Tuesday, May 2, 2017
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
A must-read for any lover of science and nature
Charles Darwin’s scientific treatise, On the Origin of Species, originally published in 1859, is clearly one of the most important books ever published in terms of its influence on science, history, and human thought. As is often pointed out, Darwin didn’t invent the concept of evolution; the idea had been around since ancient times. With On the Origin of Species, however, Darwin put forward his theory of natural selection which explained, for the first time in defendable detail, the mechanism by which species adapt and evolve over time. The following review refers to the sixth edition of 1872, which is often considered the definitive edition. It contains numerous revisions by Darwin as well as his responses to critics of his theory.
The scientific importance of On the Origin of Species is unquestionable, but how does it hold up as a reading experience? The answer is surprisingly very well. Though the scientific concepts Darwin discusses are complex, with the exception of the Latin names of animals and plants there is nothing arcane or obscure about the vocabulary with which he expresses these ideas. One doesn’t need a PhD in biology to understand this book, only an interest in and a love of nature. Darwin’s logically structured argument is easy to follow and admirable for its ingenuity. While he delves into some very technical research, he also occasionally adds an analogy or metaphor that gives an almost literary flourish to the text, like when he compares the tree of life to a genealogy of human languages or the existence of rudimentary organs to the retention of silent letters in the spelling of words. It is a joy to follow Darwin on his intellectual journey as he constructs the path of his argument.
On the Origin of Species is more accessible and engaging than Darwin’s previous well-known work The Voyage of the Beagle, which, despite its elements of adventure memoir was primarily a collection of empirical data. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin combines meticulous observation of nature with theoretical genius. While reading the text, one can’t help but marvel at his encyclopedic knowledge. In addition to having traveled the world observing natural phenomena, he clearly read nearly every work of natural science available to a 19th-century Englishman. He also conducted in-depth research of his own into specific branches of the animal and plant kingdoms. The reader gets a vicarious sense of the thrill of discovery as Darwin relates the results of his experiments, such as counting the seeds in a teaspoon of dirt taken from a duck’s foot, or calculating the length of time seeds of various plants can float in seawater before they lose the ability to germinate.
As many are quick to point out, Darwin didn’t get everything right. While he established natural selection as the means by which evolution is achieved, he didn’t have the necessary knowledge to explain the mechanisms that drove natural selection. DNA had not yet been discovered, even Gregor Mendel’s experiments in genetics were largely unknown, and the idea of mutation didn’t materialize until the early 20th century. Rather than lessening the value of his work, however, this makes Darwin’s achievement all the more remarkable. Given the imperfections in the scientific knowledge at his disposal, not to mention the limitations on travel and scholarly communication, the fact that Darwin was able to conceptualize and clarify the complex forces that govern all life on Earth is just staggering. This is the book that truly defines the phrase “a work of genius.” Today we take the theory of evolution for granted, and we all think we know how it works, but there is still much to be learned from reading the original definitive masterwork on the subject.
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