Happy Darwin Day!

February 12, 2012 • 5:45 am

203 years ago today, Charles Darwin was born in a manger in Shrewsbury, England, the son of a wealthy doctor and an heiress from the Wedgwood china firm.   Although he’s most famous for On the Origin of Species—and let’s recall the full title, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life—Darwin wrote about a dozen other books, covering subjects as diverse as earthworms, orchids, climbing plants, sexual selection, and, of course, the evolution of humans and our emotions.

The man was a polymath, and did all this despite a debilitating illness whose nature is still unidentified.  It didn’t hurt, though, that he was independently wealthy, for his wife Emma was also a Wedgwood heiress (she was his first cousin, a union that was and is legal in the UK but is considered incest in some American states.)

Darwin at 51, the year after he published The Origin

I reread The Origin about once a year (only the first edition, which gives the full flavor of its revolutionary ideas), and still consider it the best science book ever written. My ranking is not based on its prose, which in some places is lovely (Voyage of the Beagle is better), but on its lucidity and, above all, its marvelous synthesis of diverse and previously unexplained observations about nature into a coherent hypothesis of evolution, as well as the proposal of a novel mechanism (natural selection) to explain adaptive evolution. It’s a work of sheer genius.  Here’s my dog-eared copy, which is about to give up the ghost:

And some of the notes I’ve made over the years, showing how Darwin anticipated modern evolutionary ideas, including punctuated equilibrium and kin selection:

I’ve always been surprised at how few biologists—even evolutionary biologists—have read The Origin, but I’m sympathetic, for it’s not a light read and some find the Victorian prose off-putting. I used to require it for my undergraduate class, but the students objected so vehemently that it’s no longer on the syllabus (mea culpa).

So here’s my question for readers, and answer it honestly:

Have you read The Origin in its entirety? If not, why not? If so, did it have a big impact on you?

By way of tribute, let’s revisit the famous last paragraph, which by now is so familiar that it’s almost trite.  But it’s still lovely and full of interesting bits, including the comparison of the law of gravity with an implicit “law” of natural selection, the idea of the “higher animals” as the most exalted production of nature, the suggestion that the first organism had life “breathed into it” (scholars have, of course, debated whether this was a suggestion about God), and the only use of the word “evolve” in the entire book!

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.

Of course Darwin wasn’t always correct (he got the mechanism of inheritance wrong, for instance): he was a man, not a god. And evolutionary theory has moved on far beyond Darwin. But he got it right where it counted, and what I see as the five parts of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, all appearing in The Origin, remain parts of modern evolutionary biology, sometimes called “neo-Darwinism”:

  • The idea of evolution itself: the transformation of populations
  • The idea that evolution was gradual rather than instantaneous, involving the replacement of types in populations through differential reproduction rather than through change of the individuals themselves
  • The idea that all species have common ancestors, however dissimilar they are
  • The idea of a branching tree of life, whereby one original species gave rise to all of life’s diversity today (this is simply the flip side of common ancestry)
  • The idea that adaptive evolution is the result of a blind, and mindless process: natural selection, which accounts for the appearance of “design” that was previously imputed to the wisdom of God.

And since this website is about atheism and science, let’s remember that natural selection was the greatest God-killing idea of all time.  As Richard Dawkins has said, and rightly so, Darwin (and especially natural selection) made it intellectually respectable to be an atheist.

FREEBIE UPDATE:  Alert reader Chris notes that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is offering free downloads of some of its evolution books for Darwin Day. This offer, here, is apparently only valid for today.

165 thoughts on “Happy Darwin Day!

    1. Oh, as to why not, I guess just because there are others in the queue before it.

      Yeah, evolution is a pretty good god killer, especially for Christianity. No Adam and Eve means no original sin for the god-man to be nailed up for.

  1. I read it back early in grad school and found it gruelling (the first couple of chapters on pigeons, especially); now I read it with pleasure and always find new lessons. I get my 1st yr undergrads to read the 1st ed “Recapitulation” final chapter and they sort of like it, especially once I explain some of the most significant passages. They tend to like it more than CH3-4 (biomorphs) from Dawkins’s “Blind Watchmaker,” read during the same week.

  2. I read it and found it inspiring. So often Darwin says something like “if x is found not to be true my theory will fall” – beautiful

  3. Yes, I’ve read the Origin, most of it twice, some of it three times. It is my belief that Darwin is a great prose stylist. Victorian prose or not, it is a work of literature as well as of science.

    Reading it transformed my life. It was the first step on my way out of Christianity. I was prodded into reading it by a leaflet circulated by a local fundamentalist church, and by the time I had finished reading it, I wanted to learn more, because it was clear to me — and I can’t think why it isn’t obvious to others — that it makes belief in a god or gods exceedingly problematic. Since the heart of evolution is the ruthless weeding out of the unfit, the evolution of sentient life forms depends upon mountainous amounts of suffering. However elegant as a scientific theory, it is hard to think of a more wasteful and cruel method of creation. It also means that human beings are continuous with the rest of life, and cannot, as religion — especially monotheistic religion — seems to require, be a unique and special creation for whose sake the dizzying variety of life forms came to be. This raises questions about the moral relationship of humans and other animals that have not been (and still are not to a great degree) the focus of moral concern.

    One of the most noticeable things about the book is the number of times that Darwin tells us what would falsify his theory. This alone makes it a unique work of science, because it carries its credentials on every page. It is a great pity that you have removed it from the curriculum, and I simply cannot understand why your students would complain about being required to read it. It is one of the most accessible of scientific classics, and anyone interested in science or the philosophy of science must read it. I wish someone had handed it to me when I was in my teens.

    The really tough parts of the book (for me) are the places where Darwin gives detailed accounts of geology. While interesting in places, and no doubt important in detail, breezing over these parts quickly does not detract either from the enjoyment of reading Darwin, nor from understanding the main structure of his argument.

  4. I have read it and I did find it hard work in places. It didn’t make too big an impression on me because I had already read lots of more modern books on evolution.

    I have also visited Downs House which is now an English Heritage site. To actually see the places where the great man did his studies was a pretty awsome experience.

  5. I wouldn’t presume to instruct Jerry, but no undergraduate should take a biology course and not read the Origin of Species. It is not in fact a hard book and may be the most approachable of all the great books of science. Its language is lucid and forceful and its length unburdensome. It tells the meaning of life in simple language. It is one of the few books every person should have to read, period.

    1. Reminds me of how my English Literature Professor would admonish the class that Shakespeare was written in modern English, and though difficult at times, is certainly not in some foreign language. And he actually had to make that argument, because many students gave him such grief. Don’t dumb it down. Shakespeare. Shakespeare! What the hell is wrong with you? Read it!

  6. I had the pleasure of having The Origin of Species read to me by Richard Dawkins 😉

    It’s completely accessible even to non-scientists like me.

    Of course, it has to be followed by books such as The Greatest Show on Earth or The Ancestor’s Tale, and/ or Why Evolution is True.

    1. Thank you Grania. Without your saying that, I would have been too bashful to plug my (abridged) audio recording: http://www.audible.com/pd?asin=B0036GPK9G

      Actually I’m still pretty embarrassed. But I don’t mind saying that I made a real effort to study every sentence in order to get the emphasis right, to make the meaning clear. I made no attempt to play the part of a Victorian gentleman (as an actor might have done, had he been employed to read the book). My aim was to render into the spoken word Darwin’s scientific genius. Righty or wrongly, my abridgement cuts those parts (mostly genetics) where Darwin has turned out to be simply wrong. This means that my version will not be of so much interest to historians of science (a historian wants to study what a scientist got wrong as well as what he got right). But it is astonishing how much Darwin did get right, and how farsighted he was. To paraphrase Michael Ghiselin, Darwin in many ways was working a century or more ahead of his time.

