There is grandeur in this view of life … that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. ∇Δ
155 years ago, before Mendel pioneered the field of modern genetics and Watson + Crick elucidated the structure of DNA, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species—arguably one of the most influential + important works in history. While I’ll admit that I’m rather prone to hyperbole, I cannot overstate the profound impact that Darwin’s ideas have had on my particular scientific preoccupations and my greater worldview—instilling a sense of awe for the great diversity + complexity of life that has arisen based on so elegant a theory as evolution by natural selection.
Since its core ideas have become so deeply embedded in science education, relatively few feel compelled to actually read the Origin. On top of that, Darwin’s words are actually quite challenging to read. He wrote in Victorian English at a time when there were literally no words to describe many of his observations. Just imagine explaining survival of the fittest without the slightest concept of a gene or how it could be passed on!
As a result, despite my deepest regard for Darwin’s ideas, I am embarrassed to admit that I’d actually never read his revolutionary text, and likely never would have—that is, until I met Daniel Duzdevich. A doctoral student at Columbia University, Daniel has undertaken the challenge of translating Darwin’s words into modern English to make the Origin more accessible. His modern rendition manages to cut through Darwin’s clunky + at-times convoluted language to highlight the astute observations and resulting trains of logical thought that led to his groundbreaking ideas. On reading this translation, I found my admiration for Darwin deepening, as I was given a glimpse into the mind of this great biological thinker who did all his thinking before the field of biology even existed.
In the Q+A below, Daniel shares his inspiration for such an undertaking and his insights into the language of science.
What was the initial incentive to undertake translating On the Origin of Species? How did your relationship to the text—and to Darwin himself—change over the course of the project?
I should have discovered Darwin earlier than I did. I was already interested in science as a teenager, and biology fascinated me, so why hadn’t anyone told me to read the Origin? I tried on my own one summer, but the enterprise mired down very quickly. I didn’t understand why, and I didn’t think too much of it. On a later attempt I made changes to the text—directly on the pages of my Penguin edition, in pencil. All the changes were stylistic. I had found some need to change the style of Darwin’s writing, to make the ideas and concepts more apparent to me. This personal experience eventually developed into a greater realization that others might also benefit if the substance of the Origin were brought into relief from behind the peculiar Victorian language of the original. So I started to write.
The Origin is so thick with content and insight that I find some new little observation or creative connection with every go. I had an interesting experience while editing the final proofs: at that more final stage I could read for many pages without having to edit anything, and certain passages that had given me endless trouble at the translation stage were suddenly free to be read. The distraction of style and language had kept me from noticing the biology because I had been so focused on technical detail. There is so much there.
I did sometimes feel like I was getting a peek inside Darwin’s brain. I’ve developed respect and even awe for his ability to digest raw observation, sometimes without reference to any established system of thinking about a subject. He could work from first principles and develop consistent, testable concepts.
But I don’t think Darwin was a scientist—and others will disagree with me on this. The science of biology simply did not exist, and even in other, better-developed fields, the current standards of experimentation—reproducible results, strong controls, good model systems—hadn’t been worked out. Darwin was fond of “little experiments”—the Origin is littered with them—so he recognized the significance of falsifiability, but these tests were not rigorous. Nonetheless, Darwin belongs at the root of scientific understanding because he had that incomparable ability to observe. And at its core, that’s what science is about.
Over the last 150+ years, we’ve quite obviously come a long way in our understanding of biology and evolution. What was the greatest challenge translating this text, while staying true to the more scientifically naïve Darwin?
“Translating” Darwin without changing his meaning was the challenge. I tried my best to maintain a steady awareness of how very easy it would be to unintentionally mutate something substantial. I often checked myself. The manuscript was also thoroughly vetted by other writers and scientists so I had plenty of constructive criticism to ensure that I kept exclusively to the language problem.
Biological science has developed in every way since the publication of the Origin. Biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology all happened later. The very science of biology was born with Darwin’s book. Despite this, Darwin got very much right! He was an excellent observer, and cautious in his assertions. So it is easy to comment or expand on his work in the context of what we have learned, but there is little need to actually correct anything. I added footnotes in a few places where a modern understanding makes a particular passage instantly more intelligible. In particular, there are notes about genetics and geology. I hope they help keep the reader from fumbling.
Modern science writing relies heavily on extremely technical jargon to describe new or more nuanced phenomena, making it virtually incomprehensible to the lay reader—or even to a scientist working in a slightly different field. Darwin, on the other hand, had the opposite problem—lacking the technical language to concisely describe his observations and conclusions. Both sorts of writing require translation to make the work more accessible, but how do those acts of translation differ?
Modern science writing is terrible. The problem is jargon—the “specific” language. Scientists have convinced themselves that prefabricated phrases are appropriate to report research because they are defined and therefore precise. But precise language is descriptive and clear, not pre-defined. Scientific disciplines have become more and more specialized, so this approach restricts easy comprehension to a small clique of other specialists. A biochemist, for example, should not have to learn a distinct vocabulary and reporting style to understand current research in, say, molecular biophysics. Convention and routine also make scientists lazy writers: they often don’t bother making a written piece their own–which it should be, even if it is meant to report complex and technical experiments. We form and exchange ideas through language, and attempts to separate it from research frustrate our ability to communicate with each other and with non-specialists. And it probably affects our ability to think clearly about the actual science too.
Darwin struggled with language, but he was descriptive. If he had taken a more jargon-laden tack, then this translation would not have been possible. Good descriptive language is timeless. He struggled with genetics, for example, not because the vocabulary of genetics was missing, but because genetics was missing! No one had any idea how heredity works—it’s all about genetics—but Darwin observed the consequences of some interesting biological thing that functioned in the living creatures he studied. This was enough to make inferences, even though the deeper explanation was not available to him. So he did have the words, even if he didn’t have the biology. I doubt very many words in today’s scientific publications are well wrought enough to face 155 years.
With the Bill Nye v. Ken Ham debate, the Rap Guide to Evolution making its way down South, and now your book release, 2014 is already shaping up to be a big year for advocating for evolution. Do you have any insights into why now?
The trend is relatively fresh, and refreshing. Scientists, writers, journalists, and artists are giving science a more assertive public voice. Evolutionary biology often comes up because the creationist movement is experiencing one of its periodic crests. Pseudo-science movements tend to be unified–and in the case of creationism, well-funded–so the arguments are loud, flashy, and blunderingly repetitive–like some shiny monstrous bulldozer. But arguments sourced from the scientific method, rationalism, and humanism are nuanced and require critical independent thinking. This distinction makes dialogue difficult, sometimes impossible. My hope is that we can finally improve science education in schools and science reporting to the public. It will take a lot. Lucid language helps.
To learn more about On the Origin of Species: A Modern Rendition, visit the official website and order your very own copy. And on February 25th, I’ll be joining Daniel for a discussion about the book at Book Culture in New York. More details here.