Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ramifications and Insects

Today was glorious. I spent some time in our research library looking at the first and second editions of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection to look at the one illustration in the volume, his famous “Tree of Life” diagram showing the natural variation among offspring of a given species, emphasizing those variations that are preserved by natural selection and that lead, after many (thousands) of generations to new genera. This appears in the chapter “Character of Natural Selection” in the section on “Divergence of Character.” Here is some of Darwin’s language on the topic, which I found especially heartening since I am working on a project about trees-as-trees and trees-as-metaphors and I have struggled with the wonderful words “ramify” and “ramification.”
The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. […] As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.
I also took several hours to look closely at a sumptuously illustrated book by Marie Sibylle de Merian (1647-1717), Histoire générale des insectes de Surinam et de toute l’Europe …. Merian, of the great Frankfurt family of printmakers, begins her text with the disarming admission, "Des ma jeunesse je me suis appliquée à l’examen des Insectes."
Well, a toast to Marie Sibylle for sustaining her childhood love of the study of insects. This book is a beautiful achievement that considers insects in their complex relationships with plants and people. Note the current exhibition at the Getty Museum: Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science.

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia Commons]