      1. The bottom line for historians of science is just getting the record straight. Having read W. J. Dempster’s book on Patrick Matthew, Richard Dawkins is aware that in 1860 Darwin publicly apologised to Matthew for not having recognized that Matthew had spelled out natural selection – what he had called “the natural process of selection” – in 1831. The high importance of natural selection, and Darwin’s major role in developing the idea, were recognized by George Romanes, William Bateson, and many others. Romanes and Bateson also pointed to other aspects that were recognized neither by their peers, nor by some modern evolutionists, who, not being historians, tend to cherry-pick quotations that suit their rhetorical purposes. However important those purposes – combatting creationism for example – we must be careful not to throw the historical baby out with the rhetorical bathwater. For Matthew may I bashfully recommend:

    2. By pure coincidence, I have just finished reading The Ancestor’s Tale an hour ago. I must say, there is grandeur in this view of life, indeed! Beautiful.

  7. Yes, I have. I did so out of curiosity, and so I could argue better with theists: “Sure I’ve read the Bible, have you read Origin?” In addition to Gordon @ #3’s observation, I like how close he was to many ideas that have subsequently been proved correct. I don’t believe that he was aware of Mendel’s work, for example, and certainly not DNA or how the continents moved about, but he imagined those mechanisms fairly correctly, or at least knew that something like that must happen.

    I have also read Voyage of the Beagle cover to cover, and, while not the ripping yarn that I had hoped it would be, it does show the interdisciplinary dependence of being a Naturalist at the time. Botany, Geology, etc, all being vital to putting the pieces together. I enjoy seeing his thought processes as he was just beginning to formulate his life’s work. I’m also part way through Descent of Man, but it has been shelved for a while in favor of lighter fare.

  8. Yes, I’ve read the whole book. I was impressed with the logical case he laid out for evolution near the beginning, which he summarized again in the passage you quoted. Even absent of all the evidence, that leaves deniers with the task of explaining why evolution wouldnt happen. I was also struck by learning that varieties, races, species, genera, etc are differences of degree, not essence. I didnt realize that before reading the book.
    I found a downloadable copy of the book years ago, and still have it on my hard drive today.

    On a separate note, Jerry, I’m sure you seen this?


  9. Read it several times, love the thinking and the slow, but devastating, collation of evidence to support it, and love the way he writes – ‘Slow but steady…’

    Also, have the same copy and like the way that the cover (Pompeii?) hints at Darwin’s updating of Aristotelian teleology (Aristotle was big on fish) and, by extension (and I know it’s not *quite* that simple a link), Thomist teleology.

  10. I am ashamed to admit that while I own both a physical and a Kindle edition, it seems perpetually on my “I should read this” list. For me, it is the 19th Century prose style that gets in the way.

    Nevertheless, On the Origin has had enormous indirect impact on my life which I absorbed through the works of more modern scientists. My own intellectual “blinding light” event was my 1976 reading of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene which is, of course, a lineal descendant of Origin.

    “One of these days I must read that book”, I say to myself again this morning.

    Happy Darwin Day, everyone!

    1. Perhaps it would be a good idea to brush up your 19C English by reading some Alice in Wonderland or Trollope first or perhaps Sherlock Holmes, and then get stuck into Origin. It is not actually difficult to read once you get in the swing of the language.

      1. I just need to do it. My pile if unread material never seems to diminish. But by this time next year, for sure, I will get back to it!

  11. Haven’t read it, yet. It’s quite high on my to-read list though. Why haven’t I read it yet? Not sure really, I suppose I just haven’t got round to it…

  12. One minor correction, it is Wedgwood with one ‘e’ not two. There are also Wedgewoods with two ‘e’s but they are not this branch of the family.

    I’m not sure which groups in England (or the US) at that time disapproved of first cousin marriages (the state laws I suspect are much later). The Quakers did and it was grounds for being kicked out of the membership. The Catholics did and do but a dispensation could be gotten (at one time several centuries before the restriction went as far as fifth cousins). The Anglicans did not (instead though a man wasn’t allowed to marry his brother’s widow or his dead wife’s sister).

    I’ve read Voyage but haven’t read Origin straight through.

  13. I read Steve Jones’ “Darwin’s Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated” first. It was so good I had to go back and read the original (i.e. Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”. That was so good I decided to go to university at the age of 27 and get myself one of them science degrees. Now I’m 31 and I’m finishing off my honours degree in Archaeology & Biology. Next year I plan to continue my studies doing my graduate degree studying Miocene ape evolution. I think it’s safe to say “On the Origin of Species” played, and continues to play, a large role in my life. Hooray for Chuck D!

  14. I read the “Origin” during my first year as an undergraduate, and I have never really stopped “reading” it since; always referring back to it as a point of reference in my work. No that it says much, since I’m still an undergraduate, but I see no reason for discontinuing the trend once I’ve moved away from this initial stage. At the moment I’m referring to four chapters of it for my dissertation. All dissertations in biology ought to do the same — but maybe that’s just my personal preference. 😉

    I have always enjoyed Victorian prose; it’s very fluid and I find sentences (and entire works!) are more artfully woven together in them, than in more contemporary writings. And, like everyone else, I find Darwin’s argument beautiful in its intricacies, and his humbleness comforting. The only problem I have with the book is Darwin’s references to his future, more exhaustive, work. It’s a pity is was never written; I’d have liked to read it!

  15. Only reason I haven’t read it in it’s entirety is because I started it shortly before heading off to Uni, and my copy is a very heavy special edition, so would take up a greedy amount of luggage allowance.

    I don’t find the victorian prose off-putting at all though! Think it’s brilliant, it’s so over-polite, almost like he’s apologising for being a genius 🙂

  16. As a PhD student in evolutionary ecology, I am embarrassed to admit that I have not read the Origin of Species. I have read some of Gould’s essays (e.g., The Panda’s Thumb) but because I do not own a copy of Origin, I just haven’t gotten around to it. But no more! I will read it ASAP.

    By the way, I would be quite happy if you checked out my own blog, Biolojoie de Vivre (http://biolojoie.wordpress.com/). I’m new to this, so any pointers help!

  17. I read it many times, beginning in high school when I first began questioning the existence of gods. Of course this book removed the last major stumbling block to rejection of gods.

    I also have read the variorum edition, and it is a bit sad to see that Darwin soon changed his beautiful last paragraph to be more religion-friendly. He regretted it; it is a bit like Einstein sticking his cosmological constant into his general relativity work (though in Einstein’s case, nowadays his “biggest blunder” may have found a new and interesting meaning after all).

    And a pilgrimage to Down House was as close to a religious experience as I will ever have. My friend and guide was the leader of the campaign to make Downe House a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This has not, apparently, succeeded yet. It certainly deserves such status.

  18. I started trying to read Origin on my phone, which was a disastrous idea. Not an ideal medium to begin with, and then combine that with the Victorian prose and it was just too slow of a slog to get anywhere.

    I’d like to try again with an actual physical copy sometime.

  19. I read it as part of the only course in my education degree I enjoyed, the Philosophy of Education. We were given an extensive list of books and we chose from the list what we would like to read and comment on. Among those I chose “The origin …”. This was about 16 years ago now; perhaps I should reread it. My impression is of an author of great courtesy and humility; the arguments presented clearly and with great evidence but without hubris. A model.

  20. I read the annotated Origin (James T. Costa) last summer after reading some post where you lamented how few scientists and biology students have read it. It was less a challenge than a glorious quest upon which I gladly embarked and feel the better for doing so. Thanks for the prodding!
    I’ve also read Voyage of the Beagle, and 3/4 of Descent of Man.

  21. I’ve read it. Every evolutionary biologist should, if only to get some perspective on the field and to appreciate how much of it Darwin either started or foreshadowed. But it didn’t change my life, probably because I’d already been infused with his major points from other sources.

    As for evolution making it possible to be an intellectually respectable atheist, I don’t see it. Why that more than any of the other natural phenomena for which “I had no need of that hypothesis”? And, perhaps more importantly, rather than the absence of any evidence in everyday life and the presence of much counterevidence, e.g. the problem of evil? Do physicists think that Newton made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist?

