A new guide to The Origin

March 10, 2010 • 7:23 am

There’s a spate of books out for Darwin Year (including mine!), but you may be asking yourself, “Should I bite the bullet and read On the Origin of Species” itself?  The answer, of course, is YES.  This is the one scientific book that you must have read if you consider yourself at all educated.  Yes, sometimes it’s hard going, even for an evolutionary biologist (the chapter on “hybridism” is a toughie), and yes, the Victorian prose is sometimes ponderous to modern ears.  But all is trumped by the sheer power and beauty of Darwin’s arguments.  And sometimes the prose is lovely: a famous example is the last paragraph.  The metaphor of the tangled bank, and the phrases “this view of life” and “endless forms most beautiful” have been coopted in the titles of innumerable books and articles by biologists (and should now be gracefully retired):

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed 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

There are guides to help you not only appreciate what Darwin is saying, but also to put his contributions in the context of modern evolutionary biology.  If I were teaching a seminar on The Origin to biology students—something I may well do next year—I would use two books.  I’ve already mentioned the first in an earlier post: The Annotated Origin by James Costa, a facsimile of Darwin’s first edition, garnished with copious marginal notes and explanations.  You can download some sample pages at the book’s website.

The second would be a book that was published last September, and has just landed in my mailbox: The Origin Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the Origin of Species, by David Reznick of the University of California, Riverside.  This 432-page book, published by Princeton University Press, takes The Origin chapter by chapter, explaining what Darwin is saying (interpreting it in light of modern biology) and discussing how Darwin’s ideas have fared since 1859.

Reznick’s chapters have a one-to-one correspondence with those of The Origin, and are divided into three broad sections: natural selection, speciation, and theory.  At the end of each section Reznick contributes an essay on the relationship of Darwin’s ideas to modern work on evolution (for example, the recent discovery of incipient species of mosquito living in the London Undergound).

With these two books under your belt, you’ll know more about The Origin than do many biologists. It’s surprising, actually, how many evolutionary biologists have never read the book.

Darwin’s “theory” of evolution is one of humanity’s supreme achievements, for it tells the true story of our origins, and by “our” I mean all living species. We are the only species that has figured out where we came from.  You owe it to yourself to read The Origin.

28 thoughts on “A new guide to The Origin

  1. This type of annotated guide to the Origin is exactly what I’ve been looking for. Thanks Jerry!

    “It’s surprising, actually, how many evolutionary biologists have never read the book.”

    Its also amazing how many Christians have never actually read the Bible. Indeed, it was a major factor in my de-conversion!

  2. Coyne: “This is the one scientific book that you must have read if you consider yourself at all educated.”

    Wouldn’t it be a better investment of time to digest a modern edition textbook? (e.g., “Evolution” Nicholas H. Barton, Derek E. G. Briggs, Jonathan A. Eisen, and David B. Goldstein).

    1. No, not at all. Those textbooks, while good (I’d particularly recommend “Evolution” by Doug Futuyma), don’t give you the flavor of the revolution in human thought wrought by Darwin, or the evidence he used to change humanity’s view of itself. But if you read Costa’s edition of The Origin in concert with Reznick’s book, you’ll learn a lot of modern evolutionary biology as well.

      1. don’t give you the flavor of the revolution in human thought wrought by Darwin

        You should be clear then that you are recommending the book on historical grounds, not on scientific grounds.

        1. Now I see that when Coyne said “if you consider yourself educated” he was talking about developing a historical perspective to fuller appreciate modern evolutionary biology.

          I’m not endorsing this, but I’m certain you could with minimal scandal still be considered an expert in the field and do good science without reading any original Darwin.

          1. If that is the case, I would instead vote for Feynman’s lectures as the must for an educated reader.

            I haven’t read them [:-o], but they are claimed to be a lucid review of physics which surpass others and show the subject in new light, so that there are tidbits even for experts.

    2. If English is your first language then reading Darwin will show you how well some expressed themselves that long ago.
      Another to read is Robert Green Ingersoll, both for language and argumentation.

  3. How about Steve Jones’ “Almost Like a Whale: ‘The Origin of Species’, Updated”?

    It also explains many of the main themes from Origin in a modern context, but IIRC it only takes a few favourite bits from each chapter.

    1. Yes, that’s a good book. But I was talking about how to read The Origin itself, and the two books I recommended are directed to that end. I’d recommend reading Jones after these. As you noted, ALAW is structured only very loosely on The Origin.

