We all know about the book, but how many of us have actually read it? It is arguably the most important science book ever written, among such company as Newton’s Principia and Galileo’s dialogue on the heliocentric model. You simply cannot do biology without knowing and understanding the principles contained in this book.
It is also one of the most deliberately misunderstood books of all time, perhaps second only to the Bible. Even if you think you fully understand Darwin’s position, but you have not read the book, you should probably read the book.
Even some of those who argue in support of it get some things wrong. For example, the whole of the concept of natural selection has been popularly “nutshelled” as “survival of the fittest”, which for many people means “survival of the strongest”, invoking mental images of lions running down hapless gazelles on an African savannah.
All it means is that the evolutionary process is made up of parts. The first part is the recognition that species are not static, there is change over generations, an undirected process to which the second part, a directed process, that of Natural Selection, is applied. It is Natural Selection that Darwin focuses on, because he did not understand (nor could he have) how genetic mutation causes change. He simply observed that over time, change happens from one generation to the next, and natural selection is a “filter” that primarily ensures that beneficial changes are the ones that get passed on to future generations.
Where this concept finally gelled for Darwin was in the Galapagos islands with his famous finches. He noticed distinct and seemingly purposeful variation from island to island among the beak sizes and shapes of the finches. Darwin noticed that the shape of the beak seemed to be influenced by the bird’s preferred food source. For example, one population had developed a long, thin beak to reach down inside small cacti while others had developed stout, strong beaks for eating insects, but they were all still finches. Since Darwin had already noted that change was hereditary, he rationalized that over time, those better suited to collecting the food source, especially during periods of scarcity, were more likely to live to reproduce and pass on the beneficial change. That is the meaning of “fittest” referred to above.
Another thing that many defenders of the book get wrong is that this is not where Darwin first presented the idea of Natural Selection. He did that in a paper with a really long title published in 1858 that he co-authored with Alfred Russel Wallace that rocked the Linnean Society of London, much like he rocked those spectacular sideburns in the photo above. This book was Darwin’s attempt to explain the concepts presented for the non-scientist. “Origin” was so popular that poor Wallace is virtually forgotten as Natural Selection’s co-author.
The full title of the 1872 6th edition, which this article features, is “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; Or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”, dropping the word “On” from the front of the title. The original was published in 1859, the year after his groundbreaking paper. The 6th edition is often considered to be the definitive version of the seminal work.
Much has been made of Darwin’s use of the word “races”, specifically when he talks about “favoured races”. Racists refer to it as justification of their belief in a superior race, and religious critics point it out to try to discredit Darwin as a racist, or connect his ideas with eugenics programs, Hitler and the like, with neither group fully understanding Darwin’s use of the phrase. It’s a kind of equivocation by ignorance that demonstrates that anyone using these arguments has not read the work and does not know what they are talking about.
Today, of course, “race” is used purely in regards to the human species. A biologist or naturalist in the 1800s would use the word “race” almost as a taxonomic term, describing a distinct group within a species. For example, you could have a race of finches with short beaks, and a race of finches with long beaks. You could call them “breeds” of finches. In the book, “race” is used to denote different breeds of pigs, pigeons and shellfish, but never humans.
This book, his magnum opus, was the product of voyages around the globe, observing, measuring, describing and cataloguing the abundant variety of life on the planet, careful consideration of the voluminous evidence, and coming to grips with what his revelations would mean for religion. Only part of the scientific research was his obsessive and painfully detailed 8 year study of the physiology of barnacles, such was the painstaking nature of his work.
“Origin” was also the impetus for science to finally extricate itself from religion. T.H. Huxley had already begun the movement toward scientific naturalism, and Darwin’s “Origin” was fortuitously timed to add fuel to that flame. It became the cleaver by which science divorced itself from religious influence, and the bludgeon that Huxley used with great effect to promote his cause. In fact, Huxley would become known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his zeal.
Anyone arguing with creationists should be intimately familiar with this work, as this book has been well quote-mined by those who seek to discredit it. One of the most famous is his quote from Chapter VI about the human eye. Creationists will present the quote out of context as Darwin marvelling at the complexity of the organ, and saying that thinking that such a magnificent thing could have formed by natural selection “seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree”. The person encountering this quote mine should be aware of the next three pages in the chapter where Darwin goes on to describe a series of small changes over time that through the process of natural selection would indeed produce a complex organ like the eye.
Our understanding of Evolution, especially the genetic component of it, has progressed greatly since Darwin’s description of Natural Selection, but it is always good to return to the source to appreciate the perspective at the dawn of a whole new science.