On the Origin of the Species: A book review by Bob Morris

On the Origin of Species: A Science Classic
Charles Darwin with an Introduction by John van Wyhe; Edited by Tom Butler-Bowdon
Capstone, A Wiley Brand (February 2020)

Why The Origin of Species remains perhaps the most influential science book ever written

Years ago, one of my college professors strongly recommended that I check out Jacques Barzun’s Darwin Marx Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, a book that focuses on three classic works: On the Origin of Species, Das Kapital, and Tristan and Isolde, all of which appeared in 1859.

Barzun explains how and why each made a significant contribution to a spirit of evolution in the arts and sciences, indeed throughout the social order, at that time. I soon listened to a recording of Wagner’s opera but it was not until several years later that I finally completed my reading of the two books and recently re-read On the Origin of Species, one of several volumes in the “Capstone Classics” series, each brilliantly edited by Tom Butler-Bowdon.

In his superb Introduction, John van Wyhe examines the process of research,  analysis, discussion, and negotiation that preceded the publication of the first edition of Darwin’s work.  In fact, Alfred Russell Wallace had also been collecting specimens of animals and studying the biogeography of Southeast Asia since 1854. “Wallace privately believed in some of the evolutionary process but had never published his  or keep hisx belief in evolution a secret. heterodox beliefs. But his views were at first very different from Darwin’s. Wallace did not seek to explain adaptation. Instead,, he seems to have focused on the main feature of genealogical descent.”

These are among the dozens of van Wyhe’s observations and insights of greatest interest and value to me:

o “It is now clear that Darwin did not hold back or keep his belief in evolution a secret. The evidence from his surviving letters and notes shows that he discussed his ideas with many friends, family members, neighbours, and colleagues during the years before he published his book…nor i there any foundation for the common belief that he was afraid of offending his religious wife. That is pure myth. She edited his early theoretical drafts.”

o “The first edition of On the Origin of Species was printed in 1250 copies. Darwin chose to use his existing publisher, John Murray. The book had an introduction [included in the Capstone edition]and fourteen chapters which totaled 502 pages, making it about 150,000 words long, excluding the index.”

o “Darwin continued to revise the text of Origin of Species across the six British editions, and alterations were made to some of the foreign editions. In all, the British editions contain 2250 changes in sentences (including sentences that were added and those that were removed) and more than 15,000 changes in words or phrases.”

o “It was not until the fifth edition of Origin of Species that Darwin used the phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’ It was not even his own, having been coined by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, and adopted by Darwin At the urging of Wallace. Despite its fame, the phrase is now considered to be very misleading shorthand for the theory. Again, perhaps surprisingly, the word ‘evolution’ does not enter the Origin until a later edition, the sixth.”

Obviously, Darwin’s material continued through its own process of natural selection.

o “Darwin’s name is so linked with evolution because the Origin of Species single-handedly convinced the international scientific community that evolution is a fact. As a result, Darwin became hugely famous as tghe man who had effected a scientific revolution with a single book. Origin of Species remains perhaps the most influential scientific book ever written. No other science book has been translated into more languages.”

Darwin provides an appropriate conclusion to this brief commentary.

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having 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.”

He died on 19 April 1882 and was buried at Westminster Abbey. In 2018, Stephen Hawking was buried between Sir Isaac Newton and Darwin.


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