    1. Paley’s watchmaker argument persisted long after Newton’s and Laplace’s physics showed there was no need for god to meddle in cosmology. As long as there was anything that seemed to require a god, atheism would be difficult to defend. Darwin took away that last obstacle.

    2. Many enlightenment intellectuals were deists rather than atheists because of the apparence of design.

      Voltaire is one of the most famous example I can think of:
      “L’univers m’embarrasse, et je ne puis songer /Que cette horloge existe et n’ait point d’horloger”

      “The universe embarrasses me, and I cannot think that this watch exists without a watchmaker”.

      Darwin gave us not only an account of the rules followed by a complex system (like the solar system follows the rules of gravity) but also an account of how complexity itself can arise from simplicity, thus eviscerating the “complexity therefore design therefore god” argument that so many found to be a compelling reason to believe in god, even if just a deist one.

      You can see the importance of that contribution in the intelligent design movement as they are basically trying to undo what Darwin did by claiming that some systems are so complex that they couldn’t have come about by natural means, therefore design, therefore god.

      1. You have a historical argument, but is it a logical argument? History aside, it’s a sort of inverse god-of-the-gaps. God hides in gaps; eliminate gaps, eliminate god. And the origins of species was a big gap. On the other hand, there are still gaps in our knowledge and always will be, gaps big enough to drive a god through if you really wanted to. Why is this particular gap — the one filled by Darwin — special in a way that the gaps filled by, say, Newton’s law of universal gravitation, or the germ theory of disease, or the physical explanation of rainbows are not?

        The historical argument may have some force, but it’s always vulnerable to the correlation-causation problem. Maybe it was just time for atheism, given the increasing level of religious freedom, and evolution just happened to come along at the right time. Perhaps Newton would have been equally satisfying had the proper conditions occurred earlier.

  22. I read Origin in full. At the time, it didn’t make a huge impact on me. I was familiar with the idea of evolution and natural selection through other sources, so I didn’t learn much that was substantially new and different to me.

    As I’ve learned more about the historical context in which the book was written, I’ve come to appreciate it more and more.

    Incidentally, for those who want Darwin’s own explanation of his theory in a form that is shorter and more approachable for students, try the Introduction from The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication.

  23. Jerry,

    I’ve read it and enjoyed it. Loved the language. Once you’ve read Dickens, Shakespeare, Stoker, and even characters like Hume, you get to love the language.

    If anything, as a non-biologist, I’ve probably been more limited in what I can infer from it into modern evolution.

    It’s my jehovah’s witness challenge reference I use when they come calling and misquote it.

  24. I have read Origin, Descent of Man, and Voyage of the Beagle a couple of times beginning to end and have revisited portions from time to time.

    I have only read the other books of his I own once each (the orchids book and Expressions of Emotions).

    I actually like Descent of Man and Voyage of the Beagle best. And am right now revisiting the New South Wales portion of Voyage as I prepare for a trip to Oz.

    As an addendum, I will add that many of my grad school cohort also loathed reading Gould because they thought him to verbose for science reading. I actually rather adore flowery prose so I was fine with both Gould and Darwin.

  25. Read OoS 10+ years ago — a hard slog in a few places, to follow the argument, but fascinating to see both what Darwin got right and what he got wrong (eg. the underlying mechanisms of inheritance and variation). I should read it again, but there are lots of other books on the pile….

    Also read the Voyage, which I loved without qualification — it’s a science adventure story. We happened to visit Buenos Aires in early 2010, and there was still some Darwiniana on display at one museum, commemorating the fact that the great man spent, what? — about two years, total? in what is now Argentina, and made some significant discoveries there.

  26. I have read parts of the Origin, but I have read Elizabeth Gaskell’s _Wives and Daughters_ many times:

    “It’s been often pointed out that the character of Roger Hamley was modeled after Charles Darwin, a distant cousin of Elizabeth Gaskell’s. Like Darwin, Roger is a keen collector of insects.”

    There is more at http://tinyurl.com/y9zxjsy

    PS I draw your attention to the Darwin Correspondence Project at http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/charles-darwin-and-john-murray

    1. Not quite cousins, Elizabeth Gaskell’s mother’s brother’s wife was the daughter of Catherine Wedgwood sister of the first Josiah Wedgwood. So Elizabeth Gaskell’s first cousin, Henry Holland, was a second cousin of Charles Darwin.

      1. Dear Erp, I sense that you may be a genealogy expert. I am completing a PhD on Charles Darwin’s illness. Darwin had an A3243G mtDNA mutation, inherited from his mother Susannah. Susannah in turn inherited this from her mother, Sarah(Sally)née Wedgwood, married to Jos I.Sarah had three, possibly four affected children – Susannah, her brother Tom, and Mary Ann, who had fits, paralyses and episodic blindness (MELAS syndrome) and died aged 8. (Richard, a fourth child, died in infancy.) Do you have any information about Sarah’s mother, Susan Irlam (d.1760? Many thanks, JH

  27. Have tried reading Origin a few times, but could not finish it. I had already read The Selfish Gene and other books by Dawkins at that point.

  28. To me the great thing about Origins is the unique opportunity it gives to read an influential scientific work in its full glory. Most of science’s great publications are inaccessible to even the keenest layman. I found it a great, if challenging read. In addition to its scientific and historical interest, it provided me with a few laughs when I noted that Darwin predicted (and countered) many of the arguments against evolution that are still used by creationists today.

  29. Brillant article. At it ends I saw this website is about atheism and science. I try to figure out from atheists to help me explaining how the galaxies have been created, mostly how can species live without a creator.

  30. Yes I have read it. I cannot remember a time when I did not accept the theory of evolution. However, it was only after reading some of Dawkin’s books over the past ten years or so that I went back to the source as it were.
    I would strongly advise any younger person wishing to read the “Origin” to read the Voyage of the Beagle first as a backdrop and good introduction to Darwin’s prose and thought processes.

  31. I have never read Origin but an abridged edition read by Richard Dawkins is appealing. I could listen while I work on my art/craft projects.

    The modern books on evolution that I have read include several by Prof. Dawkins and Your Inner Fish-my favorite along with The Selfish Gene. WEIT is patiently waiting its turn to be read.

    Reading about evolution is like reading history for me. It takes a lot of repetition for it to sink in but it does-eventually.

    Happy Darwin Day to everyone.

  32. I read “The Origin” in preparation for writing “Spider Silk.” I had already read “The Selfish Gene” (invaluable) and a number of other papers and essays and talked for hours upon hours with my co-author, Catherine L. Craig, an evolutionary biologist. Having been an English major, I was already prepared for (and still enjoy) Darwin’s prose style. What I wasn’t prepared for, and found marvelous and inspiring,was his ability to converse with, rather than lecture at, the non-scientist reader. By tacitly recapitulating his own thought process as he doubted but found evidence for his own ideas, he draws the reader along a line of thought that becomes more and more powerful. I am still awed at what he was able to puzzle out given the tools that were NOT available to him.

    For those of you in states or who have friends or relatives in states where legislators still think they can score points by attacking Darwin and his ideas, maybe the following short essay I wrote about how much we owe him in practical medical terms will be of some use:

    Many happy returns on the day, everyone, and especially Jerry Coyne, another inspiration for anyone attempting science writing for non-scientists!

    1. Excellent essay.

      It is probably universal among seasoned scientists today to marvel at how much scientists of bygone eras were able to work out while working with ‘bear skins and stone knives’. When I was young, the little boxes in textbooks showing pictures of dusty old scientists who discovered the scientific fundamentals of whatever text I was reading were of little interst to me. The older I get, the more my appreciation grows.

    2. “Last winter, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.”

      Good luck with your treatment and I hope you get better.

      1. Sorry–I should have said. It was a grueling year, but things look good for now, and I feel great. Very grateful for the scientific method in this household! Thank you for your concern.

        1. Glad to hear.

          I got operated for appendicitis/peritonitis a few weeks ago so I would be dead by now if not for modern medecine and what it now considers a routine procedure.

