Technoscience / Ecomateriality / Literature

Partnered Critique -Pooja and David(Edited)

September 21st, 2014 | Posted by Pooja Mehta in Uncategorized

On the Origin of Species: The Preservation of Favoured Traces is a digital humanities project by Ben Fry on the evolution of Darwin’s famous On the Origin of Species. It begins with three introductory written paragraphs which clarify the purpose of the project, give a couple of examples of significant changes in Darwin’s work across its six editions, and give credit to the sources, tools, and motivations behind the project, respectively. Under these three paragraphs lies the main media element in the project: a hyper minimized copy of Darwin’s work which can undergo a time lapse at two different rates which demonstrates the changes in Darwin’s work across its six different editions by color coding these changes.


The core conceptual content of Ben Fry’s project is that Darwin’s seminal work on evolution itself evolved in a substantial way throughout its six different editions. When we evaluate this thesis, however, we see that the thesis is not a contestable one, although it is both defensible and substantive (Galey 1). It fails to be contestable for the simple reason that anyone who is aware that Darwin’s Origin of Species went through six editions will recognize that it did go through such an evolution.  This failure could have easily been remedied in a number of ways. Rather than simply presenting the data about how the book transformed, for example, Ben Fry could have analyzed this data. We get a very small dose of analysis in the second introductory paragraph when he points to the addition of “by the Creator” in the second edition of Darwin’s text and when he points out that the phrase “survival of the fittest”, inspired by a British philosopher, only appeared in the fifth edition of the text. Continuing this line of thought, it would be a natural extension of Fry’s work if he addressed which changes in Darwin’s work were merely matters of detail and which changes were significant conceptual changes. Another question that Fry could have analyzed is the immediate one that any user has after interacting with this project: what happened to section VII during the sixth edition? In the time lapse, it is clear that the entire content of the section is original to the sixth edition, so it is a natural question to wonder to what extent this change influenced the main conceptual core behind the Origin of Species.  Another crutch the project has is that it only really relies on one source, Dr. John van Wyhe’s The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. Additionally, it does not incorporate data from other digital humanities projects, and it suffers from a lack of links or annotations. The last hyperlink in the third introductory paragraph, which is found in the sentence “More about the project can be found here”, does, however, provide some interesting autobiographical motivation for doing this project. In it, he says that after completing the project, he came to a greater appreciation of Darwin’s original ideas and discovered that they were not in fact stolen from some of his contemporaries. Again, the reasons he came to this conclusion would have been an excellent piece to analyze.

The format and design that Fry used for his project is also somewhat of a mixed bag. As a positive, Ben Fry succeeded in making his thesis “experiential” by both color coding changes based on the edition as well as letting the user experience these changes through a time lapse that has the option of going at two different rates. Furthermore, these media elements were not at all used gratuitously, but they all have explicit connections to the conceptual core of his project. Additionally, the format and design were essentially digital; the time lapse for example could not have been done on a piece of paper. However, these positives are not unaccompanied by limitations. Users of this project will find it very inconvenient to identify what the edits actually are. The project does let one zoom in on a couple lines at a time by scrolling over the text, however it would be much more usable if the project let a user zoom in to individual chapters or paragraphs and see the edits in a more contextualized setting, rather than just zooming in on one line at a time. Changing this one thing could potentially have vastly expanded the audience of the project.

The academic integrity of the project is hurt by the fact that it only really had one source, and it also did not have any collaborators. He did succeed, however, in document his intentions for the creation of the project in the concluding hyperlink: he began the project to understand to what extent Darwin stole ideas from his contemporaries. The project is linked to by other websites occasionally, but only for the purpose of directing the audience to it rather than using it or analyzing it in any depth (see here and here). The work does not seem to use expert consultations, and it is not peer reviewed.

After looking through the criteria for a multimedia project, and applying the sets of questions given by Shannon Mattern, we would argue that this is not a multimedia project–it is a media project at best, and a glorified e-text at worst. That is not to say it is not a good project. According to Fry, “We often think of scientific ideas, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, as fixed notations that are accepted as finished. In fact, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species evolved over the course of several editions he wrote,” and this project strives to show the evolution of the idea of evolution. He does a good job of demonstrating this through the use of processor, but that, along with the original text, is the only media he used. While it does repurpose the text by putting all six editions together and allow us to see the differences that a hard copy simply could not, we would argue that Fry left out a lot of things that could have been done with the project. For example, instead of just showing us the changes, embedding tags into the project that offer explanations or hypotheses for certain changes would make it much more informative and take advantage of the fact that this project has the entire knowledge of the internet available to it.  This would also give more credit to the format of the project. As it stands now, while it is cool to watch the text change and grow, printing out the final result would cause no loss in information. If there were tags and other external resources embedded directly into the project, keeping it in a multimedia format would be necessary. But, after looking at some of Fry’s other projects it seems to us that most of his work is done with the intent of being displayed in print. So this project does do what Fry wanted, but it does not qualify as a multimedia project.

Mattern, Shannon C. “Evaluating Multimodal Work, Revisited.” » Journal of Digital Humanities. Journal of Digital Humanities, 1 Sept. 2012. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Fry, Ben. “Projects.” Projects | Ben Fry. Ben Fry, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Fry, Ben. “On the Origin of Species: The Preservation of Favoured Traces.” On The Origin of Species. Ben Fry, 2009. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Galey, Alan. “Literary and Linguistic Computing.” How a Prototype Argues. Oxford Journals, 27 Oct. 2010. Web. 21 Sept. 2014


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