Thread: On the “On the Origin of Species”

November 24, 2020 • 9:30 am

As I noted in my Hili post, today is Evolution Day: the anniversary of the day on which Darwin published The Origin in 1859.  It’s one the book I’ve read more than any other: I used to go through it once a year or so, but it’s been about three years now. My copy of the first edition is old and battered, and the inside cover (below) shows that I bought it shortly after I started my doctoral work at Harvard. (I hadn’t read it before then). Note, too, the title, which we should all know in full (Richard Dawkins, to his embarrassment, was once asked the full title by a creationist but couldn’t recall it, and that was used against Richard by those looking for reasons to demonize him.)

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life

That’s the title of the first five editions; in the Sixth (the last), the initial word was dropped.

There will be a quiz.

My Pelican Classics edition is now held together with tape, and I have about four other copies, including the Sixth Edition. But I recommend reading the First Edition to get the full feeling of how Darwin’s ideas hit the world in the solar plexus. Like the fatal punch that did in Houdini, the book put paid to creationism, Biblical or otherwise, in one blow.

As I’m occupied with University business this morning, I’ll throw this one out to the readers. In general, I’ll ask you to give your take on the book and, if you’ve read it, to tell us what impressed (or didn’t impress) you. If you haven’t read it, shame on you, for I’ve always say that any person who wants to be considered “educated” needs to have read The Origin.  

It’s not an easy read: my introductory-evolution students always bridled at the Victorian prose, and even the abridged Dover edition turned them off. Further, some of the chapters, like that on “Hybridism” are particularly dense and even opaque. But as “one long argument,” as Darwin called it, it is an incomparable journey into the mind of a captious naturalist, one who always searched for flaws in his own ideas.  If you haven’t read it, please start now (you can explain your dilatory behavior below). If you have, please enlighten us with your thoughts about it.

My own take is that it’s the greatest science book of all time, but of course I’m biased.

Thoughts on The Origin

by Greg Mayer

Jerry asked me to weigh in here with some thoughts on The Origin, and I’m happy to do so. Before seeing what Jerry wrote, I reached up and took down my first copy of The Origin off the bookshelf, just like Jerry did! And, just like Jerry, I have four other copies, including a facsimile of the sixth edition!

This is the Harvard University Press facsimile of the first edition, with an introduction by Ernst Mayr (third printing, 1975). I also have a later printing of this version, since this copy got pretty beat up from frequent use.

A specimen of my early handwriting.

In October 1976, I was a sophomore at SUNY Stony Brook, and bought this in the bookstore there. It wasn’t for a course that I was taking, but I often bought books for other courses that I thought interesting. In fact, I already knew who Mayr was, because in high school I had purchased a copy of his Populations, Species, and Evolution at the Stony Brook bookstore. My recollection is that I first read The Origin start to finish while doing field work on Grand Cayman while in graduate school. My copy is well-annotated. The annotations were written at various times, but I can’t usually tell when they were made. I’ve always been interested in island life, so here are a couple of pages on oceanic islands with my notes.

Like Jerry, I have often assigned parts (sometimes large parts) of The Origin as reading for my evolution classes. (I think Jerry may have influenced me in this regard.) But unlike Jerry (or at least Jerry’s students), I find The Origin eminently readable– I think the prose is terrific! It is an excellent model and exemplification of scientific argument.

Jerry made note in this morning’s Hili Dialogue about John van Wyhe’s posting of some newly uncovered Darwin manuscripts, and you can read them all here at John’s wonderful website, Darwin Online. If you’re interested in The Origin as a document, his website is also the place to go, with authoritative discussion of the publication history, many scanned versions available to read online, and a complete listing of editions. John and his collaborators have continued the work of R.B. Freeman, who compiled an authoritative (as of 1977) catalog of all of Darwin’s works; Freeman’s catalog is available at Darwin Online. The Harvard University Press edition is “Freeman 602“, which is a facsimile of “Freeman 373“. As we’ve had occasion to note many times before here at WEIT, John van Wyhe and his collaborators have done an inestimable service to students, scientists, and historians in gathering together and making available these materials.


JAC Response: I didn’t claim that the book was unreadable, but that it was “not an easy read” and that parts were opaque or tough. It isn’t an easy read, for it requires you to stop and think frequently, which is a good thing. “Easy reads” are those books you can just breeze through. I find the book eminently readable—except for the “Hybridism” chapter!