            1. It’s only scary because of the way I describe it, remembering that it would have killed me if not for the operation.

              As a part of modern medecine it was pretty uneventful as very few people die from it nowadays (at least in the west, I do not know in poorer countries).

              As for the recovery it is going very well, with all the wounds healed, the stitches out and a nearly normal lifestyle (I just put on more clothes because I am more sensitive to the cold right now).

              I hope one day that cancer will be as routine a disease as appendicitis is even though both used to be death sentences.

  33. I have read the Origin but I always wondered what came of the drafts for Darwin’s big book that he never got to finish. Has any historian ever tried to put together this monster?

    1. Yes, in modern times it has been put together (Edited by R. C. Stauffer for CUP, 1975). For a recent reference see an article by the historian Robert Richards that is published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, volume 43, pages 256-268.

  34. While Darwin’s book is surely among the best science books of all time, I don’t think it matches the grandeur of Einstein’s relativity books or Newton’s Prinicipia. All three start with a few simple but original propositions and build grand explanatory systems that take our breath away. But Einstein and Newton explained the whole cosmos, not just us. And Einstein did so by repudiating the most basic concepts humans have ever had, the concepts of space and time. The intellectual work needed to get to Einstein’s theories was of a different order of magnitude than what Darwin did. Without meaning to diminish Darwin’s achievements at all, remember that Wallace (and apparently one or two other people) came up with the same idea at the same time, and Darwin’s own grandfather had even gotten some inklings of the theory. As I think Huxley said, “How exceedingly stupid of me not to have thought of that!” Einstein had no real rivals, and people didn’t go around saying “How exceedingly stupid of me not to see that mass is energy and makes ripples in spacetime, and that all objects travel in geodesics in this rippled spacetime, and that it can all be described by ten-component tensors”.

    1. I lived in Bern for a time, around the corner from the Patent Office (new location, not where Einstein worked, but the street appropriately named Einsteinstrasse). So I couldn’t resist reading the very accessible collection of the annus mirabilis—1905—papers, edited by John Stachel. I tried them on a couple of local young physics students. Needless to say, not one of them had ever bothered to read Einstein in the original. They were shocked at the relaxed conversational style, the parsimony of maths, the paucity of references, the cocky self-assurance, and the vast ambition of the programme transparent from the canvas of the entire sequence. Most treasured reaction: “Couldn’t get this past arXiv, nowadays!”

  35. Today is Darwin Day. However, we must remember that evolution’s modest initial success as a scientific view was in large part due to pro-active supporters in and out of academia. In England men such as Huxley, in Germany Haeckel and Weismann — and German-Brazilian Fritz Muller — carried forward the banner of evolution and authentic free-thought. Even the earliest supporters made important contributions to evolutionary thought. In fact items 3 and 4 of the list of Darwin’s contributions were first strongly defended by Ernst Haeckel. Darwin only went so far as to propose that there were but few original ‘created’ forms, whereas Haeckel insisted that there was just one common ancestor and additionally that it must have arisen naturally from non-life. To illustrate the monophyletic hypothesis, Haeckel drew magnificent and surprisingly correct evolutionary trees (the first to do so) showing how all life on earth could have evolved from a single bacteria-like ancestor.
    It is time to draw up Evolution’s Birthday List! Haeckel was born on February 16!

  36. In short, there are other literary demands on early-stage evolutionary biologists.

    I have read sections of Origin, but never had time to read the full version, despite getting my PhD in evolutionary biology and currently teaching evolution/biodiversity course. Yes, it is a shame, but I know the reason why I’ve never sat down to read it is because there is so much more information published since then.

    We learn about the concepts first described by Darwin in our undergrad and grad classes (Coyne & Orr) and then we’ve got to learn about the Modern Synthesis and everything that follows. The problem, which is really a good problem to have, is the ever-increasing evolutionary research to be kept up with. Reading the original text is certainly worthwhile, but it’s not (immediately) going to justify my next experiment, manuscript, or go into the next grant proposal.

    Just downloaded the Dawkins audible version. I’ll listen and drive this semester. Thanks!

  37. I used to live in Albuquerque,NM and would make the drive to San Antonio, TX every few months to visit my children after their mother and I divorced. I had always wanted to read Origins and since I knew I would be “captive” in my car for at least 10 hours I downloaded an unabridged, low quality copy from Audible with a monotone narrator (not Dawkins). I didn’t have an MP3 player back so I burned it on to CDs and, as my car didn’t have a CD player, played each one on a Walkman-wanna-be CD player hooked up to a transmitter that let me listen over my car radio as I drove through the desert. I listened to half the book on the way to SA and finished it on the way home. Despite the bad sound quality and fumbling to switch discs on stretches of I-25 where if I had gone off the road in the process I suspected the only way anyone would know it would be from the increas in buzzard traffic, I quite enjoyed the experience and the book.

  38. I haven’t read the book, and in fact, don’t own one. I have read parts, and being a non-scientist, don’t understand much of what I did read.
    That said, I believe, for me, the most important thing about Darwin is that he came up with the idea; Evolution. And then described it.
    Evolution is the only explanation for what I see when I look at the world around me. I always wonder when I see real scientists dispute evolution, or try to connect religion with evolution.
    These people are supposed to be smart, why can I see the truth in evolution, and they cannot?

  39. I have not. I’ve read another 19th century classic, Claude Bernard’s An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, and I guess I’ve always feared that Origins would be a similar ordeal.

  40. Questionnaire:
    – Read? Yes.
    – In entirety? Yes. But…
    – But? Not in linear sequence. And…
    – And? Not in entirety, until the variorum edition became available online at darwin-online.org.uk. Fascinating!
    – Why? Old classical scholar habit: never trust a single edition. Also…
    – Also? Somewhat disappointed with the abridged book edition (Penguin?) I had in my youth. And never quite managed.
    – So? Darwin was a multi-threaded hypertext author! If the online Darwin were the only thing on the internet, it would still be worth it.
    – Impact? Awe! Envy! And a never-ending series of Aha! insights. Fun trying to reverse-engineer Darwin’s thought processes.
    – Favourite moment? Not in the book itself. The “I think” evolutionary tree sketch, circa July 1837. Perhaps the most momentuous sketch in the history of science?

    – Plugs? You mean, besides WEIT?
    Can there be anything besides WEIT? OK, my other personal favourite:
    Darwin’s Pictures: Views of Evolutionary Theory, 1837-1874. By Julia Voss. Yale University Press, 2010. viii+340 pp.
    ISBN 978-0-300-14174-0.

    (Or get the German paperback original, if you read German.)
    A very Germanic work of serious pictorial erudition, by a young journalist and science historian. A perfect companion to The Origin.

  41. Yes, I read the Origin for the first time when I was eleven years old (it was lent to me, along with the Descent of Man, by a devout Catholic friend who, I am sure, had no idea what a terrible thing she was doing), and it has had a greater effect on me than any other book I have ever read. I believe that I was an atheist from that time on, though it took me a while really to admit it. I have since read the Origin many times, and I agree with a previous poster that Darwin’s style, far from being dense and obtuse, is a model of clarity and elegance.

    1. I should add that this was a long time ago (I am now seventy years ago) in Tennessee, where it was at that time (and apparently things are not so different there now) illegal to teach evolution in the schools. My biology teacher some years later got around that by saying that “evolution is true, but of course it doesn’t apply to us” (I don’t know whether or not she believed this, but I rather strongly suspect that she did). When I reflect on my days in Tennessee, I realize how lucky I am now to be living in Massachusetts!

      1. Please forgive this addition to my addition. As you can probably guess from my pseudonym, I am not a scientist, but rather a musician, specifically a composer. But before my decision to go into music, I had vacillated between music and (of all things) herpetology, still one of my primary interests. It is very unusual for musicians to be strongly interested in biology — physics, maybe, or mathematics, but certainly not biology. (One of my sons is a theoretical physicist, and the Origin has had a similarly profound effect upon him.) This is probably not of great interest here, but I thought I’d mention it, since it is somewhat unusual — particularly the combination of musical composition and herpetology, which may not be unique, but may be pretty close to it!

