Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld III’: Chapter 19 / Chapter 20, Part I

In the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of Darwin’s Watch, the wizards deal with a surprise guest, and I learn about the role of genes in evolution. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Science of Discworld III. 


Well, even if the chapter isn’t that long, I’m pretty damn pleased with CHARLES DARWIN COMING TO THE DISCWORLD. I don’t think it’s over by a longshot; how the hell are the wizards going to deal with Darwin seeing them do magic?? But here we are: the wizards now get to be face-to-face with the man who changed the Roundworld forever. Well, he did at one point. Or, rather, he will change it? He already changed it and will change it? YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN. Pratchett makes a clever joke about Cohen and Stewart’s “lies-to-children” terminology in the title, but it’s so apt. The wizards have to lie to Darwin about some of the truth, and not just for the obvious reasons:

No one would like to be told that they came from a universe created quite by accident and, moreover, by the Dean. It could only cause bad feeling. If you were told you were meeting your maker, you’d want something better.

Even then, this is still so terribly overwhelming, and the wizards were certainly not helping by CONSTANTLY DOING MAGIC IN FRONT OF DARWIN. He couldn’t concentrate! His sherry glass refilled by MAGIC! Yet even though the wizards were lying to Darwin, I was fascinated by what they did tell him: that he was “thrown” into a different world where magic is real. Why tell him that? To get him to open up? Couldn’t be to make him feel comfortable! (Perhaps that’s what the sherry was for.) I suppose it doesn’t matter, though, because it wasn’t long before Darwin offered up yet another complication to this timeline: he had been given a vision. Actually, he thought here that the wizards were the second vision he received, the last one being from… the God of Evolution? From Mono Island??? I think the logic that Ridcully uses here—that once the Auditors broke into Roundworld and the wizards followed, leaving “doors ajar” that the God of Evolution could have used—is pretty sound. But why? Why do all this? And how are the wizards supposed to deal with BOTH the Auditors and the God of Evolution? 



I realize that the argument that Stewart and Cohen construct here is probably cut in half due to the split itself, but it’s compelling so far! My understanding of genetics and its role in evolution wasn’t too far from the “folk” version. (And now that I understand that the authors were satirizing a popular interpretation of genetics, I’m glad they threw in that bit about sexuality. It’s such a weirdly invasive question that a lot of queer people get asked in terms of their identity. Seriously, even in 2019, I am regularly asked at public events whether biology made me this way or my environment did and truly, I am not even sure I care. It’s like… vaguely interesting in an intellectual sense? Anyway, TANGENT.) That’s what I got in the most general sense! So, what follows this, while dense at times, is actually really damn fascinating to me. I admit that I did recall being taught that natural selection wasn’t a case of a body “deciding” what was a good and a bad mutation. But this part blew my mind:

Nearly all current natural selection must be discriminating between different combinations of ancient mutations. It’s not a matter of a new mutation arriving and the result being immediately subjected to selection: instead, that mutation must typically hang around, for millions of years, until eventually it ends up playing a role that makes enough of a difference for natural selection to notice, and react. 

So, Lewontin’s discovery still hasn’t quite seeped into the public understanding of genetics. Of note is the fact that the authors acknowledge this, that they make it clear how long it takes for current research to trickle its way down into our textbooks. And that’s even harder in places like the US, where a bulk of our textbooks are made in ONE STATE that has a REALLY TERRIBLE history of putting vile shit into textbooks. (I might have gotten this wrong, but aren’t most US textbooks for history and science made in Texas?) Thus, it makes sense that unless I’ve got a teacher who is keeping themselves up to date on this sort of stuff, how was I ever to know what the scientists had discovered? 

Anyway, this section ended on the topic of genetic contingency plans (also mind-blowing to me!), so I’m off to go see how this and possibly other points will factor into the thesis the authors gave me. 

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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