Tuesday, February 02, 2010

An Unintended Lesson About Charles Darwin

You would think I would be the ideal reader for a book about Darwin's Origin of Species written by a veterinarian who was critical of veterinary price-gouging and who also thought the Kennel Club had wrapped dogs around the axle of dysfunction.

I have said the same things a 1,000 times before, and written the same in books, magazine articles, a web site, and a blog.

As for Darwin, I am a huge fan. In book, article, web site, and blog, I have noted that The Origin of Species came out the same year as the first dog show. I have traced the origins of Darwin's work from Robert Bakewell through Erasmus Darwin, and from Charles Darwin to eugenicist Francis Galton (Darwin's cousin) who thought evolution could be put into hyperdrive through unnatural selection at the hand of man.

I have even produced a T-shirt noting that The Kennel Club is Darwin's Nightmare.

So imagine my pleasure to be told that a veterinarian in the U.K had produced a book about Darwin that took the Kennel Club to task for selective breeding for dysfunction. Excellent.

Best of all, the book was free. A FREE book?! Double excellent! I went to the link, and you can too.

A quick look at the PDF told me the book was by Matthew Watkinson.

The name sounded familiar, and then it rang a bell -- he had written an article in The Daily Mail a month or so back, talking about the fleecing of customers by veterinarians. There were a few problems with the article, but I blogged the part I liked, said nice things, and moved on.

This new book on Darwin was by the same person? Excellent! This should be good. I dived right in.

The first caution was the cover. The title was a clear rip-off of the title of Darwin's own seminal work.

I suppose Watkinson meant it to be a bit clever, but I found it an affront for someone to more-or-less title their own book as "Volume 2" to Darwin.

Plus, it would be a hard act to pull off. Several hundred books have been written on Darwin and The Origin of Species, many by brilliant writers and thinkers.

No matter, I thought. Let's not judge a book by its cover. Let's read the thing instead.

If the cover of the book had an odor of arrogance, the first 50 pages spoke of some confusion. I scrawled in the margin: What is this book about?

The book did not start with a thesis. It did not start with a historical account of Darwin's works, or even talk much about what Darwin said at all.

Instead, there was a proclamation by the author that unlike everyone else in the world he was going to be "objective" and not "sentimental".

In addition, there was the proclamation by the author that he hated the color "grey" -- he wanted to paint only in black and white, and he was going to eschew any subtle shading.

And finally, there was the note that no one could argue with him about anything, because if they tried they would really be arguing with Charles Darwin (and of course, who has the temerity to do that?).


I carried on. After all, I wanted to like this book. I really did.

In the first 50 pages, there was a nice screed on how Kennel Club dog breeders have too often selected for defect.

The trouble was that the examples given seemed culled directly from the BBC's Pedigree Dogs Exposed and subsequent coverage, and seemed more like a recitation that a real examination.

Surely a trained veterinarian would be able to give other examples of selective breeding for defect -- pigeons, turkeys, chickens, and goldfish, for example?

On the upside, there was a very nice section about dairy cows, but here too I noticed that a lot was left out.

Cattlemen, after all, created the first animal registry in the world, and they were also the first to abandon it in order to outcross to preserve herd health. There was no mention of this, and it seemed a glaring omission.

On page 92 I wrote in the margin: "Was there an outline for this book?"

I wrote the same question three more times as I read to the end, and on page 225 I still wondered what the thesis was supposed to be.

All I knew for certain was that Matthew Watkinson, while sometimes an entertaining writer, did not have a very strong command of the material he sought to claim title to.

Quite simply, he did not do his homework.

The gaps in Watkinson's knowledge and theories are not small -- they are deep and wide.

Consider this: Watkinson has written an entire book on Darwin that never mentions Alfred Russell Wallace, who co-presented (with Darwin) their theory of evolution to the Linnean Society of London in July of 1858.

Watkinson also makes no mention of Darwin's writings on geology (Darwin's necessary proof of an ancient earth), the breeding experiments of Robert Bakewell, or even Erasmus Darwin (Darwin's grandfather), whose own work, Zoonomia, served as Darwin's intellectual chassis.

Watkinson barely mentions the Galapagos Islands, never talks about Darwin's correspondence with dog and pigeon fanciers, or the taxonomic discussions about finches with John Gould (for whom the magnificent Gouldian Finch is named).

In Watkinson's presentation of Darwin's work, in fact, there is no intellectual past, no intellectual development to the present, and truth be told, not much Darwin.

Hundreds of books and treatises have been written about Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, but I do not recall Watkinson quoting a single one.

