Review of on Natural Selection by Charles Darwin

I have been researching great thinkers and how they have shaped the world. I have also been trying to prove that the act of reading helps to generate or even stimulate great ideas. Great thinkers do not operate within a vacuum, they rely on the works of others, and often expand the original thought and take the world further. Charles Darwin and British biologist Alfred Russel Wallace independently arrived at similar theories of Natural Selection in the mid-1800s after reading Essay on the Principle of Population by British pastor Thomas Malthus.

Darwin defines natural selection as the “preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variation.” So what does this all mean? Darwin further adds, “Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic… Natural selection can act only by taking advantage of slight variations; she can never take a leap, but must advance by the shortest steps.”

This book wasn’t the easiest to read, and I found it quite “dry”. But, in my quest to find out where really good ideas come from, I made the sacrifice and slogged through it. I have selected fives ideas from On Natural Selection. For the five ideas below, how can you use them in different contexts to resolve/understand modern day problems?

Five Good Ideas

  1. When a plant or animal is placed in a new country amongst new competitors, though the climate may be exactly the same as its former home, yet the conditions of its life will generally be changed in an essential manner. If we wished to increase its average numbers in its new home, we should have to modify it in a different way to what we should have done in its native country; for we should have to give it some advantage over a different set of competitors or enemies.
  2. Individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind
  3. When a species, owing to highly favourable circumstances, increases inordinately in numbers in a small tract, epidemics often ensue
  4. The more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution, and habits, by so much will they be better enabled to seize on many and widely diversified places in the polity of nature, and so be enabled to increase in numbers
  5. Natural selection is working behind the scenes all the time throughout the world whenever the opportunity arises. It works to improve each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. You cannot see these slow changes taking place, until after a long period of time has elapsed, we see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were

We could take idea number two and look at it in the context of education. It’s a reasonable assumption to make that people who are more educated have a better chance of succeeding than those who have less education. Or, for that same idea, we could say, someone who has an idea and knows how to take action, will be more successful than someone who has ideas but do nothing about them. Success in this context is not restricted to financial success. Why don’t you take one of the above five ideas and see what new ideas you can generate?

I recommend On Natural Selection because I am sure that you will come up with your own five ideas. This is not a book that you would read for entertainment, but it will certainly stretch you.

Ecology: The Ascendent Perspective By Robert Ulanowicz (1997) – Book Review

This is a review of the book Ecology: The Ascendent Perspective, by Robert E. Ulanowicz.

Brief overview:

Ecology: The Ascendent Perspective, first published in 1997, is in many ways a more accessible and more philosophical follow-up to Ulanowicz’s groundbreaking but highly technical Growth and Development (1986), and can also be viewed as an intermediate book between this earlier technical text and his later book A Third Window: Natural Life Beyond Newton and Darwin (2009), which is primarily philosophical. It is intended for a scientific audience, and is not a pop-science book, but it is quite accessible, and will be an easy read for career scientists in any field, as well as motivated, science-minded undergraduate students.

The book outlines the core aspects of Ulanowicz’s network-based theory of how ecological systems grow and develop, but without going into as much depth about the mathematics. It is primarily a book of ideas. The book also explores the philosophical and historical underpinnings of the ideas, which I personally find are much more important than the specific theories themselves. Ulanowicz seems to know full well that his theories are a bit raw and unrefined, but I think that the philosophical points he makes are rock-solid and show deep insights that go far beyond what most scientists have to offer. While there are many grounds on which Ulanowicz’s theories can be criticized, it is hard to argue with the big-picture themes he presents, which show a deep awareness of cultural and societal influences on scientific research, and the innate limitations on what types of questions can be fruitfully asked and answered in a scientific context.

A Personal Story:

My story of reading this book is quite personal and bizarre.

In the fall of 2001, I was enrolled in Oberlin college, where I was in my senior year, majoring in mathematics. This semester, I was taking a private reading in the Biology department, on the topic of systems theory as it applies to biology and ecology. On September 11th, 2001, early in the morning, I secluded myself in one of the higher floors of Oberlin, and set out to read this book. I read a large chunk of this book in one sitting, and I can say, it produced a revolution in my world-view, an unfolding of new ideas which has continued to this day. When I left the building to take a lunch break, I was shocked to hear about the terrorist attacks that had recently taken place. This day was truly a worldview-changing day for me, in more ways than one.

My recommendations:

I recommend this book as a must-read for anyone studying any of the following subjects: ecology, networks, philosophy of science, and systems theory. The book will be of particular interest to anyone who is interested in questioning the dominant paradigms of science, and anyone who wishes to become more of a systems thinker or who wants to think more in terms of networks. The book may even be useful to economists or people interested in adopting a more systems-based approach in business, public policy, or other fields involving systems of people. The style is lively and the book is thought-provoking. And it’s a surprisingly easy read, given how deep the repercussions are of the ideas contained within.

Bioterrorism and Bio-violence Considered – Book Review

So, what keeps you up at night? Yes, a question I was recently asked as a founder of a Think Tank – and in considering this I can say that nothing keeps me from sound sleep, but there are things I am completely troubled by, for instance bio-terrorism of bio-violence (both interchangeable words in my opinion). But before one gets frightened out of their wits, or allows fear to take over their psyche, there is a very good book, which I’d like to recommend to you.

Indeed, this was one of the books I read over the weekend, and I must say I was quite impressed. So much so that I wanted to write up this quick little book review to tell you about it. The name of the book is;

“Bioviolence – Preventing Biological Terror and Crime” by Barry Kellman, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2006, 362 pages, ISBN: 978-0-521-88325-2.

This is a great research reference book to have for anyone studying bioterrorism. I own it because our Think Tank often talks on this subject, luckily I picked it up inexpensively at a used book sale. I noted on the front page this book I own was once given to someone as a gift and inside the front cover it read: “To Paul, With all my best wishes. Peace, Barry Kellman.” I thought to myself, how interesting that someone would sign a book “with all my best wishes, and peace” when it had to do with such a serious topic a bio-terrorism.

However, after reading the book, I understand why the author signed the book that way, as within these pages are excellent suggestions of how to stop bioviolence and terrorism in the future. Some of these suggestions I might add have also appeared in bio-defense protocols in industry, government, military, and with NGOs. In fact, the same advice was recently quoted in a GAO report I read.

I’d also like you to consider not only this book, but some of the books by Richard Preston – you can find him also on Amazon or at any major bookseller. I think you should read a couple of his books in conjunction with this one. In fact, while I have you hear, let me also recommend;

“Biological warfare, bioterrorism, biodefence and the biological and toxin weapons convention,” by Edgar J. DaSilva. I believe you can find that paper online in a “.PDF format” on Google. Lastly, I recommend you also read; ” The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague In History” by John Barry. Once you read all this, then you will realize why I worry about such things. Be well my friends, and realize there are some very smart folks looking out for you and your family when it comes to bioterrorism.