  42. I haven’t read it yet.

    My excuse is that I have wide ranging interests, which generally means that you can’t delve as deeply in all of them as if you have less interests.

    Also, being raised in a biblical literalist household, I did not believe evolution when taught at school for religious reasons but after I rejected my parent’s religion on moral grounds (developing a moral outlook and then reading substantial parts of the bible will do that to you) I decided to assess evolution from my now neutral point of view (no religious reason to reject it but no particular reason to accept it either) and the natural choice to do that seemed to be The Selfish Gene, which convinced me of the validity of the theory.

    I do intend to read On The Origin of Species eventually but I have 3 books on consciousness, 1 on history of christianity and 4 on religion and quite a lot more that I haven’t bought yet (Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, Bart D. Ehrman’s books, Hector Avalos’s books…) or that aren’t out yet (Richard Carrier’s Proving History for example) so I don’t know where I will fit it in.

    So many books/documentaries/movies/games, so little time.

  43. I avoided reading the Origin for many years. After I retired I finally got a copy and read it within a few days. I found it to be one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Oddly enough, I found it in a US military library on the island of Okinawa. I don’t know what edition it was but if I ever reread it (hopefully I will) I will be sure to find a copy of the first edition.

  44. I am not a professional scientist, but I have read On the Origin of Species. By the time I got round to reading it, I had already read plenty of other books on evolution, and had a good grounding in the subject.

    It sounds silly to say so, but the one thing that struck me reading Origin is just how well Darwin understood his own theory: he knew which points were key to his long argument, advising anyone who didn’t accept them to reject his whole theory. Now there’s a good (and confident) scientist! He also knew where his evidence/theorising was weak.

    I’m not sure if I agree that Darwin was a polymath. He was a wonderful observer, and realised that little details can have profound implications. I also happen to think that he was a hell of a good writer.

    You should make Origin required reading again. But make your students read it near the end of their course, when they will appreciate it more. If students of English can cope with the Victorian language of the Brontes, I don’t see why yours shouldn’t be able to cope with Darwin’s. The canon is, after all, the canon.

  45. I’ve read both the first edition and the last, and agree with your recommendation to stick to the first. While I understand why he added sections later (and would have supported him at the time in doing so) the last edition does in some places feel as if it was written by a committee.

  46. I have read The Origins of species in Finnish. It was inspiring but not life changing. The book that changed my life was Dawkins’ The Blind watchmaker.

  47. Yes, have read it. As a geologist, I had a pretty good grounding in deep time but it wasn’t until about 15 years ago, at around 41, that I started reading about evolution intensely. I read Origin after I read the Ancestor’s Tale and WEIT so I had a good grounding before getting to it also. It took a few tries because the prose is a bit of-putting, as you say, and at times hard to wade through. But, amazing insights, especially considering the times. Happy Darwin Day!!!

  48. I have a degree in English literature with an amateur interest in science. I decided to read Origin a few years ago and was surprised at how easily-comprehensible and non-technical the book really is. It’s a scientific case clearly presented in series of logical steps. I enjoyed it greatly and would recommend it to other non-scientists.

  49. I’ve read the Origin of Species, and recently I had the pleasure of listening to the abridged version read to me by Prof. Dawkins. I can’t help but say that it went a little too quickly.

    I have read the unabridged version of the “Voyage of the Beagle”, and I prefer that slightly to the Origin of the Species – mostly because I am astounded by the things that caught the eye of young Darwin. I am amazed to find several evolutionary insights in this work, which I feel doesn’t get enough coverage. And its a great adventure – just fascinating stuff.

  50. I have read On the Origin of Species a few times along with The Descent of Man, Voyage of the Beagle, and his auto biography also. Also The expression and emotions of man and animals next I think I will tackle The Formation of Vegetable Mold through the action of Worms.

  51. Have you read The Origin in its entirety? If not, why not? If so, did it have a big impact on you?

    Yes. I don’t recall whether I read it when in high school (I’m moderately certain I read The Voyage of the Beagle, and several other evolution related books in those days), but I’ve certainly read it – I bought a copy about 15 years ago.

    But it didn’t have a big impact on me – my thumbnail is that Darwin was remarkably right given what he had to work with, but we’ve got 150 years worth of additional knowledge built on his foundation.

    The book which had an impact on me was Ernst Mayr’s “Animal Species and Evolution”, read as a physics undergrad, which brought home to me the weight of evidence. Other books with impact? – perhaps Dawkins’ “The Extended Phenotype” and Verne Grant’s “Plant Speciation”.

  52. How wonderful. I own the same old Pelican edition that you do, but nowhere nearly as dogeared. I can reference using your page numbers. Thanks.

  53. I read it twice, once in high school and once about 20 years later. Last year I checked out the audio version from my library and listened to it while cruising around in my car. I found reading it easier than listening to it on tape.

    I cannot think of a book that has a more positive effect on humankind, the opposite of the bible.

    As far as having an impact, yes, it had a great impact. I was always interested in living things and to learn how the diversity of life came about just astonished me. It still does.

  54. Yes. But – um – not until after I was in grad school there (ducks). I do find the Victorian prose tedious. I have a hard time reading Dickens for the same reason.

    Its impact on me was more on the historical appreciation side, given that I already knew a lot more about evolution by the time I read it.

  55. I read it once. I figured it was the sort of thing that any biology student should read. I have it as part of four books in one and edited by James Watson. It also includes “The Voyage of the Beagle,” “The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals” and “The Descent of Man.” I haven’t read any of the others though.

    I found it to be surprisingly complete and in depth for the foundation of the science but I did struggle to get through it. It is not easy to read and I think I only managed a handful of pages at a time.

  56. > Have you read The Origin in its entirety?

    You bet!

    > If so, did it have a big impact on you?

    Not really, as I had long ago come to the conclusion that all arguments against evolution were bull pucky (aka religious nonsense), hence evolution must be the right explanation for those things it explains.

    There’s a certain core body of literature that everyone of reasonable intelligence may be presumed to have read. “Origin of Species” is one of these, and I read it out of a sense of duty, but, n.b., I got through the whole thing. (That was the sixth edition with the forewarn by Julian Huxley.)

    Some of the core literature I’ve found beyond me: Proust, for example; and the great Russian novels. Also Shakespeare. Not because these are bad in any way, but because they’re not a comfortable read for me.

    Darwin’s prose is no more difficult than Dickens. Both wrote in a much more complex discursive style than do modern authors, but all it takes to grok the style is to read one of Dickens’ easier works: the Pickwick Papers,for example.

    Besides, whereas Dickens reveled in complex plots, extravagant characterizations, and an unnecessarily loopy prose style, Darwin’s prose is absolutely limpid. As long as you don’t skim Origin, but take the time to get Darwin’s point, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, you will discover that it is a masterpiece of expository prose, and utterly convincing in its arguments.

    In particular, Darwin repeatedly turns to concrete examples as a way of posing a question and of answering it, as he slowly constructs his edifice of reasoning. Anybody can appreciate Darwin if they care to.

    It’s a good book to put on the table by your bed, and read a page or two of every evening.

  57. Yes, I’ve read it, but late in my career I’m ashamed to say and after several years of teaching a 3rd year undergraduate evolution course. I found it easy to read as a (to use American terminology) bathroom book: a page or two at a time while sitting quietly for a few minutes every day. It’s surprisingly easy to read. I must read it again.

  58. Yes, I’ve read both “Origin” and “Voyage”, but not much else of Darwin’s. Part of “Earthworms” long ago. I have his “Insectivorous Plants” but have not read it. No excuse.

    I’m a bit puzzled that people find Darwin hard to read. I find him very accessible and much clearer and more interesting than any of the alleged “word of God” books I’ve been offered, for example. If you can manage to plow through the Bible (or worse, the Quran)Darwin is almost light summer reading. I consider the final paragraph of the “Origin” to be an excellent summary and quite poetic. All of the history of life is one great “entangled bank” in a sense.

