Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Mark Ridley: How to Read Darwin

My review originally appeared in Practical Philosophy, Volume 8, No 1, Summer 2006, pp. 58-9.

Mark Ridley
How to Read Darwin
London: Granta Books, 2005
ISBN: 1-86207-782-2 (pb), pp. viii + 119

This book belongs to the How to Read series, which is edited by Simon Critchley. The idea of the series is to introduce general readers to the work of great thinkers by having them read several short extracts from original works, each followed by several pages of background and explanations. Mark Ridley, a member of Oxford’s Department of Zoology and the author of an important textbook on evolution, took on the Darwinian canon. The first six of the book’s ten chapters sketch major themes from The Origin of Species. They are followed by three chapters on The Descent of Man and a final chapter treating The Expression of the Emotions.

As Ridley is well aware, it is not immediately obvious why the intelligent layman should care to know ‘how to read Darwin’ in the first place. Darwin was, of course, a truly revolutionary figure in the history of science, but the revolution he began has continued to take additional crucial steps forward. As a result, reading Darwin is not a particularly effective way to become acquainted with modern evolutionary biology. While Darwin is reputed to be a talented writer, the selections chosen by Ridley do not strike me as being written in a particularly engaging style. At the end of the day, it seems that Darwin should be read mostly for his historical importance.

Readers of Practical Philosophy will probably be most interested in the seventh and tenth chapters, which treat issues of psychological importance. Chapter seven explains Darwin’s views on the evolutionary development of human morality and altruism, as set out in The Descent of Man. This issue continues to be hotly debated by socio-biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and their various detractors. Ridley finds three lines of explanation in Darwin’s work. First of all, to the extent that altruistic behaviour invites reciprocation by other group members, it can be directly beneficial to the individual’s chances of survival. Secondly, altruism can evolve as a by-product of sensitivity to praise and blame, which may be a beneficial trait in its own right. (A variant of this second explanation has it that the heroic reputations enjoyed by those who risk danger to save others offer reproductive advantages that outweigh the risk of heroic death.) Finally, Darwin was willing to entertain explanations in terms of group selection; while self-sacrifice may not be conducive to the individual’s survival, it may be conducive to the survival of his group. The notion of ‘kin selection’ – that it might be socio-biologically rational to risk one’s life in order to save others possessing a common genetic inheritance – was not available to Darwin.

Chapter ten deals with The Expression of the Emotions. Here we find Darwin arguing that human expression of emotions derives directly from analogous animal behaviours. He brings three principles to bear upon the explanation of various human displays of emotion: 1) An emotional gesture or body-attitude can constitute a ‘serviceable associated habit’, such as the clenched fists which accompany anger and are useful offensive weapons. 2) The adoption of a gesture clearly different from that of some ‘serviceable associated habit’ is used to communicate that one is not possessed by the emotion that goes with the ‘serviceable associated habit’ in question. (An obviously open hand might mark one as not being emotionally prepared for violent confrontation). 3) Bodily conditions such as trembling derive directly from the state of the nervous system.

Ridley succeeds in conveying the main points of Darwin’s legacy, placing it in historical context and pointing out weaknesses that would be addressed by later scientists. Unfortunately, Ridley’s explanations are occasionally less than perfectly clear. Chapter eight, which deals with ‘the geological succession’, cries out for the inclusion of a table or diagram to help the reader keep track of the various dates given by different scientists to the Cambrian, Silurian, etc., geological periods. Nevertheless, this book is probably the best short introduction to Darwin for people who are interested in reading his own words.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee Academic College
Akko, Israel

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