cover art for On the Origin of Species (Charles Darwin): drawing of ant with gray and white textured background

sentence surgery: hybridizing Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

Darwin’s sentences are tedious. Many of his paragraphs are hideously long, complex sentences that are really multiple complete sentences and useless filler words and phrases strung together with semicolons, colons, commas, or some combination.

This material is not the easiest to understand to begin with. And complex ideas need to be presented clearly and concisely as possible. So I’m breaking down sentences as well as paragraphs, and this time changing much more punctuation than I have in the others.

Also thinking about removing some of the seemingly innumerable filler phrases like “that is to say” and “heretoafter to be.”

Yes, people used language more formally when this was first published, especially in writing. And they didn’t have screens throwing massive amounts of light into their eyes while they’re reading. But we members of homo sapiens don’t speak or write like that anymore, and our eyes are begging for mercy.

I’ve tried to be as non-invasive with these texts as possible. But for the sake of the reader, I have to do something about sentences like this one from Chapter II:

Finally, then, varieties have the same general characters as species, for they cannot be distinguished from species,—except, firstly, by the discovery of intermediate linking forms, and the occurrence of such links cannot affect the actual characters of the forms which they connect; and except, secondly, by a certain amount of difference, for two forms, if differing very little, are generally ranked as varieties, notwithstanding that intermediate linking forms have not been discovered; but the amount of difference considered necessary to give to two forms the rank of species is quite indefinite.

I’ve kept the language mostly the same because I don’t want to change Darwin’s voice. Which means I’ll probably leave in the weak words like “very” and “quite.” And I won’t rewrite passive voice into active. But I did remodel that bad boy with bullet points to make it easier to read. Like this:

Finally, varieties have the same general characters as species. For they cannot be distinguished from species, except by:

    • The discovery of intermediate linking forms. The occurrence of such links cannot affect the actual characters of the forms which they connect.
    • A certain amount of difference. Two forms, if differing very little, are generally ranked as varieties, notwithstanding that intermediate linking forms have not been discovered. But the amount of difference considered necessary to give to two forms the rank of species is quite indefinite.

This is much more editing than I thought I’d be doing, which is why this book is taking longer. And I’ll probably do another pass. In the meantime, there’s another strange dilemma.

missing diagram, pixelated ant

There seems to be a diagram missing from the text. There are multiple paragraphs talking about it as if it’s there. But I can’t find it in any version of the text I’ve found available. It doesn’t seem possible to recreate it based on his descriptions, either.

So if I can’t track this diagram down somewhere, it’s going to seem really weird that it’s being talked about but not shown. I might think about cutting that part out just to avoid confusion. What good does it do the reader to read descriptions of data that was meant to be displayed as a diagram? The passage doesn’t make much sense without it.

Or maybe I’ll keep it in and make a note that there’s a missing diagram? I don’t know yet. Chew on it some more while I continue editing for now.

The ant on the still-unfinished cover is based on a sketchbook drawing I did 23 years ago. Never thought it would end up on the cover of a book, but it seemed appropriate. Glad I took some pictures of my sketchbook before I gave it away.

The original drawing was done with a ballpoint pen, but mobile cameras at the time were super crappy. So I had to enlarge the photo, and then the JPG compression made it look sort of blocky.

Still had a working tablet then, so I was able to sketch over it. I wish it still looked like ballpoint pen, because the ink is a gorgeous purple-black I haven’t found a way to recreate digitally.

Good news is, since my tablet’s broken, I’m using a ballpoint pen for some drawings. Maybe I can even capture the special color quality if I take photos in the right light.

Until next time, keep your sentences tight and mind your varieties and species. 😉

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