      1. Very sensible Dr Coyne-I mean it- a path to better-informed that is-understanding: read the original, and of course as you suggest some later work, like the famous WEIT:-). Your blog brought me back to re-read originals many times over, and also new work. However, I find that evolutionary science is not complete until we know how life emerged. Mr Darwin solved this differently,if he did. In this, we share misery with physicists that are in really bad shape, in terms of fractured knowledge. In a different note, people from countries that CD visited-Chile-are especially aware of his work, Having been born in Chile myself I have fond memories of my first readings of his work (especially Cirripedia, we dissected them). In this dire days for my first country, I find solace reading your posts, ranting and raving. It has been kinda of an “intellectual stimulus package” to shake the burden of grief. Thank you, and to some of the characters that populate this space. Notable.

  4. I have your book and a number of editions of On The Origins, which has helped me understand the beginnings of a great theory. I hope to meet one of the authors who defend Evolution, Richard Dawkins in Melbourne Australia this week if he stays long enough after his talk at the Global Atheist Convention, your defence was first class and I recommend to anyone who is curious about the “just a theory” argument.

  5. My homeschooler read On the Origin of Species in 7th grade: he asked for it as a Christmas gift. He enjoyed it, understood it, and spent weeks quoting bits of it to me.

    For 8th grade he read, among other things, Your Inner Fish.

    For 9th grade he will be reading, along with a more convential high school biology program, Tangled Bank and WEIT 🙂

  6. I’m one of those evolutionary biologists who hasn’t read The Origin. I’ve tried a couple of times, but slogging through the Victorian prose has always been too much. Various girlfriends over the years have tried to get me to read other Victorian novels (I’ll never really understand why people like the Bronte sisters), with no luck. Just can’t do it.

    But I don’t feel like I’ve missed out. I know all of the ideas in the book, of course, and I’m just not convinced that reading pretty prose for the sake of reading pretty prose is really all that worthwhile of a pursuit. I read On Growth And Form because everybody said it was so beautifully written, and it wasn’t terrible or anything, but it didn’t rock my world.

    The Origin is one of those books I keep around, thinking I’ll read it, and I never do. At some point, I suppose I’ll probably just take it to the beach or on a camping trip or whatever and get through it. But there’s just something about it that I can’t do.

    1. “I’m one of those evolutionary biologists who hasn’t read The Origin. I’ve tried a couple of times, but slogging through the Victorian prose has always been too much.”

      Audible has an excellent audiobook version read by Richard Dawkins. You might find this more accessible

  7. Odd you post this now, because I’ve been reading “The Origin of Species” for the last couple weeks, and have been really enjoying it. I was perusing the book store and ran across it and thought to myself….I’ve read all these books about evolution, but never read the original. Whats up with that?

    I have really enjoyed it too. It gives great insight to what was known and what was not known at the time….what they were working with and what the common understandings of things were before the theory of evolution became so widely accepted. Really fascinating to think how close they were in so many ways, and so absurdly off the mark they were in other ways.

    I especially like the sections about geology…..they are far away from discovering plate tectonics, and Darwin wrestles with the evidence in a very befuddled way without having that very crucial understanding to help explain the bizarre spread of fossils and living organisms. Its a bit saddening that he didn’t live long enough to get to see that revolution of thinking. I have no doubt he would have said “why, of course! That explains everything!” when he heard it.

    Honestly, I’m glad I started reading it AFTER reading so many books on evolution. It helps me truly appreciate what Darwin was working with at the time and how revolutionary and out-of-the-box his thinking was, given the evidence he was working with and the common beliefs at the time.

    1. That’s why there are public libraries. I read 40-50 books a year, most from the library. If a book is special or I want it at publishing time I buy it, otherwise I borrow. I also buy books I rate high upon reading to read again or loan out.

  8. On the Origin of Species isn’t that hard to follow on its own.

    I thought the chapter on Hybridism was fine (I found one of the earlier chapters heavier going than that one).

    What I find interesting is how much he got nearly right, even with so much he didn’t know about.

  9. I first read Origin decades ago and I reread it every now and again for the sheer enjoyment of it. It’s beautifully written and meticulously argued. I love it. I read lots of the other ones too but it’s very easy to find yourself reading the same stuff over and over which gets a bit tedious. If I have to read one more description of how genes work I’m gonna scream! Nowadays I try to be sure there’s something new which I haven’t read before.
    Most recently read “Life Ascending, the Ten Great Inventions of Evolution” by Nick Lane. I recommend it. Lots of good stuff though it got a bit dull towards the end. The description of the evolution of the eye was very interesting and also the first ever cell. (Sorry Karen ;))

  10. I have read On The Origin Of Species twice and enjoyed it very much. Thanks for the heads up on The Annotated Origin by James Costa I ordered a copy and can’t wait to read and learn more from the modern updates next to the original.

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