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July 23, 2009

How Darwin's Book "Evolved"

Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life contained his first thoughts on evolution. Now, 150 years later, computer scientist Greg McInerny is turning the idea on its head, drawing diagrams showing the “evolution” of the book as new editions were published. In the editing process, certain sections became “extinct,” that is, did not make it to the next edition. Other, stronger sections avoided the editor’s chopping block to make it into the final sixth edition—a kind of survival of the sentences—and in some cases, entirely new sections of text were added.

Together with London-based m_ed_5_webvisual artist Stefanie Posavec, McInerny has devised the (En)tangled Word Bank, which shows the construction and evolution of the book. In some cases, the editions varied quite a bit, says McInerny, who is based at Microsoft Research in Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “For the second edition, Charles Darwin wanted a more popular and available version,” he says, so Darwin inserted references to a creator who may have been behind the initial creation of life. In the sixth edition, he added a whole new chapter discussing the support and criticism that had surrounded the book.

The diagram (left) represents the fifth edition. In it, the rim consists of four layers. The outer ring represents sentences; the next ring in signifies paragraphs, then subchapters and chapters follow. The central branching design represents the same divisions, with chapters at the base and sentences at the tips. The green “leaflets” show sentences that have “survived” multiple editions, and orange “leaflets” represent those that are “dying” and will be absent from the next edition. The darker the green or orange, the longer that sentence has survived through multiple editions.

(En)tangled Word Bank is an example of a “literary organism,” a structure devised by Posavec to show visually how books are constructed from their basic units. Her first such work was based on Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road.

—Claire Thomas

Diagram: Greg McInerny and Stefanie Posavec

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