While Watkinson does manage to squeeze The Descent of Man into two footnotes, he never mentions The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals at all, nor does he reference Darwin's other lengthy work on barnacles and worms.

What is Watkinson trying to say in this book? I have no idea.

At one point I noted in the margin that Watkinson seemed to have just discovered death, while later on I noted that he seemed to think there were no other force at work when it comes to natural selection.

At the end of my reading, I set the book aside and let it percolate in my brain for a day or two.

Slowly, an idea dawned in my head. . . . .

The book read as if it was written by a young man who had a Big Idea expand in his mind to fill every empty crack.

Could it be that Watkinson had read only one book -- The Origin of Species -- and then riffed on it for 225 pages without reading anything else or talking to anyone else?

That would be impossible, right?

In fact, believe it or not, that seems to be exactly what happened.

In an interview with a self-publishing website called "BubbleCow" Matthew Watkinson confesses that he began reading Darwin just one year ago, and he decided (in some sort of manic-expressive fever) to begin writing down everything that came into his head.

Quite sadly, this is exactly how the book reads -- as a somewhat sophomoric rant by someone who confuses wild speculation with careful research, and who thinks page numbers are the only structure needed.

Is Watkinson wrong on every page?

Absolutely not.

He is correct that many species are selected for defect by the hand of man. This is not a small point, but it is a point made by many others in the past, and Watkinson hardly treats it with the well-researched treatment that it deserves.

Watkinson is also right that species are too-often split for purely political and self-aggrandizing reasons. Here too, however, he is not saying anything new. The running battle between taxonomic splitters and lumpers is old, but Watkinson does not acknowledge that, much less quote experts or give the reader any guide on how to think straight. Instead we get a kind of stream-of-consciousness in which the chief goal seems to be mock everyone in the world who might actually know the difference between one species and the next.

In fact, this is what Watkinson spends most of his book doing -- serving as a juvenile and cynical sniper plinking at others. And to what purpose? It is not clear. In the end, one is left suspecting that it is all vanity, and with not too much to say (because he does not really have a good command of the material) he has been reduced to doing little more than tossing out one-liners. It is (at best) cleverness masquerading as thought and knowledge. At worst it is a rambling, chaotic bore with wild side trips into poor thought and ignorance.

One small problem is that Watkinson likes to toss words around, but he does not always know what they mean.

For example, he thinks a desert is as good as as a jungle. Anyone who disagrees is not being objective.

He thinks the death of a chicken is the same as the death of a whale. Anyone who disagrees is a racist.

He think the death of an individual animal is the same as the extinction of the entire species. Anyone who says otherwise does not understand Darwin.

In fact, Watkinson is simply an idiot.

Mother Nature does a lot more work in a jungle than a desert, and anyone who thinks the elimination of a species is the same as the death of an individual is laughable.

You could not get through a junior high biology class with that kind of "deep thought."

Watkinson seems to be struggling with the idea of discrimination, but he does not know enough to realize that discrimination is actually one of the driving forces behind evolution.

Why does a Bower Bird prefer one mate over another?

Why does a Lion prefer one mate over another?

Watkinson has no idea -- he does not even know enough to ask the question.

Watkinson's idea that a chicken is equal to a whale, because both are life (and who is to say one is better than another?) is patent nonsense.

A whale is at the top of a food chain. A chicken is not.

Food chain?

What's a food chain?


That's a word Matthew Watkinson does not type once in 225 pages. He doesn't talk too much about habitat either.

Mother Nature is actually quite objective about what individuals she thinks are important. She make hundreds of millions of mice, but gives them all a very short lifespan. The death of 50,000 mice then, is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Mother Nature will "infill" that loss in a week.

Mother Nature makes very few lions, however, and gives them a much longer lifespan. The death of 50,000 lions has an enormous impact, and that impact flows downward through the food chain.

In fact, the death of 50,000 African Lions would wipe out that species in the wild, and that impact would reverberate for millenia.

The loss of 50,000 mice, however, would not reverberate for a week.

The fact that Matthew Watkinson misses such basic points speaks to his deep ignorance about wild places and wildlife. Quite simple, he does not know why big fierce creatures are rare.

Watkinson goes on to suggest that all conservation efforts are meaningless and wrong-headed.

And why?

Because, he explains with the wonder of a small child that has just discovered a one-size-fits-all theory, life on the planet cannot be wiped out.

Go on and poison the waters, chainsaw the forests, shoot all the elephants, and harpoon all the whales into extinction.