    I’ve often asked fundamentalist anti-evolutionists if they’ve ever read Darwin and am yet to find one that has. So much of their nonsense was refuted right there in the beginning, but they’re oblivious. He nailed down the case for the reality of evolution in 1859, and all we’ve been doing since is working out the details. Lots of details, some very important, but we’re still largely following in his footsteps. I don’t mind when the fundies call me a Darwinist. Badge of honor.

  59. Noting a couple of comments that mention the desirability of having a little geology under your belt in order to fully grok Darwin, let me draw everyone’s attention to John McPhee’s “Annals of the Former World”.

    It’s not as up to date as, say, WEIT, but geological research, like mountains, moves slowly so I doubt the reader is very far behind current thinking. It’s certainly more than up to date enough to provide the necessary backdrop to appreciating Darwin’s geological meditations.

  60. I first tried to read Origins when I was 18 and studying undergraduate psychology. The long sentences threw me and I gave up. As I learned more about evolution, I decided to try reading it again.
    Shortly after completing the book, and enjoying it, I signed up to do a Masters degree in evolution and behaviour. Thank you, Darwin.

  61. Yes, I read the whole book and enjoyed it.

    Actually those who say it is tough going are doing the book a disservice. And I say this a physicist whose last formal course in biology was in eighth grade.

    The fact that I read it when I was older and had some general knowledge about the subject may have helped.

  62. 1. I have read it right through, admittedly a long time ago (but then I have been around a long time).
    2. Darwin had an A3243G mtDNA mutation, inherited from his mother Susannah, who in turn inherited it from her mother Sarah (Sally) Wedgwood. Sally had two, possibly three other children with the same mutation – Tom, Charles’ maternal uncle, and Mary Ann who had fits, episodes of blindness and died aged 8 (MELAS syndrome). (A third child, Richard, died in infancy.)
    ‘Darwin’s illness was mitochondrial, not hypochondrial.’

      1. Dear JB, This is work in progress and a substantial document is in production.
        In summary:
        1.Darwin’s symptoms, including psychiatric symptoms and stroke-like episodes are all symptoms that occur in the MELAS and Cyclic Vomiting syndrome.The A3243G mutation is the cause of 80% of MELAS cases and a minority of CVS cases; it is the only abnormality that has been reported in both.
        2. There is direct evidence connecting symptoms with the mutation – two examples:
        A3243G causes vestibular impairment, hence seasickness, giddiness.
        Lactic acidosis is part of the MELAS syndrome. Infusion of lactic acid in normal volunteers produces panic attacks.
        3.There is good evidence of matrilineal inheritance going back two generations (Darwin’s mother, Darwin’s grandmother and three of her children)
        Other symptoms are secondary – vomiting blood, dental decay, skin pigmentation. Boils are a recognised complication of atopic dermatitis, which Darwin had and which may also be associated with
        mitochondrial dysfunction..

  63. Yes, I have read Origen of Species through. Once. But not until four or five years ago. So its impact was minimal. Long before then I had read, among others, nearly all of Steven J. Gould’s popular books, and later, all of Richard Dawkins’.

    But neither of those authors were my first evolutionary informants, back in the 1970’s, and I don’t remember who might have been. Certainly, I was not educated in evolution in a classroom. I doubt if 9th grade “earth science” discussed evolution at all, my high school science education was one year of chemistry, and geography satisfied my college requirement.

    I vaguely remember finding and reading something by Thomas Huxley in my high school library. I remember reading Jacob Bronowski — the Identity of Man, Science and Human Values, and the Ascent of Man. That would have been post-1973, the year the Ascent documentary series was produced. But I recall nothing particularly about evolution.

    But there needn’t have been any great deal of reading to do. I do recall then reading lots of science fiction, for all the authors of which the engagement of “what is” with an inquiring and skeptical mind underlies the imagining of “what might be.” The argument of Origin of Species is easily reduced to a paragraph, even a sentence and, approached with an open mind, requires little fleshing out and evidence to become immediately and obviously clear.

    Having read Darwin himself only lately, what struck me most is the patience and clarity with which he built his argument, so simply, clearly and compellingly that despite the gaps in scientific knowledge of his time, there should have been no doubt that he was right. Which makes the subsequent history of the “evolution wars,” in the United States, at least, all the more frustrating.

  64. I’ve only read a few paragraphs from it. I figured we were beyond what he discovered, so I tried reading Dawkins instead and recently picked up “Why Evolution is True” and am thoroughly enjoying – and understanding it! Okay, I will try reading Darwin. Most likely I veered away from it because I thought it would be too difficult for me to understand.

  65. Have you read The Origin in its entirety?


    If not, why not?


    That said, after reading some bits and pieces, appreciating its readability and Darwin’s genius both, and hearing it lauded, it will go on my reading list when it is more manageable. (Read: after retirement, soonest.)

    – On a similar note, I come from a science tradition of physics were we don’t read anything but immediately prior art. Theories are largely replaced in toto, not transformed by replacement.

    I didn’t know it was rewarding to read Darwin, until lately.

    – Add to that, the founders are mostly unreadable. Their culture was too different. As an example, Newton is claimed to be unreadable today.*

    I didn’t know it was possible to read Darwin, until lately.

    – Finally, the same tradition doesn’t idolize much. Instead we can choose idols of science a bit removed from the basics.**

    I didn’t know people read Darwin without having an idol worship going on, until lately.

    Maybe biologists should pound the gavel on Darwin some more. A “Darwin Day” should do it… =D

    PS. That book has PZ staring out of the cover! Note, not “squee!” but “squid!”

    * Indeed when I tried to understand his reasons for pushing an “absolute room” instead of the better and prescient “relative room” I got it wrong. (Mind, not with Lorentz coordinate transformations of relativity mechanics but with Galilean coordinate transformations of classical mechanics.)

    Turns out Newton likely understood the possible choice, as I understand historians of science. But he labored under the problem to abstract away “room” from the then cultural context of “contingent room”. I.e. in the then mind there was no separate space where a chair and a table is placed in, the chair and the table defined a room between them but didn’t use it themselves.

    Hence likely the choice of “absolute” to try to pry the medieval mind set away from “common sense” to instead entertain the idea of ‘absolute and not relative’ existence of abstract objects.

    And that is only one term out of many to grasp the different use of.

    ** My own idol happens to be Emmy Noether.

    For 3 reasons: She explained a very deep connection between symmetries and other preserved properties. She did that by math, which rarely has anything to say on characteristics of physics. And she was a woman, under a time shared with Marie Curie when it was even worse than today to boot.

    1. Hrmpf. To polish of my idol worship, I meant that Noether did her discovery “out of the blue” as it were, and of course that she did that as a female in a male centered and rewarding culture and nothing else.

  66. I haven’t read all the comments so I don’t know if this has been brought up before, but I really really really don’t feel like the worship we lump upon Origin is warranted. For people to say that it’s an obligatory read is simply obnoxious. It’s like saying that Newton’s Principia is an obligatory read for physicists.

  67. Read it through, although only recently, ca. six years after finishing my doctorate.

    I find the prose quaint, but not at all difficult. Come on, students, this not Shakespeare or Marlowe! Then again, is the entire book not a bit long for an undergrad course in one semester, considering all the other things they will likely also have to read for it?

  68. I first read the Origin as a grad student, while doing field work on Grand Cayman, B.W.I. It was a good setting to appreciate it, especially the chapters on geographic distribution. I was struck by how modern Darwin’s thinking appeared on many subjects, in areas such as development and evolution, levels of selection, and the importance of biotic factors for the conditions of existence. (Similarly, reading Mendel’s original paper also reveals how modern his thinking was on many subjects, and how much he appreciated the limitations of his own work, and anticipated the extension of his principles by later workers.) On the other hand, Darwin’s ideas on species seem ill-formed. (Some of Darwin’s earlier thoughts on species seem clearer, but subsequent association with botanists seems to have confused him.) I don’t re-read the Origin every year, but consult it as particular projects demand. I last read the whole work through while teaching a course on Darwin that coincided with the bicentennial (we also read the Beagle, the Autobiography, Ruse’s Darwinian Revolution, and Mayr’s One Long Argument).

