From time to time on BitesizeBio you will find people writing about books that have influenced how they think about science. It seems only fitting, then, to have a review of the book that launched the idea at the root of all modern biology into the popular consciousness. The first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection was published in 1859. Remarkably for such an influential tome, it was written for the general public, and is readily available today for download or as a paperback. Perhaps even more remarkably, it’s actually reasonably readable today (despite Darwin’s reported concerns about his own writing). Certainly it’s not considerably harder to read than The Selfish Gene, and I finished it much more quickly than I did A Brief History of Time (even though I skipped all the equations). That said, constant referrals to the handy Glossary are necessary, as the gentleman naturalist seemed to assume the Victorian reader had a dictionary of taxonomy at his fingertips, and not everyone instantly knows what cirripedes are.
Filling in the gaps
Popular knowledge of Darwin’s life generally centres around two events: the voyage of the Beagle from 1831 to 1836, and the publication of the theory of natural selection in 1858. Reading The Origin (published a year after Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace’s papers on natural selection were first presented) goes some way to filling in the gaps in Darwin’s thinking in the intervening 20-odd years. When introducing the concept of natural selection, Darwin does not initially draw on the round-the-world voyage that established him as a scientific celebrity. His opening chapter on Variation under Domestication reveals the painstaking research on domestic breeds (notably pigeons) that took up part of the intervening years. It becomes increasingly clear throughout the book that the base of evidence Darwin had built to support his theory of evolution by natural selection (of which The Origin was only intended to be an abstract) is a complex synthesis of zoological and geological information collected from around the world, and careful experiments done at Darwin’s own home.
While reading The Origin today, you perhaps do not get a feeling for how controversial it would have been. Certainly the central idea of evolution by natural selection remains essentially unchanged since the first edition. The first few chapters, which set the scene and then introduce the concept of natural selection, might not seem entirely out of place in a modern popular science book, at least in terms of content. The revolutionary nature of the concept of evolution by natural selection is only later in the book, when it becomes clear that at the time, there was no known mechanism for the inheritance of the characteristics that selection acts upon. Remarkably, this gap in the story only gets filled with the birth of modern genetics in the early 20th century.
The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection (along with some of Darwin’s other published works, letters and illustrations) is available at: http://darwin-online.org.uk/. If you prefer to own the book, the first edition is published in Penguin paperback (among others).
Title: The Origin of Species
Author: Charles Darwin