January 15, 2018


Altering A Species: Darwin's Shopping List (JIMENA CANALES, 1/15/18, NPR)

Charles Darwin was in such awe of breeders who could alter flora and fauna in the span of 30 or 40 years that he used the word "plastic" to describe the extreme pliability of reproductive species. "Breeders," he wrote in On the Origin of the Species, "habitually speak of an animal's organization as something quite plastic, which they can model almost as they please."

During Darwin's time, husbandry was more of an art than a science. Making perfect matches concerned the haute bourgeoisie as much as the breeders who worked for the landed gentry.

Could Darwin push nature's plasticity further than they had by approaching it scientifically?

"The pear," he wrote, "though cultivated in classical times, appears, from Pliny's description, to have been a fruit of very inferior quality." Since ancient times, the fruit had been slowly bred to become much more juicy and savory. Botanists plumped up the gooseberry over generations, created many admirable varieties of strawberries, and enhanced the beauty of cultivated flowers. According to his biographer Janet Browne, Darwin looked at nature as would an "all-seeing farmer in the sky."

The masters of this ancient art sold their genetic wonders at a pretty penny. Their very livelihood depended on keeping the secrets of their practice out of scientific journals.

Darwin speculated about the possible existence of a being who could produce even more wonderful creations than those so far created by European breeders. This being could adapt "living beings to his wants -- may be said to make the wool of one sheep good for carpets, of another for cloth." Darwin offered few details about how such a talented being would go about his business, since no one, not even he, knew the precise laws governing genetic inheritance. "Your imagination must fill up very wide blanks," he told the American naturalist and Harvard professor Asa Gray, with whom he discussed this possibility.

The worm at the core of Darwinism was that he based it on the processes of breeders.

Posted by at January 15, 2018 4:14 PM