Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Philip Appleman: "Darwin" and Poems

A couple of weeks ago, one of my kids e-mailed me, asking me to advise a friend of hers who had to write a paper on what Charles Darwin would have thought of abortion. One of my first thoughts was to wonder what he would have thought of feminism, and the feminist belief that women should have control of their own bodies. So, I reached for my trusty Norton Critical Edition Darwin and found just what I needed: excerpts from Evelleen Richards' 1983 article, "Darwin and the Descent of Woman". The article not only describes Darwin's views, but also places them in historical context, partly by telling what contemporary feminist writing he had read.

Published in 2001, this is the third edition of Darwin edited by Philip Appleman, who is not only a scholar deeply familiar with the work of Darwin and his contemporaries, but a poet who has made evolution a theme of such works as Darwin’s Ark. Darwin is a labor of love, still vibrant with Appleman's first, youthful discovery of Darwin's work (described in pages 15-17 of the introduction), and informed by thorough scholarship. In this greatly expanded edition, Appleman presents generous selections from Darwin's original works, as well as a wide selection of essays and excerpts of other writers' works. We learn about the biographical and scientific background of Darwin's pivotal discovery, as well as its "enduring relevance" not only for science, but for social thought, philosophy and ethics, religious life, and literature.
Appleman understands Darwin's works are valuable not only for what they teach us about the way the history of life unfolded -- as if that weren't enough! -- but also for their vital contribution to the development of science as a method for understanding the natural world. The process is an exciting, unfinished story, as Appleman tells first through the writing of thinkers like Lyell and Malthus --whose work Darwin incorporated in his theory-- and then through the writing of his contemporary detractors and defenders.
Appleman brings readers up to date (and leaves us ready for tomorrow's headlines) with selections of later scientists' work on genetics,statistics, systematics, human evolution, and natural selection. Other sections of Darwin include offerings as diverse as an excerpt of The Woman's Bible, by pioneering feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; discussions of evolutionary medicine and evolutionary ethics; and essays on how the advent of evolutionary thought has changed the meaning of tragedy.
Darwin could be used as a course reader; for the rest of us, it likely won't be a book we read straight through, but one to dip into at different times. One reader will seek a solid introduction to a particular topic, another will look for provocative insights. You might want to learn more about punctuated equilibrium, or how one poet "put[s] a contemporary gloss on Darwin's theory of sexual selection". Activists will appreciate Part VIII, a wide ranging discussion of the problems posed by creationism.

Now that I'm writing about Appleman, I can't resist recommending his poetry -- often passionate, sometimes witty, always accessible. In fact, my first introduction to Appleman was by a friend who had discovered his work his poetry. I was giving him a ride to a meeting, and he read aloud "Gertrude”, a wonderfully touching expression of the rage and grief Appleman felt at his mother's death. You can read an excerpt here (scroll down or search on the word "Gertrude").

I was hooked! It's best to let poems speak for themselves, so here are links to "Memo To The 21st Century" and "This Year's Valentine". Let me know if you’re hooked too!


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