Dump toxins into the oceans and belch smog and greenhouse gases into the air. It will not matter in the slightest. After all, if earth survived the massive Chixculub meteor-impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, it can probably survive anything.

Right. . . . .

Apparently, it has not occurred to Mr. Watkinson that sending all life back into the basement of existence might not be the goal.

It might be . . . maladaptive.

Which brings me to the real (if unintended) lesson of this book ... and because Darwin himself was a lifelong lover of terriers, I will explain it in terms Darwin himself might have used.

When a small terrier enters a fox's den, the fox will try to bolt out any exit it can.

Failure to do so is "maladaptive" for the fox.

If a fox is pressed hard against a stop end, however, and it has nowhere to go, a wise terrier will stand back a few inches and bay.

Failure to do so is "maladaptive" for the terrier.

The point here is that fear and caution are adaptive mechanisms -- in a world that is "red in tooth and claw," the overly bold are quickly cold.

Nature tends to select for caution, and prune out those who, in arrogance or youthful enthusiasm, get in over their head.

In fact, it was because Darwin understood this so well that he moved so slowly when assembling The Origin of Species.

Darwin knew that while not everything he was talking about was entirely new (Darwin did not invent the idea of evolution), his presentation of the mechanical watchspring that was driving things forward would be fiercely challenged.

While he hoped his writing would eventually lead to illumination, he knew he had to prepare for the white-hot fire that was sure to precede enlightenment.

As a consequence, Darwin talked to everyone, read everything he could find, and corresponded with pigeon fanciers, dog men, chicken experts, and scientists up and down England, Europe, Asia and America for over two decades in order to back plaster his text with examples and authority.

Darwin teased through his own notes and those of others, and he walked around the sand walk at Down House mulling it all over, before going back to his desk to try to hammer it smooth and polish it bright.

Darwin was not going to rush to wreckage.

He was going to build slow, and write for the ages. He was going to organize things carefully and logically, stacking one brick on top of the other and checking it all with level and plumb.

He was not going to be "maladaptive."

Darwin stepped off the HMS Beagle in 1836, but it was not until 1859 that he was ready to roll out his master work for the public -- 23 years later.

Watkinson? I do not think it took him 23 weeks of actual writing.

The story is not over yet, however. You see, while Darwin had an inheritance and a family income which allowed him to live off his investments, Watkinson tells us that "Like a demented robot I remortgaged the house to fund a totally unnecessary search for the truth."


  • Unnecessary

  • Poorly organized

  • Weakly researched

  • Fatally flawed

In short, "maladaptive."

The ironic lesson here is that like any species, books seek to fill ecological niches.

Whether they succeed or fail has lot to do with whether they are an improvement on the old, or whether they are simply a teratogenic mess whose parts never quite get organized and fused together.

Sadly, Destiny of Species is the latter, not the former.

I had hoped it would be so much better.

* * * *

Of course, one man's opinion is never "the seal of the prophet". Since you can download your very own copy of this book and read it for free you can always do that. Time however is more precious than money, and you might want to do something different instead; actually read the original Darwin (also for free). I assure you it is much better than what Watkinson has too hastily sent up the flagpole. For those who prefer to read their Charles Darwin in hardcover, this looks to be a pretty nice edition.



Retrieverman said...

This is why you don't decide one day that you want to be a writer. One thing that is often lacking in education in the sciences is how to write effectively.

It's not just education in the hard sciences. I know people in the social sciences who don't know that "insure" and "ensure" are different words and that "anecdote" and "antidote" are not homonyms.

He says in the Bubblecow interview that Sir David Attenborough is looking forward to reading it. When Sir David gets to the part about conservation being pointless, my guess is that this book will wind up in Sir David's fireplace.

Heather Houlahan said...

I'm not absolutely sure that the death of 50,000 mice would notably reverberate if it all took place in my attic. I'm willing to entertain the experiment, though.

You know what they say about having half a mind to write a book.

Here's a dandy Darwin biography:


And I see by the Amazon listings that my hardcover is now costly. I won't be selling, though.

PBurns said...

The writing has its problems.

The tone has its problems.

But ultimately, what is fatal is the lack of any real knowledge of the subject.


Heather Houlahan said...

Oh Patrick -- you read the whole thing?

The very first sentence contains a glaring error that first had me scratching my head for the meaning, then sent me running for the Royal Apostropher.

Gina said...

I said at the time of his newspaper article that it was apparent this fellow was looking to draft off the furor over the BBC documentary for his own gain. Sort of Sarah Palinish.

Sadly, when opportunists, greedheads and idiots jump on board an important debate they devalue the entire debate.

PBurns said...