    I used to have students in my evolution class read the whole of the Origin (an idea I got from Jerry; he may still do it), but I’ve now switched to having them read a variety of works (still including extracts from the Origin). I find Darwin’s writing style clear to understand, and admirable in its grappling with the difficulties of his own views.

  69. I’ve not read On the Origin of Species. I have read bits of it. It’s one of those books I keep meaning to read, but have never gotten down and read. I really must!

    Here’s a poem I wrote for Darwin Day a few years back. Following my status wishing everyone a happy Darwin Day, my friend wrote:

    Forget Darwin Day:
    Evolution’s disproved by
    Spaghetti Monster!

    I replied:

    And yet it does move
    Galileo did not say
    But it makes my point

    Three observations
    And the two deductions
    Darwin’s Magnum Opus

    For he observed that
    Species over reproduce
    Observation one

    Despite this he saw
    Population stays stable
    Observation two

    Therefore there is a
    Survival competition
    His first deduction

    Last observation
    Individuals unique
    Each is different

    Those differences
    They influence survival
    The best are passed on

    Evidence profound
    ATP universal
    DNA in all

    Fossils abundant
    Tiktaalik “transitional”
    Tetrapod almost

    And so you can see
    Noodly appendage absent
    Heresy, I know

  70. I’ve read the first edition four or five times. What I find amazing is that the questions he’s put forward are central to so many subdisciplines (e.g., what are the best characters to use in a phylogeny or why do some traits evolve faster than others) and how many are still unanswered (how are populations regulated).

  71. I read The Voyage of the Beagle about 10 years ago and The Descent of Man this past year. Have not read On the Origin of Species – yet, but have read many books on evolution and, of course, am thoroughly convinced. The Voyage of the Beagle was amazingly readable – The Descent a bit of a slog.

  72. Yes, read it as an undergrad and a couple of times since. I still find it very reasonable and in many ways prescient. I think my daughter read it also, she certainly hijacked my copy for a while. We listened to Dawkins read it last summer while driving across Kansas and Nebraska (a colleague had given copies of the CDs to his lab and I scored a spare set, you have to listen to something out there!) We (my wife and I) figured it was good for the kids, who were less convinced.
    I just went to see which edition we have, I know we have a Penguin version, although I think it’s the sixth edition. I found that it, and a number of other books including my copy of WEIT were missing. Apparently “they are at school” per my biology teaching wife. I suppose thats a good sign, although sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever see things that go that way again.

  73. I read Origin of Species probably in the late 1970’s. I was full of supposedly novel ideas about how evolution happens — and nearly all of them were covered or suggested in Origin. it seemed that in a century or more all we’d really added to his book was the math. Darwin had a marvelous grasp of biodiversity!

    Reading the book made little difference to me — I already had a good idea of the process. But I liked the book and came to admire Darwin much more after reading it. I also learned how is style of writing makes it so easy for creationists to quote-mine his work.

  74. Although I’ve been a biologist since 1979 (when I entered graduate school) I had not read it until 2010. I “forced” myself by signing up to teach a freshman seminar on the great man.

    I had the students in the seminar read about half of it, along with other works of the time, and Janet Browne’s short biography. I have to say I enjoyed the biography and Voyage of the Beagle more than OTOOS. Most of it is rough sledding for non-science majors, especially without any context, and IMHO it really isn’t necessary to read the whole thing to get the impact.

    1. I didn’t find Descent of Man particularly taxing scientifically, just kind of long-winded. Beagle was a delight to read.

      1. As I recall, (I must admit at a remove of fifty-nine years), my impression, as someone with no previous scientific background, upon first reading the Origin was almost that of participating in a conversation with a learned but kindly and considerate friend who was most interested in making sure that everything he said was clearly understood. I can understand that others may have had a different impression, but all I can report is mine, which made an indelible impression upon me. I regard the Origin as a very great work of literature, as well as a monumental piece of scientific writing.

  75. I bought the book a few years back and every time I start reading it, I fail proceed beyond the first or the second chapter (this has happened 6-7 times so far). I am not certain why. The language seems to be one roadblock. The second reason is that on a few times, I buy some other book and wanting to read that, I close the Origin. I am ashamed of it, and now that you have pointed it out, I will make my next attempt once I finish reading the book I am reading now. Will let you know if I succeed this time.

    1. I am suddenly wondering what kind of manger Charles was born in??? We was from a fairly wealthy family. Can’t imagine he was born in a barn.

  76. I started reading the book and have read the first four chapters and the last chapter. However, like many, I have a hard time completing the book.

    Darwin’s writing is very good, and the book is very clear for the time period, but it is hard to put aside everything we know know about evolution, taxonomy, phylogeny, species concepts, geology, etc. and see the world from Darwin’s point of view. It makes it hard to read because a lot of the nitty gritty is just plain wrong, though the theoretical underpinnings are sound.

    Basically, I look at the book as an excellent source for those interested in the history of science and seeing really how modern theories of evolution came about. But for the student wanting to learn about evolution, it is too out of date (again in the details department; Positive Selection is still going strong) and therefor confusing, and the student would be better off reading more modern summaries of his work combined with modern theories and data.

    IMHO. And, of course, this does not dilute Darwin’s brilliance. He did extremely well with interpreting the knowledge of the time.

  77. I first read Origin when I was in high school and found it fascinating and enjoyable. I was already familiar with the general idea of evolution so it didn’t change my life. I have read it 2-3 times since then in hard copy and I have downloaded a copy for my Kindle as well.

  78. I read it about seven years ago. I came across a book called “Mr. Darwin’s Shooter”, about an Australian chap who was employed by Darwin to shoot specimans. It was such an interesting narrative about the Voyage of the Beagle that I was compelled to buy Origins and “The Voyage of the Beagle” in a single volume. I devoured the two-in-one book, and didn’t have any problems with the prose. I was especially fascinated by Darwin’s observations regarding the haxagonal formation of beehives and the correlations between this behavior and the simple boring performed by many solitary bees. This was well before assuming the official label of “atheist”. I was already an atheist in practice, the subject just never came up. Once I find it, I plan to read it again. I am much more well versed on the subject than I was when first reading it, thanks to Dr. Dawkins and Dr. Coyne, and want to read it with a more informed pair of eyes. Previously, I merely assumed evolution was true. Now, I understand how and why it is true.

          1. just spotted this….
            Darwin was “polly” in all fields of biology. He was doodlling
            constantly in experiments covering all ranges of the subject. Dawn-to-
            dusk, it was (brace yourself) pollybiodoodle all the day!
            Mitchell Coffey (I

            (I’m assuming Mitchell means poly as in poly-math;-)

  79. I read it about five years ago and actually found it rather reader-friendly. As Jerry points out, biology has come a long way since then, but what impressed me most is how much Darwin himself actually got right. The following passage is probably still my favorite description of natural selection ever:

    “If during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised.”

  80. I have read it but only about 8 years ago, and have started to re-read it slowly with the annotated first edition – I cannot recall the editor. It is really not a difficult book for anyone with a little patience to contemplate and consider what is being said. I would say read the Voyage of the Beagle (not real title) first – it is full of humour and humanity.

    I LOVE the way you have noted the bits that you have found showing modern biological concepts.

  81. I have a copy – haven’t read it yet but must soon. (I’m currently reading, by chance, ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ by Erskine Childers, said to be the first ever spy story, so if I can hack his 1900 prose Darwin should be okay).

    I think I’ve always believed in evolution (I grew up in England, I don’t think anyone much doubted it), and TV series like Attenborough’s marvellous Life on Earth explained the story for me. But I was still a bit hazy about the mechanism – things like the eye, for example, until I came across The Blind Watchmaker, then everything made sense and it made my atheism (as Dawkins put it) intellectually respectable.

