Thanks to a reader: Seed interviewed Ben Fry, maker of a new software tool that visualizes the changes through six editions of The Origin of Species.
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.
He later makes some points about "quantitative" history -- using statistical analyses of texts to support historical research. The "tracing ideas" game is very much like studying lateral gene transfer; people have been doing it to Shakespeare and his sources for a long time. Only the really big names (Darwin included) have projects to digitize and study their correspondence; countless letters and texts have been lost from others. So there's room for the development of clever algorithms to find subtle similarities that might substantiate stories about influence and ideas.