Friday, January 20, 2012

Sentences and Origins

We've been discussing first sentences in works of literature and science.  In the last post, I looked at some recent articles in the journal, Nature.  How about first lines in some famous scientific works?  Here’s the first sentence in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:
“When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent.” 
I think this is an interesting opening sentence that not only tells us something about what is to come, but also manages to convey a sense of humility by the author in venturing his insights about the topic, while at the same time subtly establishes his credentials.  He doesn’t start off by making some pompous declaration about the importance of his work or boldly stating that he’s an expert about to expound a new theory.  Instead, he basically says that during his travels he noticed unique patterns that intrigued him and led to an important insight. Notice that, in describing the process whereby he acquired his insight, he says he was “much struck”.  That phrase says a lot and conveys the impression that these patterns were so compelling that he could not help but notice them (and that the reader may also become "struck" by them).  Then Darwin uses the term “facts” to describe his observations about the “distribution” of the organisms he observed.  That terminology subtly interjects the idea that what he’s about to describe is not mere speculation, but a conclusive truth. He also provides some history about how he came by the knowledge he’s about to describe (serving as a naturalist onboard the Beagle), which tells the reader that he’s no armchair theorist without field experience.  He goes on in the rest of the introduction to establish his credentials as a naturalist and author, but this beginning sentence does all that quite succinctly.  
Darwin is a bit vague, perhaps deliberately so, in the use of the term, “inhabitants” in the opening sentence.  Victorian reviewer, Sir Richard Owen, wonders if Darwin means human inhabitants: we suppose he means aboriginal inhabitants, of South America, or in their distribution on that continent, to have suggested to any mind that man might be a transmuted ape, or to throw any light on the origin of the human or other species?” As one reads on, it is clear that Darwin meant plant and animal inhabitants of South America.  He uses the term “organic beings” and “innumerable species” a few paragraphs later and ultimately explains that he was referring to the distribution of certain animal species (rheas, Galapagos tortoises).  I’ve not found anything that explains why Darwin might have used the term inhabitant without being more specific, but then he may have thought it would soon be obvious which inhabitants he was talking about.  Owen, who was one of the main reviewers of this work, was a critic of the mechanism of evolution espoused by Darwin and seemed to be looking for points to criticize, particularly in relation to human origins. 
Here’s the second sentence:
“These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species –that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.”
Darwin continues his tone of humility, saying that the facts “seemed” to him to reveal something about a “mystery of mysteries” and then acknowledges someone else as the source of that terminology.  This sentence announces that what he’s writing about is a deeply important topic.  Using the term, “mystery of mysteries” tells the reader that what she’s about to learn is a secret of nature, perhaps a truth that heretofore has been unknowable except by divine revelation.  Certainly a puzzle requiring detailed investigation and discovery to unravel.  Darwin names this mystery: the origin of species, which reflects back on the title of the work.
He repeats the term “facts”, which again drives home the point that the observations he’s about to describe are concrete and unassailable.  
Darwin’s lead sentence has an interesting structure, one that traverses time zones both in describing his personal history as well as the observations upon which his work is based.  He refers to his time on the Beagle, a past event.  He explicitly links past and present in the sentence (present to the past inhabitants) and then refers to "geological relations", further suggesting that his “facts” cover a huge time span in history, foreshadowing the concept of evolution.  
 In the next post, I will explore this "time traveling" type of sentence a bit more.

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