A few pages of drivel you let slide, but at a certain point reading this book was like watching a train wreck.

And again, while the writing is a catastrophe, and the structure a wreck, the more serious problem is that he has NO KNOWLEDGE of what he is talking about.

He says he is a "naturalist?" Really? Based on what? There is no evidence of it in the book, I assure you.

And again, there is NOT MUCH DARWIN either.


fishsnorkel said...

Thanks for taking the time to review the book. All comments have been duly noted.

Kind regards,


PBurns said...

Duly noted but perhaps not actually understood?

Mr. Watkinson has this squib on his book-sale site and on Amazon :
_ _ _ _

Highly entertaining...I did find myself laughing out loud quite often..."
-- Jonathan Porritt CBE.
_ _ _ _

I found this "review" line by Porritt strange, and did a little research to find the ACTUAL review. Guess what? It does not quite say what Watkinson suggests.
_ __ _ _ _ _

Actualy review from Jonothan Porritt (Watkinson mis-spells his name):

“Thank you again for sending through a copy of the above. Highly entertaining, and certainly kept my mind well-exercised over the Christmas break! And I will happily recommend to a few of my colleagues in the Green Movement, though I very much doubt that they will thank me for it!

You obviously enjoyed yourself enormously in the process of pulling that together, and polemic clearly comes naturally to you. I did find myself laughing out loud quite often, which I guess means you must have hit the mark on more than one occasion!

But there is a downside to all that. By indulging yourself in this way, I think you have significantly mis-represented key aspects of the debate (which isn’t necessarily that important an outcome), and significantly reduced the potential impact of the book (which I suspect you consider is a significant problem!).

In the interests of positive criticism, just to say that it suffers throughout from three major problems:

* Chronic conflations
I appreciate that this wasn’t your intention, but by roaming so whimsically from the philosophical to the operational to the exegetical and back again, without any necessary rhyme and reason between the different transitions, it doesn’t achieve what you wanted at any of these levels. As you know, there are some critically important philosophical issues in here, but by virtue of using your discussions of these as a stick with which to beat up the sad, inadequate people who take on self-assumed ‘stewardship’ roles, the philosophical import often gets completely lost.

* Insanely biased selectivity
Understandably, you have picked (or rather picked on!) those organisations and their texts that suit the argument that you are advancing here. Fair enough, and that’s what polemic is all about. But in the process, you have demonstrated no intellectual integrity whatsoever. You clearly have no interest in presenting a more balanced picture about the complexity and diversity of views espoused across the spectrum of the Green Movement. The idea that the views you’ve represented in ‘On the Destiny of Species’ are fully representative of that movement is just a touch laughable.
And did just wonder whether your own prejudices are showing here. For instance, you have a great deal of fun at Jim Lovelock’s expense – some of which I would be the first to agree is well justified – but make no reference whatsoever to Lynn Margulis, Jim’s co-creator of the Gaia Hypothesis, who in many ways is as remarkable a person as Jim, as important an interpreter of the relationship between humankind and life on Earth, and someone whose views are very close to your own – though expressed in rather different ways. (Her most succinct definition of Gaia, for instance, is “one tough bitch”!).

* A palpable lack of humanity
I know in your letter to me you cited your ‘love of humanity’ as your principal reason for writing this book. It’s really very difficult to see how that is actually borne out in reality. To be honest, my principal conclusion was that you were just a grouchy old misanthrope, who really couldn’t care less what happened to humanity, even those ‘relatively innocent’ parts of humanity who are going to get comprehensively stuffed by the historical abuse by humankind of the natural environment. I’m sure that wasn’t what you wanted, but that’s the way it came out.

(more in next note)

PBurns said...


(continued from Porritt)

_ __ _ __

"Anyway, I hope you’ll take these comments in good heart, as someone who agrees with quite a lot of the general thrust of what you’re saying here. I’ve tried throughout my life to avoid the rhetorical flourishes around ‘a fragile planet’, and do continually remind people that this is far from being the case. I would hope that ‘Capitalism As If the World Matters’ provides reasonable confirmation of that. (I noticed, however that you didn’t speculate at all about what happens if Jim Lovelock’s worst hypothesis – Destination Venus – were to come true!).

But we are all guilty of using language in a rather sloppy way. And I felt you might enjoy checking out the final paragraph of ‘On the Destiny of Species’ to demonstrate exactly what I mean by that!”

_ _ _ end of Porritt review _ _ _

Talk about cutting the truth to fit your pre-conceived conclusion!

But then again, that is a perfect summary of Mr. Watkinson's book, isn't it?