Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

E.O. Wilson’s “The Four Great Books of Darwin”

Posted 02 Jan 2011 / 0

In preparation for my attendance at the In the Light of Evolution V: Cooperation conference, I have been checking out past National Academy of Sciences colloquia in this series.

In 2009, there was an In the Light of Evolution of III: Two Centuries of Darwin conference. There are podcast MP4’s for each of the talks given at this conference, and I really enjoyed E.O. Wilson’s opening talk “The Four Great Books of Darwin”, which you can watch here. Wilson discusses Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man; and Selection in Relation to Sex, and The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Wilson uses these four books to tell the historical story of Darwin’s scientific work, using the kind of formal-casual tone that is so typical of Wilson’s public speaking. Having heard other exceptional scientists such as Sean B. Carroll show their historical side, I have begun to get a taste for this kind of work and I think that Wilson does a great job of bringing Darwin’s life and times into contemporary light.

There’s nothing spectacularly new in Wilson’s talk, but he covers a lot of ground. We get brief glimpses of the importance of Darwin’s encounter with the Fuegians, earthquakes and atolls, and the Galapagos Islands. Wilson illuminates what he considers to be two key characteristics of life united by Darwin: that the structure of life is proximately dependent on chemical and physical processes (“functional biology”) and ultimately dependent on evolutionary processes (“evolutionary biology”). Wilson also goes into nice detail on the impact of Darwin’s later work The Descent of Man on the Victorian culture in which he lived. We get some overview of the organisms that most influenced Darwin’s theories.

I learned the most from Wilson’s discussion of Darwin’s fourth “great book”, The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. I had never heard of this book, but it is fascinating to me that this was where Darwin’s latter worked was centered. Seemingly Darwin seeded not only the field of evolutionary biology but also the fields of animal behavior and psychology. By treating emotional responses as analogous to the anatomical features traditionally studied by biologists, Darwin opened up the possibility of studying some of the most important human traits under the same umbrella as all other animal traits.

At the end, Wilson reveals some of his predictions about where the field of evolutionary biology will go, pointing out that although we live in a time where reductionism reigns (in the form of molecular biology) ultimately it will be the ability to explain the evolution of biological systems that will prove most valuable. He suggests that evolution as a science has yet to provide clear insight into the major transitions of life, and that understanding these transitions will lead to a truly unified field of biology.

Overall this is a bit of a rambling presentation, but it rambles through a lot of interesting neighborhoods in Darwin’s scholarly life.

Conferences, Evolution, History, Homo species, Human Evolution, Phylogenetics

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