Review: One Long Argument

4 stars
A book about how the scientific community reacted to Darwin's ideas, and how remarkable they truly were

Charles Darwin referred to his landmark work, The Origin of Species, as “one long argument”, a title Ernst W. Mayr (one of the 20th century’s leading evolutionary biologists) adopted for this treatise on the “genesis of modern evolutionary thought”. First published in 1991, it remains useful reading to better understand how Darwin’s ideas were received and modified over time.

The most valuable insight I gained from the book is that speaking of “Darwin’s theory” is misleading, as Darwin was a proponent of many important separate scientific ideas, including:

  • evolution itself: life is not static, but constantly changing;

  • common descent: all life on Earth shares a common ancestor;

  • multiplication of species, e.g., through geographic isolation;

  • gradualism: evolution is a slow process, not sudden emergence of new types;

  • natural selection: thanks to genetic variation, from a given pool of individuals, some will have a higher likelihood of survival than others, and those characteristics may spread;

  • sexual selection: some characteristics may spread purely because they increase the likelihood that an organism can attract a suitable mate.

All these ideas were present in Darwin’s work, along with some others which were later refuted (such as Darwin’s continued belief in some aspects of Lamarckism). But what’s remarkable is how long it took for the full force of Darwin’s insights to become recognized.

At first, “Darwinism” was mainly identified with evolutionary thinking as such, and with the rejection of religiously motivated reasoning to explain life on Earth. Yet aspects we now recognize as fundamental, such as natural selection, were largely ignored. It would take many decades — and the work by other scientists such as August Weissman and Alfred Wallace — for evolutionary thinking to truly take shape. Understanding this history helps explain why Darwin remains so highly revered in the scientific community: on many of the key questions, he was right on target from the beginning.

This is a dry book, and at times (such as when Mayr tries to establish exactly how much influence Thomas Malthus had on Darwin’s thinking), the author’s attempt to develop a microscopic analysis of the history of Darwin’s thought processes seems almost quixotic. Nonetheless, that same methodological rigor is what gives the book its explanatory power.

For the most part, the book is understandable to a layperson; the final chapter (which deals with frontiers in evolutionary biology at the time) is both the most technical and the most noticeably dated. A glossary explains some of the commonly used scientific terms.

Recommended if you want to better understand how we naked apes came into the possession of the knowledge of how we came to be.