43 thoughts on “Thread: On the “On the Origin of Species”

  1. Ok. I’m game. Since I’m working only 1-2 days a week, I might as well become educated. Amazon, here I come.

  2. Does OofS really count as “not an easy read” these days? I’ve always regarded it as the prime example of a book that was highly important to science but also accessible to all. (I recall reading it as a teenager, and found it fine.)

    1. Well, it’s surely easier than the Principia, but I’ve found that many students lack both the will and the patience to read books like this. It does take concentration, and in these days of the Internet and audiobooks, my theory is that the attention span of young folks is getting more and more limited. I eventually had to stop assigning the book after too many complaints. And as for asking exam questions based on reading the book, fuggedaboutit.

  3. I read a Project Gutenberg copy, don’t know what edition. I confess to finding much of it tedious, and put that down to my lack of imagination in being unable to put myself in the place of a contemporary reader. (“We already know all this. Why’s he going on and on about it?”)

  4. I read it a number of years ago and I agree that it is a bit difficult to read and dense in a couple of places.

  5. Not being of the biology, science background I have not read it but certainly should. We should always be interested in the history, the beginning of such a great part of us all. I have been through WEIT at least twice but it is fashioned for the non-experts. I always figured Darwin’s book would be a tough road for us regular folks, kind of like the current history book I am reading would be for the non-history folks.

  6. I also read it as a teenager. That would be about 65 years ago, so I don’t have vivid memories of my impression other than it seemed so obviously true.

  7. Never had it assigned in school. I have read excerpts in my retirement as i got interested in evolution and in particular the historical development of these ideas. Though it turns out that i likely read some of darwin in college sophomore english class as in looking at my copy of the norton anthology of english literation, i found that under the victorian literature chapters, we read an excerpt from “the descent of man” followed by critiqesand discussions by john tyndall and huxley. I am a bit disappointed that as a budding geneticist (pushing flies as an undergrad), you would not have been steered toward such an important work. But then i was not assigned any such equivalent books in the required courses for math or physics (my majors)-just books with calculations…keep your head down and calculate was the general tone. I did take a for fun course in philosophy of physics where we did read physics liter ature and discussed relevant social issues of thetime of these writings. I would like to see the literary, social, and scientific record explicitly taught in middle and high school as a holistic science, english, and social studies program.

    1. Read the damn book, Bat! As far as William and Mary is concerned, the only course where it would have been assigned was Bio 101: Jack Brooks’s Intro Bio class. And we had a textbook for that. Or Bruce Grant’s Evolution class, but that had a textbook, too . I wish I had read it earlier, but fortunately I decided to go into evolutionary biology without having read Darwin.

  8. I think it’s a brilliant read! I love it!

    I recommend the Everyman’s Library edition, which has the First Edition text with Historical Sketch and Glossary (added by Darwin to later editions) AND: An excellent introduction by Richard Dawkins.

    AND: Darwin’s life timeline: Publications, life events, world history.

    AND (wait, there’s more!) it includes his classic travel book The Voyage of the Beagle.

    And the EML editions are beautifully turned out hardcover books.

      1. I have a modern paperback of the first edition and an original hardback of the sixth edition. Rather a pity I can’t say that the other way round!

        (PS, to anyone who hasn’t read it, I’d recommend the first rather than the later editions.)

    1. I have always found the rhetorical structure of Origin to be among the most remarkable features. Specifically, his telling begins with a recounting of the many familiar instances of the efficacy of artificial selection– e.g., fancy pigeons, Brassicas and other crop varieties– to alter the phenotypes of species. Having documented those many cases in an appeal to common experience, especially the rapidity with which heritable changes accrue, the peroration of the first bit says, in essence if not in print, that, given the evident power of artificial selection to yield perfected forms in a relatively scant few generations, how great must be the power of natural selection, imposed over millenia, to likewise yield the seemingly perfected forms of life in nature? Darwin thereby ‘softens the ground’ to encourage implantation and establishment of ideas planted in the remaining chapters.

  9. I was interested in evolution at an early age, but only in my 30s got interested in CD. I read it finally around 2001 directly after The Voyage of the Beagle, which I would tell anyone interested to read first. It is a great travel book filled with interesting observations.