    1. Richard Dawkins’ River out of Eden is a great “starter” book on Evolution. His Climbing Mount Improbable (and, actually, everything he’s written) is magnificent.

  82. I’ve read it. It’s eye-opening, lucid and compelling.

    As to the impact it had — I finally was able to reject Creationist arguments. You can’t completely honestly do that until you have good reason to believe that evolution is true. Darwin supplies those reasons. In detail. Coyne, Dawkins and Fairbanks then show up and administer the coup de grace.

  83. Please all DO READ The Origin! Dr. C. is correct, it’s an excellent read.

    I highly recommend to you the Everyman’s Library edition of The Voyage of the Beagle and On the Origin of Species:

    ISBN-10: 1400041279
    ISBN-13: 978-1400041275

    On Amazon.com

    Here is the review I wrote for this edition on Amazon:

    Having read on Evolution by Natural Selection (EBNS) in many books and articles previously, including Richard Dawkins’ excellent works The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene, and Dr. Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, all highly recommended, I wanted to read Charles Darwin’s own account of EBNS. Here it is: the First Edition with the later Historical Note and Glossary added. I had already read and enjoyed “The Voyage of the Beagle,” and I consider it a classic of travel writing (broadly defined.)

    You may be wary of the classic “The Origin of Species” as stylistically remote or overly technical. It is neither. This book (anachronisms aside) could have been written yesterday. The style (as I find amongst a fair number of 19th century writers) eschews the flowery prose we associate with the Victorian Era; and is rather: clear, concise, nicely flowing, quite modern, and eminently readable. Any technical writer could learn from Darwin’s writing. Though some technical details are included, it is written such that an informed layman will have no trouble in following it. “The Origin of Species” is a logical and persuasive tour de force. I can see easily why it caused the commotion it did at the time: it’s a blockbuster argument that destroyed the standing order at a stroke.

    As noted, I consider “The Voyage of the Beagle” to be a classic of travel writing. No navel-gazing; but well-written stories of what he experienced in an important voyage around the world. The two books are complimentary in that the Origin completes the work begun as a young man in the Voyage. An excellent idea to place them in one volume.

    In addition, you get a very fine introductory essay by Richard Dawkins, which nicely sets the historical and scientific scene for the books, especially “The Origin of Species.” And you get the other features of an Everyman’s Library edition, which I find immensely helpful: the author’s chronology including their life events, publications, and the literary and historical context of their life and work; a selected bibliography. The book itself is beautifully designed and constructed and a joy to hold, read, and refer to. I often buy Everyman’s library editions for these very reasons. My only possible reservation for this edition is that the EML editions have a somewhat smaller than standard font, which may be an issue for some readers. However, the typeface is very clear and the nearly perfect alignment of pages helps prevent visual bleed-through and the book is really quite easy on the eyes.

    Highly recommended, enjoy.

  84. Well, I suppose people will always amuse themselves by finding things to disagree about; I have no problems with either view. I have a deep and sustaining faith in God, and I am of the opinion that He/She created the universe, which then took its natural course. ( this is where Mother Nature steps in) If the gentle reader wishes to consider me a crazy old lady, so be it. Whatever your opinions are, Blessed Be! Mother Cook

    1. I think your position will find much more respect around here a theist’s would.

      But I’m still with Russell: “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!”

  85. I made sure to read the Origin in twelfth grade as I began to seriously consider a destiny in biological sciences. I have sometimes revisited passages since then. I can’t say it transformed my world, but it did amaze me how so much of what I considered to be the most modern and enlightened idea–biological evolution–had seemingly sprung forth fully formed from this man. I was also retroactively disgusted with what I now recognized as quote-mining of the Origin by creationist online sources. Most of the shallow creationist arguments we see today were addressed, sometimes totally dismantled, in the Origin.

    I confess I found the middle chapters a touch dull. My high school biology teacher committed the minor sin of encouraging us to “skim over all that stuff about pigeons.” 😀

  86. Yes, I have read it. It’s always important to go back to original sources. It was not really so hard, Mendel’s paper was much tougher sledding.

  87. Sorry for ‘repost’ but this question is better addressed here since Jerry’s quotes the conclusion text from the first edition. The first edition apparently did not have ‘by the Creator’ but Darwin included it in all his following editions (2nd through 6th?) This sounds like the ‘Golden Nugget’ of quotes for the Biologos folks…and wondering if Darwin or his contemporaries addressed abiogenesis any further?
    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.

    1. This is explained by Dawkins in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of The Origin (1st Ed.) and The Voyage of the Beagle. Political pressure on Darwin caused him to waffle in later editions.

  88. Read The Origin as part of this, the biggest book I’ve ever read,
    From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin’s Four Great Books (Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals)

    I was glad Beagle was the first book because it set the stage for The Origin, which wasn’t as fun and exciting to read as Beagle but was enjoyable. However, I was reading for pleasure and can see how a student, pressed for time, might find the repetition in the numerous ways Darwin presented his evidence to be a frustrating reading experience for them.

    The Origin did have a big impact on me. I kept thinking wouldn’t it be nice if our legislators were required to be that rigorous in their presentations and wouldn’t it be nice if the christians could see the difference between their lack of any support and the overwhelming support that the theory of evolution had even in its infancy. The evidence supporting evolution has been like a balloon, expanding in all directions, in the time since The Origin was written.

    Darwin was very thorough with his presentation in The Origin, explaining the evidence in detail, presenting his conclusions along with opposing views and where he thought the opposing views weren’t correct. He seemed to credit anyone who influenced his thoughts or collaborated with him. I was also impressed when he detailed the weak parts of his statements and even pointed out how his statements could be falsified.

    I think that after reading The Origin I have a foundation for judging the quality of information that I receive from other sources throughout my life.

  89. WHAT?! What kind of evolutionary biology student vehemently opposes reading the book where it all began?! For shame.

    Sorry, but those kids don’t deserve to be in your class.

  90. A few days late for the celebration day, but:

    Yeah, I’ve read it. Not a biology student, but when I first read it I was a budding philosopher of science who (in another philosophy class) was assigned to read Nietzsche, who mentions Darwin a few times – and then I came across it in a book store. Recognizing it (of course), and it was cheap enough to buy, so I did. Read it between things over the next while; have reread it since a few times. No great impression on any of my future education or career, but I am glad to say that I have read it, and that matters … and it fits into my collection with the Principia and other great works.

    Incidentally, a question: what other book length works of biology by great biologists are worth reading? I have many great physicists’ and chemists’ works – Newton, Kepler, Copernicus, Boyle, Faraday, Lavoisier, Maxwell, Boltzmann, Curie, etc. but I have just Darwin when it comes to world-renown in bioscience. (I have other biologists, but they were alive at the time I started this – Gould, Mayr, etc. so they “feel” different.)

  91. I’ve had it read to me, by Richard Dawkins, no less, via audiobook. I loved it and plan on actually reading it myself, as soon as I can get a hold on a first edition

  92. Still haven’t read it yet, I thought I didn’t have a copy, but found one stored away I must have acquired a few years ago.

    I’ve just finished Sean Carroll’s “The Making of the Fittest” (which is excellent), so I’ve got no excuse now.

    I will read it.


  93. I first read it in high school, after I started mucking about with herpetological taxonomy and was pretty sure I would be a professional bilogist. The language wasn’t hard – I’d already read much of the KJV and Shakespeare, Gulliver’s Travels, and other relatively archaic stuff.

    I’ve re-read it every few years since; the 6th Ed, in a Modern Library hardback with D of M.

    Evolutionary biologists who haven’t read Darwin are going to be wasting a lot of their time. When I first heard about punc eq, my first thought was WTF? – I thought Gould was supposed to be some sort of Darwin scholar, how can he claim this is new? [Now I’m thinking of that Borges story about the guy who re-wrote Don Quixote from scratch]

    Compared to Darwin’s lucidity [try reading Richard Owen!], Dawkins stands on his shoulders in a way that, for example, Mayr and Gould didn’t.

  94. Pingback: Dia de Darwin

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