Variation abound!

After four sessions of variation, I think we kinda got the hang of what Darwin is trying to say in Chapter 2. The crux hasn’t differed much from what we had gathered from our first discussion of the chapter. The difference is a tinge of light peeking through the haze of all that confusion. There’s one thing that struck me while I was reading the second chapter for the third or fourth time. Darwin was writing this manuscript at a time when the creationist point of view was dominant. It’s hard for us (ecologists/biologists) to think of something like that right now in this era when we’ve been schooled to think that evolution is the only explanation to life, the universe and everything (ok, I’m exaggerating). But let’s just step back into time and place ourselves in Darwin’s shoes…figuratively speaking. I have no clue what his shoe size was. That’s when you’ll realise why he’s being so cautious in his approach to asking the ultimate questions, “Why should there be so much variability in nature?” and “Why should some genera have more variability than others?” if there was a God/Almighty Creator who just decided to create and populate the Earth. Darwin must have realised it’s not because God just felt like it. There was too much of a pattern that emerged from analysing all his tables (by the way, I have no clue what tables he was talking about) for variation to be attributed to something as random as God creating species. Where there is pattern, there is process. And Darwin very cautiously introduces and speculates on the processes which he thinks are at work that gives rise to those observed patterns.

In this chapter he introduces (very slowly) his ideas on the slow “manufactory of species” that is “still in action”. And the action is through “natural selection accumulating… differences of structure in certain definite directions.” He doesn’t define what natural selection is yet, although he does mention that such action is not only because of the physical environment in which an individual organism resides, but because of other factors such as competition with other individuals. Of course, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to natural selection. I’m sure he goes into great detail there. But before that he’ll be dealing with another of his musings…about the Struggle for Existence. That’s chapter 3, and, thankfully, a very straight-forward one. Looking forward to discussing that one this Wednesday, February 20th, 5:30pm.

PS: There were some points that we were still not clear about while discussing this chapter. I’ll list those out here so that we can continue the discussion online:

1. Viraj had asked if natural selection is something that would act on a population or an individual. Navendu and I thought that it would act on individual traits, but Viraj and Vijay thought it would most likely act on a population. Now, considering that a population is a group of individuals, what do you think?

2. A trivial point, but Navendu and I were very confused on a distinction that Darwin had made with the distribution of a species, because he had used “wide-ranging” and “diffused” to mean two very different things. Well, at least he explicitly said so. So to help us out with that you’ll have to read the chapter. Good luck with that.

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