    Origin is not like modern pop science books. Darwin loved his fiction, & you can read comments on the sort of books he read in various letters. I guess he was influenced by the style of others – I’d give you chapter & verse had I access to my Darwin Library (no I did NOT pinch the notebook!)

    I do not recall struggling to read it. I suppose it took me about 10 to 12 hours. He builds his argument patiently with numerous examples as he was trying to convince an audience to whom it was a radical idea. Admittedly they’d been prepared by The Vestiges of Creation, but CD was pretty critical of that book. He starts with what he knows people will mist understand, domestic modification, builds on that, takes us though the variations in nature, the hits us with Natural Selection. Then he supports his theory covering Geology etc to demonstrate how it fits into the prehistory of the world. Later editions I have not read them, had to cope with the opposition. People like Jenyns –
    “I have read your interesting book with all carefulness as you enjoined…” though he had problems with the origins of Man… “no doubt greatly improved Orang!”

    I will read s later edition as I want to see the differences. Also I intend to read the Descent of Man next year, if I live!

  10. What most impressed me when reading it, apart from its sheer readability (it really was written as a book for the “general reader”) is the cumulative power of Darwin’s quiet insistence, chapter after chapter, on the way the evidence he had assembled on all his various fronts contradicted “the ordinary view of creation” in his day. Although he didn’t spend any time discussing religion or religious views, he pulled absolutely no punches in showing that the religious view of creation was false and unfounded.

  11. “The Voyage of the Beagle” is also well worth reading. Think of it as the prequel to “On the Origin of Species” 🙂

  12. I read the sixth edition in my early 20s and found it accessible if a bit tedious. If I were to re-read it I’d probably go for the first edition, from what I hear it got more bloated with each new one.

  13. I have the same Pelican edition as you have, which I bought from a second hand bookstore years ago in London. I haven’t read the entire book, the text is too small for me. But every now and then I open it and read some random passages just out of curiosity. Although I’m Turkish, so not a natural English speaker, and I don’t have a degree in biology, I don’t think the prose is too boring or difficult to read. Compared to writers like Adam Smith and J. S. Mill, I think it is a lighter read.

  14. It fascinates me that creationists are quite unable to understand evolution, because their assumption concerning the nature of reality being ‘intentional’ means that any process not intentional simply cannot be true. For example a creationist youth said, “I don’t believe a lizard would grow bumps on his back which turned into wings!’ His understanding is wrong on several levels, and is irredemable. If you answer that evolution is not intentional, they jump to the conclusion that it must all be random.
    But here’s the controversial part. It seems to me that there is a genetic component to religious belief. Its precepts are a matter of genetic inheritence. Those false assumptions run very deep, and form part of the personality itself, therefore it is a radical and a somewhat self-destructive move to abandon what is inherited belief.

    1. It’s not necessarily “self destructive” to exercise features that may have evolved. We no longer live in small hunter-gatherer groups, for example, and so a possibly evolved xenophobia might no longer be adaptive.

    2. This has more to do with upbringing than genetics. Many creationists I met were intelligent, but none of them could summarize the theory of evolution without some popular misconception of it.

      Misinformed by creationists and unfamiliar with mainstream biology, some of them must also reject Darwin’s theory because their religion demands it.

      This does not make them inferior. Accepting evolution does not imply the potential to understand it.

  15. One needs a bit of persistence to get through the part about pigeons, but on the whole I found the book not hard to read. There is no excuse for not reading it!

    What struck me was how modern the language is, considering it was published in 1859. Maybe English has not changed that much?

    And there is this great feeling of reading the actual text by Darwin himself!

  16. I’ve been reading around in The Origin for about a half century now, ever since my dad lent me his hoary old hardcover edition when I was a teenager. But I’ve never read it straight through, front to back, in a single throw. The prose are certainly more accessible in some sections than others.

    1. This is pretty much where I’m at too…but thirty or so years since I got it- while working at a bookstore. I actually have a stripped copy… but hey, I was poor and it was free. Now I need to read it through so I can say there’s one book I’ve read that Ken hasn’t. 😉
      Though I’m thinking about picking up the annotated version too.

  17. I read the book in high school. I understood it was a very important book and I was eager to consume it. I seem to remember skimming a few parts, but mostly I remember thinking – that’s the best book I have ever read. The feeling was similar to the time I read through a book on special relativity. Scientific discovery is like giant waves washing over humanity, pushing it forward.

