix: first the leap of intuition, then the tests.
Finally, of course, there is the power of the story itself. Darwin was born in the static world of scripture, and he left us a turbulent world of perpetual change. Ever since Darwin, we live in a world of stories. The story of that change will be told forever. We'll never get tired of reading and rereading it. First Darwin journeys alone from surmise to sunrise. Then the truth dawns on us all.