June 21, 2012

Darwin in motion


One of the cooler applications of new technologies to understanding the history of ideas I’ve run across lately is Ben Fry’s The Preservation of Favored Traces, which shows the changes Darwin made in On the Origin of Species over the course of the six editions published in his lifetime. Fry’s project is a webpage that allows you to see all fourteen chapters of the book at once, as columns of text (very small text, of course, but when moused over, windows with the text at a legible size appear). Changes made in different editions are indicated by different colors, but what’s particularly interesting is that the changes show up over time. So at first the columns are gray, representing the text of the first edition, and then bits and blots of orange begin to show up, then green, purple, blue, and red. It’s all quite beautiful, but more than that it gives a sense of how Darwin’s ideas changed over time, and, equally interesting to the book-history-obsessed, how there was leeway for different editions of the same book, how Darwin the author and argument-maker was able to not only re-read his own work, but also re-write and re-publish it.

There are substantial differences between the editions, such as the famous addition of “by the Creator” to the closing paragraph and an entirely new chapter in the seventh edition that addresses objections raised by critics of Darwin’s ideas. And certain phrases and terms that one automatically connects with Origin of the Species, like “survival of the fittest” and “evolution”, were not used by Darwin until later editions.

Seed Magazine interviewed Fry about the project. Here’s an excerpt:

Seed: Why visualize the evolution of On the Origin of Species? What do you hope to accomplish?

Ben Fry: I spoke to a Darwin scholar about this project and she asked me the same question. “Why do this? We already know what all this stuff looks like,” she said. But by “we,” she meant the community of Darwin scholars that have access to all of this fascinating stuff. We wanted to get it out to a larger audience. People are curious about Darwin’s ideas and what his theory meant.

Furthermore, people are frequently under the impression that scientists know everything and that scientific theories are fixed. Within science, however, the opposite is true. Scientists know that the more that they find out, the more questions they will have. By showing how the text of The Origin… changed over time, we are visualizing how scientific ideas evolve.

One of Fry’s new projects is an edition of Frankenstein constructed from the incomplete fonts of PDFs. He calls it…yes… “Frankenfont.”


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.