  18. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never read the whole thing, only selected extracts. I promise to remedy this shortcoming as soon as I’ve finished the pile of books on the table beside me.

    I have read ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ through, and confirm that it’s an excellent read.

  19. I read The Origin of Species in my early twenties, it may even have been the Penguin Classics edition which looks very familiar. I don’t recall it being a hard read. Somewhere in the text I had a rare epiphany, seeing in a flash everything in nature was one astonishing fabric. I was so taken with The Origin I went on to read The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Which of course I recommend.

  20. I was probably in my early 20’s when I read it. I found it a lot more readable than I expected, packed full of interesting examples. The genetics part was frustrating — we know so much more now — but over all, at the time I read it, scientists had added genetics and math but not a lot of new ideas, really. Now, of course, we even have different ideas (e.g. the importance of neutral evolution, junk DNA) but up to my youth, it seemed to me, scientists has more fleshed out Darwin in important ways than added truly new insight.

  21. “Victorian prose”

    Another author whose work is worth grappling with the Victorian prose is Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes. Unreadable AT FIRST but I had to push myself and before long, it was just another reading skill to use.

    For another such challenge : The Silmarillion by Tolkien. THAT one is a slog.

  22. Without ever reading any book specifically to do with evolution I was convinced it was true. Mainly, as I became more and more skeptical and anti religion, evolution and the processes of natural selection filled the void with the reality of objective truths. It was not always so. I remember as a early teen carrying around a transistor radio to listen to cricket matches when in a news report it was said that humans allegedly evolved from apes, I was physically disgusted. But! I became fascinated by a gorilla that was at our city zoo. Sad as that was to observe…
    Darwin’s “Origins” was like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity… what the hell are they talking about!
    For the present and for the last twenty-five years or so I’ll tackle anything that is of interest to me and read them multiple times to complete satiety…
    my nearest thinks I read science like a kid with a Harry Potter book.
    now it seems I need to educate myself and read THAT damn book!
    I thought I had a copy hmmm 🤔

  23. It is slow, it is dense. It requires concentration. All true.
    It is a technical tome. What do you expect? “My Little Unicorn” on every second paragraph? If students struggle to handle things like this, how are they going to handle some geochemistry, or the “naming of parts” for a couple of hundred classes of fossils and another couple of hundred “rock-forming minerals” in the same term?

    Other Darwin news : nearly 20 years ago several of Darwin’s notebooks – including the one with original “tree of life” sketch – were sent from Cambridge library to a temporary building for photography … and haven’t been seen since. Which would be bad news. The better news would be that they were stolen by someone who saw them in the “returns” pile, recognised them and stole them. But they’re small books, and simple accidental binning is plausible too.
    Bad news.

  24. A few years ago, I climbed (okay, drove) to the top of Mt Wellington outside Hobart in Tasmania and was surprised to learn that Darwin had been there. I went looking for “The Voyage of the Beagle” at Readings (my favourite bookstore in Melbourne) and the cheapest version was a double edition of the Voyage and the Origin – I’d always been daunted by the idea of reading the latter but I bought it. To my surprise, I found both of them highly readable, and I’m not a biologist.

    I wonder if those who find it difficult to read are just not used to reading 19th century English? I have read a lot of Dickens, Gissing, Eliot and others, so maybe that’s why I didn’t find Darwin anything but a pleasure to read?

  25. I’ll depart from the consensus here and say that it’s a bit too dense for something I’d like to read in my free time. The parts I’ve read though do give good arguments, but I trust our pedagogy (and knowledge!) would have improved over the last century and a half. I would prefer a modern account of evolution, all things considered.


  26. For me Daniel Dennett’s “Darwins Dangerous Idea” is equally important because it helped me to understand how I could defend my materialistic, scientistic and nihilistic world view.

    Ironically, in the last two or three chapters Dennett tries to prevent people from reaching obvious conclusions.

  27. I read it after university when I was twenty eight, much earlier and I would have struggled:I loved the plain clear argument from ‘animal husbandry’ to ‘natural selection’.
    It all made perfect sense. Admittedly I was already an atheist, I simply needed a compelling “origins story’.
    I new evolution was it, ‘On The Origins… ‘, merely bolstered my understanding.

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