University of Pittsburgh
November 17, 2009

Mastery of Data: At 150, Darwin's On the Origin of Species Endures as Pre-Internet Network Marvel, Watershed of Scientific Presentation

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PITTSBURGH-Legendary for its bearing on biology, Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" also is notable for "how" it was written and the lasting influence of Darwin's techniques for gathering and presenting information, according to two University of Pittsburgh faculty members who are available to comment on the 150-year anniversary of the book's Nov. 24, 1859, publication.

James "Kip" Currier, an assistant professor of human information behavior in Pitt's School of Information Sciences, says that Darwin presented a pre-Internet feat of global networking compiled from thousands of meticulously organized letters, observations, and specimens from around the globe. Though novel in the 1850s, Darwin techniques for extracting, organizing, and verifying information have since become the norm. Citing Darwin's 1867 assertion that he was "greedy for facts," Currier dubs the English naturalist a "proto-social networker" who gathered data from 2,000 people on various continents via some 14,500 letters. "Darwin essentially created a 19th century Facebook that is quite remarkable when you think that he did it by ship, train, and post," Currier said. Darwin then devised his own methods to color code, annotate, and numerically classify his data at a time that predated modern libraries; the Dewey decimal system wasn't developed until 1876. Currier, who studied Darwin's private library, said that Darwin's system helped him draw and support the conclusions instrumental to presenting his theory. "We don't usually think about how important Darwin's ability to manage information was to getting his ideas out," Currier said.

James Lennox, professor of the history and philosophy of science in Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences, says that Darwin triggered a lasting shift in the way naturalists present their ideas by showing how massive amounts of data in paleontology, biogeography, and morphology could all be explained by his theory. Many of Darwin's contemporaries grappled with the same questions he sought to answer, but Darwin was the first to make a convincing case for the explanatory power of evolution, Lennox said. By the 1800s, a wealth of fossil evidence challenged the long-standing idea that all species were created simultaneously, showing instead a continuous sequence of origination and extinction. Plus, European expeditions since the late 16th century brought back plants and animals suggesting that species in each region were related by descent. Most naturalist theories had been presented as narratives that were not convincing, Lennox said. In On the Origin, Darwin presented his theory of natural selection in the first four chapters and countered anticipated objections in the next four chapters; the last four chapters used evolution by natural selection to explain the data naturalists had accumulated. "No one who presented an evolutionary account worked that way until Darwin," Lennox said. "His mastery of data and ability to display all of it as a consequence of evolution by natural selection let him make a compelling case where no one could before. As a result, Darwin convinced a generation of scientists that there was an evolutionary explanation for the fossil record and biogeographical evidence."