Charles Darwin's notebooks - the origin of the `Origin of Species'

Charles Darwin's Notebooks, 1836-1844: Geology, Transmutation of Species, Metaphysical Enquiries, edited by Paul H. Barrett, Peter J. Gautrey, Sandra Herbert, David Kohn, and Sydney Smith. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 748 pp. $75. The notion that simpler forms of life gave rise to more complex ones did not originate with Charles Darwin. It was an idea that had occurred to 18th-century thinkers - including Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) - and that had become a topic of more serious scientific inquiry by the early 19th century. The French naturalist Jean Baptiste de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829) had even speculated (incorrectly, but ingeniously) that new generations of animals might inherit helpful characteristics their parents had acquired in the course of their lives.

But it was Charles Darwin (1809-82) whose tireless observation and exhaustive gathering of data - most famously during his five-year stint as naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle - laid the groundwork for the solidly researched and carefully thought-out book that would become a landmark in the history of science and a virtual earthquake in the history of ideas: ``On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection'' (1859).

Darwin's notebooks, dating from the end of his voyage on the Beagle and including the years of his early married life in England, are the material from which he quarried ``The Origin of Species.'' They also indicate the course his subsequent work was to take. Although some of the notebooks have been published before, this is the first time all 13 have been collected in a single volume, transcribed, edited, and fully annotated by a team of experts, from Britain and America.

This edition will clearly be a must for scholars. And, although one can hardly imagine the general reader sitting down to read it through from cover to cover, copious notes and all, it is a fascinating book that invites and repays browsing. Data about domestic cross-breeding, changes in the population of a species or variety, questions, tentative answers, speculations, and the testing of ideas illustrate the inductive method in action.

In his published work, Darwin always tried to stick as closely as possible to the purely scientific aspects of his studies. A retiring, cautious man, he did not relish controversy and seems to have had a kind of political shrewdness as to how far it was wise to go in his public pronouncements. In these notebooks, however, we can see his mind ranging nimbly and freely over an array of subjects: not only the natural sciences of geology and biology, but aesthetics, psychology, and metaphysics. We can see him incorporating the ideas of Malthus on the factors affecting the growth and limit of a species' population.

And we can also see him speculating about why a flower should seem pretty to us. He is even interested in finding some biological basis for the experience of the sublime that so transfixed 18th-century thinkers like Edmund Burke.

And always, whatever the problem, he is determined to attack it from the ground up, working his way from minute particulars to more general conceptions, always respecting the integrity of the natural world in all its rich variety.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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