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.)
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.