Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On the Origin of Species

Yesterday (Nov. 24, 2008) marked the 149th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Ms. Sandwalk just bought me an illustrated edition by David Quammen and I highly recommend it. The text is from the first edition of Darwin's work and the illustrations cover a wide range of topics including copies of Darwin's letters and letters from his friends. This is an excellent way to get people interested in one of the most important books ever published.

I was prompted to re-read Origin and I discovered some things I had long forgotten. Most importantly, the style of Darwin's writing is impressive. He takes the time to argue his point by highlighting the most relevant objections to his ideas. While we all recognize that this is the appropriate style for a scientific work, we also recognize (unfortunately) that it may be a lost art. There are too many papers these days that ignore anything that weakens one's case.
In the four succeeding chapters, the most important and gravest difficulties on the theory will be given: namely, first, the difficulties of transitions, or in understanding how a simple being or a simple organ can be changed and perfected into a highly developed being or elaborately constructed organ; secondly, the subject of Instinct, or the mental powers of animals; thirdly, Hybridism, or the infertility of species and the fertility of varieties when intercrossed; and fourthly, the imperfection of the Geological Record.
The second thing I re-discovered is the clarity and forcefulness of Darwin's writing, given the style of the Victorian era. Also his foresight and originality.
Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained—namely, that each species has been independently created—is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable, but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification.
Thomas H. Huxley read an advance copy of On the Origin of Species and sent a letter to Darwin, which he received on the day before the book went public. Huxley knew what was coming ...
I trust you will not allow yourself to be in any way disgusted or annoyed by the considerable abuse and misrepresentation which, unless I greatly mistake, is in store for you. Depend upon it you have earned the lasting gratitude of all thoughtful men. And as to the curs which will bark and yelp, you must recollect that some of your friends, at any rate, are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead.

I am sharpening my claws and beak in readiness.
The letter is published in the illustrated edition by David Quammen.


  1. check outa very interesting option on my blog:what is life?all depends on the observer

  2. Costco presently have this book, 40% less than the Chapter price.

  3. I trust you will not allow yourself to be in any way disgusted or annoyed by the considerable abuse and misrepresentation which, unless I greatly mistake, is in store for you.

    "and which will continue long after you and I are gone."

    On a lighter note, I enjoy the purported comment of a society dowager on the relationship between man and ape - "My dear, let us hope that it is not true. But if it is true, let us hope that it does not become widely known."

    I don't want to look it up for fear that I'd find it's only an urban legend ...

  4. I found a great post about Darwin on Peterman's Eye today. Thought I'd share...



  5. " . . . the curs which will bark and yelp . . ."

    Did Huxley have a crystal ball? Did he foresee the state school boards in Kansas and Texas?

    One rather senses that Huxley had felt the bite of Darwin's criticism. How refreshing to see, once again, one scientist say to another that, despite past differences, the one had found something important and grand, and that the other would defend those findings, despite the past differences.

    The proof is on the lab bench, or in the field.

    Thanks for the bug. The book is wonderfully written, a great read for anyone interesting in life and nature. I gotta read it again.

  6. The problem with the book is that it is very long-winded and written in quite a dry style, and so is hard to read without nodding off.

    I therefore recommend starting with the squashed version:


  7. If you want a decidedly different approach to the celebrating the majesty of Darwin's prose, try the Origin of Species in Dub

    If you want something more conventional, try the Penguin synopsis:

    Or buy Dawkins audiobook version, with Dawkins reading Darwin (available also on iTunes):

    Mark Pallen
    Rough Guide to Evolution