Darwin’s Dogs

On the face of it, a book about the formulation of a theory sounds like a rather dry topic, but Emma Townshend’s book Darwin’s Dogs: How Darwin’s Pets Helped Form a World-Changing Theory of Evolution is surprisingly entertaining as well as informative.  She weaves his many disparate influences (some of which are, as you guessed, dogs) together with amusing anecdotes, and does a brilliant job of explaining how it all came together.

In the passage below, she explains how a book in the unrelated field of economics came to influence Charles Darwin in a profoundly different way.  (As an aside, note how many times she points out that these are Thomas Malthus’s ideas, not her own; she doesn’t’ want these horrible thoughts in any way traced by to her!):

Darwin was no trendsetter when he began reading the Reverend Thomas Malthus’s bestseller An Essay on the Principle of Population. On the contrary, Darwin was trailing well behind fashionable opinion, for the book had been published in 1798 and had gone through six editions, each selling more than the last. Malthus wrote the book while working as a rural curate in Surrey; yet it became one of the most influential texts in the history of political economy. Malthus, thought hard-minded Victorians, explained why Poor Relief didn’t work, and why it would be better in the long run to let the Irish starve.

Malthus’s book scrutinized wars, famines, price crashes and economic shortages which troubled mankind and coolly pointed out that whatever the variables, whatever the conditions, whatever the differences, two things would always be the same. When food supplies (which he called “the means of subsistence”) increased, they could never increase faster than arithmetically: by a certain percentage a year. But human populations, said Malthus, increase exponentially. A couple produces five children, each of those children produce five children, each of those grandchildren produce five children and suddenly one married couple have a hundred and twenty-five descendants.

Thus, a human population can grow far quicker than the supply of food ever can. And as soon as populations are increasing faster than the food supply, said Malthus, checks will come into play. These ‘checks’ will include plagues, wars and most of all, starvation and famine. A new generation of children die; there is enough food to go round. For Malthus it was simply a question of mathematical patterns.

Darwin’s insight whilst reading Malthus concentrated on those checks.  For Darwin, the natural world was a place of incredible competition for food, for security, for a chance to reproduce.  Darwin took Malthus’s idea of many more individuals being born that would ever be able to survive, each competing against the other for the basic right to continue living.  He considered his own experience of the natural world:  the huge masses of frogspawn in spring ponds, the large litters of farm cats.  This image of a seething mass of individuals stayed with Darwin.

Darwin’s Dogs: How Darwin’s Pets Helped Form a World-Changing Theory of Evolution  is on sale at Daedalus Books for just $3.98 right now.  If you’re interested, don’t delay- they specialize in overstocks, so when they’re gone, they’re gone.  Here’s the link:  DaedalusBooks.com

Quaint Honor

I don’t know if this got him the girl or not, but it was a valiant effort:

To His Coy Mistress
By Andrew Marvell (1621–1678)

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.