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The Signature of All Things 
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Post The Signature of All Things
I read this one on a friend's recommendation. It's by Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer I recognized only by her memoir Eat. Pray, Love. Never read the book, but carried a prejudice against it anyway as an example of privileged navel-gazing. I might read it now, because Gilbert's a wonderful writer as evidenced by this sweeping story of a fictional mid-19th Century botanist who independently formulates a theory of species change very much like Darwin's. The catch is that, like Darwin, she was reluctant to publish because she wasn't absolutely sure of her theory's soundness. What prevented her from publishing in 1854 is that her theory of "competitive advantage" couldn't account for human altruism, she believed. So Darwin, spurred by Wallace's concurrent discovery of natural selection, publishes first, and Alma Whittaker remains an obscure expert on mosses (bryology). In the end, though, she meets Alfred Russell Wallace and shows him her manuscript, getting intense satisfaction from Wallace's declaration that she was second (before Wallace himself) to figure out how species develop.

I don't think that altruism really is inconsistent with natural selection, but despite that disagreement I really enjoyed this longer novel. It wasn't as good in the second half as in the first, but still was pretty compelling because of the vivid and credible characterization. One difference about it, compared to other books about Victorians, is that Alma Whittaker's strong sexual desires are given attention, though she remains a virgin throughout her life.



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Harry Marks
Sun Dec 13, 2020 8:56 am
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Post Re: The Signature of All Things
What an interesting story! Who would have thought of inventing a character in such a position? I don't think it is so inconsistent that she would have had trouble with squaring altruism with natural selection. There were many such puzzles, around music and art and hermits and people raising other people's children, and if I recall my Darwin-lore, he put a lot of trouble into sketching some sort of attempt to explain these phenomena that were not "bred out" of us by natural selection.

I have more trouble with strong sexual desires combining with remaining a virgin, though I suppose there are some possible explanations having to do with the implications of sexual relations for her intellectual life.



Tue Dec 15, 2020 2:14 pm
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Post Re: The Signature of All Things
What I was thinking, Harry, is that if the development of strong empathy could be called a key to humans' ability to form groups that pushed survival (I'd claim that, at least), then the existence of altruism almost follows naturally. Altruism doesn't by a long shot cancel out the primary urge to ensure the survival of the individual and his/her kin. So what could altruism be called in evolution-speak--a spandrel? Alma Whittaker might have thought that every trait needed to tie into the individual's ability to survive, but apparently that's not how it works. If the suite of traits does the job, the species can thrive. In terms of the fiction, though, it's not far-fetched that the character would see altruism as a dilemma.

As for sex, Alma was a large, unattractive woman. She never attracted a mate. She didn't in the book reflect on the Darwinian logic of men not wanting her.



Tue Dec 15, 2020 8:06 pm
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