Scientist at work: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

On the Origin of Species a Facsimile of the First Edition, Darwin, Charles

Earlier this year, I came across the Darwin 150 Project, an effort to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. They’ve got a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and all the rest of today’s modern social environment.

I found them by way of Kendall Crolius, a long-time friend from my college days. One of the sponsors of the event was Reading Odyssey, which was hosting reading groups for folks who wanted to read and discuss the book. As one of those classic works I was familiar with, but hadn’t actually read, I signed up to force myself to start and finish the thick paperback that had been sitting patiently on my shelves for many years. Well worth the effort.

More than anything else, I got the opportunity to watch science done in its purest form. Darwin starts with the evidence and some head-scratching, Andy Rooney "did you ever notice" questions. He subjects them to a relentless logical assault of working out the simplest explanation that can account for the facts and stand up to all the objections he can dream up. I was especially struck by his willingness, even eagerness, to wade into the messiness of the data. His Occam’s razor is very, very sharp and he wields it with extraordinary precision. Darwin shows exactly how powerful and robust a good theory can be.

Asimov on evidence

I found this wonderful piece from the late Isaac Asimov in Dan Ariely’s excellent Predictably Irrational blog.

Here is what Asimov had to say about believing in data…

"Don’t you believe in flying saucers, they ask me? Don’t you believe in telepathy? – in ancient astronauts? – in the Bermuda triangle? – in life after death?

No, I reply. No, no, no, no, and again no.

One person recently, goaded into desperation by the litany of unrelieved negation, burst out "Don’t you believe in anything?"

"Yes," I said. "I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be."

Isaac Asimov, The Roving Mind (1997), 43

Asimov on evidence

The trouble is how easily our desire to believe can overwhelm the evidence.