There is grandeur in this view of life – visualising Darwin

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I had to have to give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. It is not just a wonderful scientific idea; it is a dangerous idea. it overthrows, or at least unsettles, some of the deepest beliefs and yearnings in the human psyche.

– Daniel Dennett

Darwin. We all know his basic idea, it seems utterly, blindingly obvious now, to the point of why bother engaging with his work? I thought the same: he made the idea very, very public and very obvious, but that was back in 1859. We have come a long way since then. Hurrah for genetics.

But. Some years ago, I read his Voyage of the Beagle. It is great fun. He writes well with delightful English understatement, but his enthusiasm, awe and wonder is obvious and contagious. He is sometimes like a five-year-old in a toy shop. Think Sir David Attenborough of the 1830-ish. I get really interested in the little frog he tried to rescue (and nearly killed twice) and the fox he knocked over the head with his geology hammer (and in doing that, contributed a tiny amount to the extinction of a species).

It is interesting to read the Voyage as you can see him grapple with things that later will become apparent and utterly obvious. The process of formulating a grand idea. He scratches his head over geologic phenomena, variations of species and not the least; the fact that you can find one species in one place, the same in another, but with thousands of kilometres of empty mountains, deserts or ocean between. How can this be?

He also refers to god in this book, pretty much in style with his time; he seems genuine in this.

I also discovered that Darwin wrote six editions on the On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The edition I read was by chance the first edition. I thoroughly enjoyed every page. Here I am admitting to my own ignorance: the last, beautiful paragraph in this edition says:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Darwin knew very well that his book (he called it a “summary”) would create a gigantic fuss. Nowhere in the book does he insinuate that humans evolved from/alongside apes/simians/primates, he knew this was to push too far. But it is, of course, obvious as he describes the process of evolution. What seems to upset people most of all, was the implication that we sit on a tiny rock in a cold, indifferent, dark cosmos. We are alone: there is no creator, no force that gives us the right to “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

It seems Darwin lost his Christian faith in the process. His wife was devout, but Charles stopped going to church: while the family attended service, he went for a stroll in the countryside. But; the first edition created such a massive fuss, the subsequent editions included more of god. It seems to me, to placate and attempting to still the waters. I like to believe he was forced to do this, either by his devotion to his wife, a need to see his theory taken seriously or somesuch. My beloved last paragraph was altered to:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.

I hate it. I hate that he did it, was forced to, compromised or added it as a genuine “correction”. I do not believe that for a moment.

The esteemed Ben Fry (the guy behind the Processing language) made a visualisation of the changes in The origin over edition. Admittedly, I feel like an idiot as I do not entirely understand how to read it. The basic idea is to show how ideas evolve and change. I have not read all the editions, but I am not sure if what we are seeing is actual sharpening or diversification of ideas. It might as well be a visualisation of the pressure of society. Or simply tiny changes in sentence structure. I am not a Darwin scholar. Of course, Darwin did sharpen his argument, but the god-element seems to put the premise on a slightly shaky ground. But I suppose that depends on what data you are interested in.

Origin of the species
Origin of the species

The artist Stefanie Posavec and her brother also made a map of the changes in the edition of The origins. She calls herself a data illustrator, as opposed to a data/information visualiser. So the aim of this is an illustration, an artistic representation of data, but one that stays true to data. It does not presume too many meta-levels.

This in a form I find easier to interpret, also because she does not seem to claim a scientific basis for it: it is what it is. There is a wow-factor, when you “get it”:

Origin of the species
Origin of the species

They represent the six editions published during Darwin’s life. It is divided into chapters, paragraph and sentences. As you work your way out from the centre, the blue-green represents chapters/paragraphs/sentences that stay in the next edition. The red then obviously represents elements removed or altered.

Origin of the species
Origin of the species

Deceptively simple, beautiful and informative. You could have this on your wall and it would be art, information, visualisation, science, literature, illustration and data. Could you ever be bored?

Origin of the species
Origin of the species




Relevant books you should read:



6 thoughts on “There is grandeur in this view of life – visualising Darwin”

  • Yisela Alvarez Trentini says:

    This is one of the most perfect, beautiful articles I have ever read. Bente, what an amazing job.

    • Thank you! I tried to make it short and sweet. A friend of mine says it should be compulsory reading for students of all ages. If it could touch anyone, I would be happy.

    • Hi there Tulay – I really do appreciate it; mainly because you thought of our blog when you got the award (we are three people at the moment). However, I am regrettably not a great fan of these awards, as I do not believe anyone actually get much out of it.

      I will find another way of linking back to your blog (for example doing a profile on your blog), but I do not really participate in blog-awards. All the best.

      • I just saw this comment. I removed that Liebster award post from by blog, it just didn’t seem right or serve the purpose of my blog. I like your posts, keep up the good work!

        • Hi Tulay – I am glad you are ok with me not participating. There are blog awards that might be interesting or worth it, but most of them are little more than those chain letters of old. The linkbacks from them rarely generates any interested readers. Which is kinda what I prefer. Quality over quantity! :)

          ..and I do love your stuff. Having tried my hand at botanic illustration, I have an increased respect and admiration for what you do.

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