There are two parts to this question:

  1. Is "A beginning so simple" structurally (grammatically) correct?
  2. If the above is correct, does it have the same meaning?

closed as off-topic by TrevorD, JJJ, Chappo, Neeku, Mari-Lou A Apr 23 at 17:08

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  • We cannot answer whether it is "structurally (grammatically) correct" without more context. We need at least a sentence containing the expression before even understanding your question. – TrevorD Apr 7 at 14:06
  • It was just a debate i had with someone over charles darwin’s book “so simple a beginning”. So it wasn’t actually in a sentence – jaafar Nasrallah Apr 7 at 14:08
  • Well, you could have said that it's a book title! Book titles do not have to be "structurally (grammatically) correct", so your Q. is irrelevant. – TrevorD Apr 7 at 14:10
  • Oh... thanks for telling me. I’ll wait two days and then delete this Q. – jaafar Nasrallah Apr 7 at 14:14
  • 1
    Now that someone has taken the time & effort of writing a long & detailed response, maybe you should NOT delete the Q, but leave it to fate! – TrevorD Apr 7 at 16:16

I assume you are referring to a famous citation of Charles Darwin, here in full:

There is grandeur in this view of life | with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved. — Charles Darwin, Origin of the Species, New York, 1896, 305f.

Whether Darwin had chosen instead to have written a beginning so simple rather than placing the adjective in the normal position is of little importance if the clause is parsed correctly. Both are grammatical constructions and both can mean the same thing, but the adjective after the noun could more easily lead to false readings than the normal order.

Note that Darwin puts most beautiful and most wonderful after endless forms because a five-element adjective phrase is unwieldy stylistically. There is no change in meaning.

In the Oxford Dictionary of Medical Quotations (2004) for instance, Peter McDonald truncates the citation and adds a relative pronoun that completely alters the sense:

Life was originally from so simple a beginning (that) endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.

The interpolated relative pronoun suggests that the simple beginning by necessity somehow engendered the complexity and beauty of the “endless forms,” but that is not what Darwin wrote. There is no omitted relative pronoun. Instead, fiddle about with a well-known proverb, and you get the identical structure and a similar message:

From tiny acorns mighty oaks are grown.

From so simple a beginning endless forms are evolved.

Now how you wish to deal with the breath of the Creator as First Cause is metaphysics, not grammar, but in this sentence, Darwin is marvelling at the richness and variety of life, not drawing fixed lines of cause and effect, especially in constrast to the relative immutability of the Earth’s orbit about the Sun.

A late 19th Christian critic of both Darwin and Herbert Spencer writes about the latter:

Beginning with the simplest possible conception of matter and force, he [Spencer] tries to show that all things will evolve in necessary order from a beginning so simple that, | though not absolutely nothing, it is next to nothing. — George Fredrick Wright, Scientific Aspects of Christian Evidences, New York, 1898.

In this sentence, the word order beginning so simple that — with the relative pronoun expressed in the original — unabiguously sets up the “nowhere but up” argument Darwin wasn’t making. In fact, had Darwin contemplated this word order, he may have discarded it as too liable to misinterpretations like McDonald’s.

Relying heavily on the cited passage from Origins, a few sentences later, Wright constrasts Spencer’s methodology with Darwin’s:

Darwin, on the other hand, taking organic Nature as he finds it, attempts by experiment and observation and reasonable inference from effects to causes to learn the actual course of development. By assuming continuity in the past, he endeavours to see how far back by study of the marks still remaining the development can be traced. For the initiation of the forces whose effects in the marvellous phenomena of plant and animal life are unfolded before us, Darwin has no explanation other than that of the theologian, but assumes that in the beginning the Creator breathed into the original elements all the powers and potentialities which have since appeared. — loc. cit.

A Christian writer is naturally going to highlight allusions to the spirit/breath of God moving over the waters or God breathing life into Adam, but not excessively more than Darwin himself. What we can tell from this assessment of Darwin, however, is that Wright is not inserting a relative pronoun where none was intended.

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