Saturday, February 12, 2011

Darwin Day

Happy Darwin Day!

So, I haven’t finished On the Origin of Species.  I’ve only finished the introduction and first chapter.  I know, I’m a lazy lazy monkey.  But the bone chilling cold and non-stop snow this past week give me an excuse.  I kind of hibernated when I wasn’t being blinded by all the shiny light-reflecting snow.  It gave me a headache.  I want spring!  Now!

Ok.  I’ve given my lame excuses and whined a bit.  On to the post.

I’m reading the Penguin Classics version of the book published in 2009 and edited by William Bynum.  It’s a good edition so far.  The intro had lots of neat information. 

Chapter I is titled “Variation under Domestication” and is a nice way of easing readers into Darwin’s findings.  Instead of thwacking his readers over the head with something new and, at the time, potentially shattering, Darwin starts with something many of his readers will be familiar with – Domestic animals and their various forms.  This chapter sets up the rest of the book nicely and gave me lots of great “I’m gonna pause here and look this up” research moments.  For fun I’m including some of these moments and links to relevant information for each:

Esculent:  I had to look this word up.  It’s amazing how many words exist in the English language.  I’ll be learning new ones until the day I die. 

Pigeon Breeding:  Darwin was a pigeon fancier and used the little buggers as examples throughout much of the first chapter, along with other animals and plants.

Doggies:  Darwin brings up dog breeds and his take on their possible ancestry.  I decided to look up information on the evolution of dogs.  This became a family project which involved my Hubby and me taking turns reading information out loud and pondering doggie nature ( has a humorous article about this) and human-dog interactions over thousands of years.  The corgi-pup also participated.  Mainly by looking at us like we were crazy and insisting that dogs only became “domesticated” because they felt sorry for humans and thought we’d make nice pets. 

Breed standards:  Darwin mentions breed standards while discussing inheritance and variation.  I have a Bengal Cat and a Pembroke Welsh Corgi, so I decided to do a little more digging on breed standards for these two.

Thoughts on the ancients:  “The pear, though cultivated in classical times, appears, from Pliny’s description, to have been a fruit of very inferior quality.  I have seen great surprise expressed in horticultural works at the wonderful skill of gardeners, in having produced such splendid results from such poor materials; but the art, I cannot doubt, has been simple, and as far as the final result is concerned, has been followed almost unconsciously.  It has consisted in always cultivating the best known variety, sowing its seeds, and when a slightly better variety has chanced to appear, selecting it, and so onwards.  But the gardeners of the classical period, who cultivated the best pear they could procure, never thought what splendid fruit we should eat; though we owe our excellent fruit, in some small degree, to their having naturally chosen and preserved the best varieties they could anywhere find” (42-3).  I never thought about the taste of fruit over the centuries.  Neat!  Another reason living in the present is better than living in the past.  It always bothers me when people paint the past with a utopian brush.  Things have mostly proceeded to get better over the last few thousand years of civilization, not worse.  Even a simple thing like a pear demonstrates this.  Yummy.  Now I want pears.

Final thoughts:  Variation occurs in large enough populations.  This is easily seen in large herds and gardens.  Some variations may be selected for by breeders as being beneficial or better fitting of breed standards or improving breed standards.  These selections can also be made on an unconscious level for various reasons.  Over generations an accumulation of selected variations can create a new breed.  It seems pretty simple when you think about it.

Obligatory Evolution Links:

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