Editing Darwin to Reach the Almost Unreachable Reader
Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2014
“…If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the [ethnicities]… would afford the best classification of the various languages… [If] all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, had to be included, such an arrangement would… be the only possible one.”
In 1859, Charles Darwin wrote, so Darwinianly, the passage above in “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” He envisioned the roots and evolution of languages via common ancestry, a process of gradual modification, from simple to diversified variants over time. In modern terms: an evolutionary phenomenon, not only factual for organisms that communicate complexly with one another, but also a feature detectable in non-human animal cultures (when sophisticated cognition allows culture), vocalizations and signals inherited through learning rather than by means of exclusive genetic programming.
Perhaps Darwin envisioned –as I wish to think— that his own Victorian writing style of the 1800s would change, drift comparably to a dialect, and in the future require a “translator” to bring up to date the Darwinian message. And this is what my valued colleague, Jan A. Pechenik, Professor of Biology at Tufts University, has done. In his 2014 “The Readable Darwin: The Origin of Species, as Edited for Modern Readers,” Jan takes the challenge to adapt the century-and-a-half-old book for a contemporary audience. And he does it in a unique manner: rather than abridging the text as, for example, in Richard Dawkins’ 2008 elegant audio-book narration of the first edition of The Origin; or expanding it, as in David Quammen’s 2008 illustrated volume, which includes hundreds of historic images, Pechenik sharpens the text, edits it to make it legible in current American English by, I suspect, primarily our youth.
Pechenik knows that in the Era of Vast Intellectual Emptiness, ours, when communication is not only restricted to the 140 characters of a tweet, but to the out-of- grammar, rebelliousness to syntax, or no spelling-rules revered by the blogging industry, persuading the public to treasure Darwin is almost impossible. Pechenik relies, however, on his college-instructor intuition, his patience and responsibility as educator, to be confident that some minds can be rescued, and that “…[this] wonderful reminder of the incredible diversity of life on [our] planet –Darwin’s book— and honest argument [for evolution] based on evidence and logical thinking…” cannot continue to be rarely appreciated under the excuse that allegorical writing, the Victorian style, is unattractive to those whose neurons operate only when plugged into electrical appliances.
“You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family” reads the opening quote to Pechenik’s preface in “The Readable Darwin.”
…A rebuke attributed to Darwin’s father when struggling to reason with the juvenile Charles, whose uncertainty to pursue an honorable occupation –either medicine or the clergy, as he attempted first in Edinburgh, 1825-1827, and later in Cambridge, 1827-1831, respectively— became a family concern. Thus Pechenik knows how to relate to the standard career-undecided college student, how to invite him/her to accept Darwin and fall in love with Charles’ story, his voyage on board of the Beagle (1831-1836), and his forever important contribution to universal knowledge and human history.
In “The Readable Darwin,” Pechenik edits The Origin under the recommendations of his own “Short Guide to Writing About Biology” (eight edition, 2012). He eliminates the copious prepositions (much common among Victorians), polishes the “Wimpy Verb Syndrome” (i.e. the use of multiple verbs to refer to a single action), warns us that examples are about to be generously listed, rather than appearing unannounced in long paragraphs; incorporates definitions of terms (not often given by Darwin), and reorders the sentences to convey the message straightforwardly. And Pechenik succeeds at editing Darwin without disrupting the beauty of the prose or distorting the message. To accomplish this, Pechenik recurs to his reflective understanding of Darwin, to his solid background in evolutionary biology and textbook-writing skills.
Each of the eight chapters edited in “The Readable Darwin” starts with an explanatory mini introduction to: Variation Under Domestication (Chapter 1), Variation in Nature (Chapter 2), The Struggle for Existence (Chapter 3), Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest (Chapter 4), Laws of Variation (Chapter 5), Difficulties with the Theory (Chapter 6), Miscellaneous Objections to the Theory of Natural Selection (Chapter 7), and Instinct (Chapter 8). About one hundred color images illustrate the chapters (note that Darwin’s Origin had only one visual, a roughly sketched evolutionary tree), footnotes, online resources, links to videos, and a list of classic and modern references.
I find of particular value the section Key Issues to Talk and Write About at the end of the chapters, where the reader, or an instructor using the book for proper college education, is confronted with testing queries and themes to essay about. This exposes the rigorous mind of Pechenik, the Professor, who now, after assisting the bookworm to enjoy the digested text, wants to know if some actual retention of content took place, if critical thinking can be exercised once each chapter has been handled to the reader-learner in a gracious format. But Pechenik goes beyond that: in Appendix A: Other Books by Charles Darwin, he overwhelms us with descriptions of fifteen additional books and four monographs authored by Darwin between 1839 and 1881, thus broadcasting that Darwin’s giving to science was monumental.
“The Readable Darwin” is suitable for all audiences, particularly college instructors, undergraduate and graduate students, and I eagerly await for the second book in which Pechenik will present us with the remaining seven edited chapters of the 1872 sixth edition of The Origin. I emphatically recommend Pechenik’s work to those in administrative positions in academia, and to creationists who reject the reality of evolution; both audiences need rigorous schooling in matters of evolution — © 2014 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved.