On the Origin of Species

Author: Charles Darwin

Editor: David Quammen

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition

Published: 1859 (original), 2008 (illustrated)

I read it: December 2012

on the origin

It was a personal accomplishment to finally read this uniquely important book–the book that gets to the core of how and why a bird sits on a branch outside my window, and how and why I type with my fingers and scan the screen with my eyes. I will summarize some of my favorite encounters with the Origin.

Charles Darwin kicks off by outlining artificial selection, the perfect starting point to use even now when explaining to people how natural selection works. (At this point I realized, early on, that the book would be quite readable to the layperson.) You can sense Darwin struggle to emphasize his resistance to the notion shared by all–from naturalists to breeders–that domestic species had separate, distinct wild ancestors (even in the case of apples!). He spends a lot of time on domestic dogs, claiming that it should be clear that not every breed of dog has a wild counterpart. Curiously, he was not ready to claim that dogs could be traced to one wild ancestor–he thought it was a handful of separate ones. This line of thinking would later lead him to proclaim in the text: “there is no fundamental distinction between species and varieties.” This may not sound controversial to you and me, but to claim that species were not immutable was huge.

Of course Darwin would inevitably hit false marks compared to modern evolutionary knowledge (and I probably only found a few of the glaring ones) but that is the value of reading older science texts. For example, he could not figure out how to account for wattles and “horn-like protuberances” in male birds, and certainly did not think they could be “attractive to the females.” Now we know sexual selection is likely to account for those physical traits. Perhaps Darwin realized this himself in his own life, as he did focus on sexual selection beyond this work. But errors aside, he approaches his work like a true scientist: he plainly laments that he only has space to describe a limited number of experiments, and seems pained when he has to write in generalizations. He constantly hedges his bets and admits limitations. For every confident statement he makes, there is another about the limits of knowledge. On the idea of variation in a world devoid of the concept of genetics: “Our ignorance of the laws of variation is profound. Not in one case out of a hundred can we pretend to assign any reason why this or that part differs, more or less, from the same part in the parents.”

On the flip side, it is exhilarating to see the correct knowledge of the day. Right around the time Herman Melville was still calling a whale a giant fish, Darwin explains that Cetacea is considered to be in the order of Mammalia. He draws connections between the Sirenia (dugongs) and hoofed quadrupeds, and between the “reptile” dinosaurians to birds, via Archeopteryx and Compsognathus. I thought some of this stuff came post-Darwin, but apparently not. Darwin cannot escape his time when he is stuck on ranking “high” and “low” forms based on their physical makeup, but this troubles him. When he realizes this hierarchy is blurring before him, he writes, “We thus see how hopefully difficult it is to compare with perfect fairness under such extremely complex relations, the standards of organisation of the imperfectly-known faunas of successive periods.” This gray path leads to the contemplation of man’s place, to be sure.

Each of the chapters of this illustrated version is interspersed with photos, drawings, portraits, and selections from works such as The Voyage of the Beagle and The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. These provide endless illumination. The Voyage passages take us on a first-person adventure to tropical places, such as Darwin in “the Cape de Verde archipelago, in which I geologised.” His scientific curiosity and findings are detailed, but the social contexts are the most revealing. In most accounts, Darwin is disgusted by slavery and rejoices in pleasant interactions with peaceful natives, while on other occasions he cannot help making quick judgments on which desirable characteristics some of these people lack, and it is apparent (to us) that he does not see them as equals in most regards. Another example of a man stuck in his time, not sure where his contradictory mind will take him.

Through excerpts of letters we get exchanges of the drama that ramped up quickly upon publication of the work. The most colorful are those written by the brilliant T.H. Huxley, when he comes to Darwin’s defense and says of the critics, “the curs will bark and yelp” and reassures his friend, “I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness.” The book includes political cartoons from magazines that show how Darwin was viewed for his radical ideas. Another relevant thread is the story of Alfred Russell Wallace and his simultaneous “discovery” of natural selection. I enjoy one particular part in the Origin where Darwin explains how two organs can hit on the same design (what we now call convergent evolution) in the same way that “two men have sometimes independently hit on the very same invention.” You have to wonder if he subconsciously, or even consciously, alludes to Wallace and himself in this passage.

Some of the core ideas come through in the last couple chapters when Darwin writes about morphology and classification. He explains how adaptive characteristics (fins of whales and fish) are different than the more important descended characteristics (inside the animal, whales and fish are quite different, and this is what defines them). He says that “several species will consequently be related to each other by circuitous lines of affinity of various lengths” and focuses on the embryo and those descended, developed characteristics: “Thus, community in embryonics structure reveals community of descent.” He emphasizes, “We can plainly see why nature is prodigal in variety, though niggard in innovation. But why this should be a law of nature if each species has been created, no man can explain.” His ideas are in direct contradiction to traditional naturalism, and he forces others to confront the fact that independent creation is at odds with the facts. In analyzing his own field of study, he comes to the conclusion that “community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking.”

In the last pages, it is intriguing to see how far Darwin is willing to extend his philosophy of “natural selection of successive, slight, but profitable modification.” Throughout the book it is plain that he is comfortable using this explanation to show how species are derived from some unknown ancestors, but only in a few lines does he approach the subject of our very beginnings. He seems to do so almost casually, as an afterthought: “Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype … probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.” If that is not a claim sure to stir up controversy, nothing is. He notes just a little further down, “we can dimly foresee that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history.” Charles Darwin, ever the understater.

The last paragraph of the Origin includes some of the best lines in scientific writing, but I would forego quoting those here in favor of another passage that struck me. It is unique to this illustrated version because it is an excerpt from Voyage, expertly placed by Quammen in Darwin’s “Appendix” chapter, after the main work concludes. Darwin is describing constellations, corals, and volcanos, which leads him to comment on earthquakes and their “intimate connection” with the structure of the world. He writes, “The earthquake…must be to everyone a most impressive event: the earth, considered from our earliest childhood as the type of solidity, has oscillated like a thin crust beneath our feet; and in seeing the laboured works of man in a moment overthrown, we feel the insignificance of his boasted power.” It has been documented that Charles Darwin did not like being a mover and shaker; he never wanted to overthrow anything. Despite his trepidation, he could not help but write an earthquake into history. For better or worse (I argue for better) he exposed our insignificance by explaining the mechanism which causes all living things, ourselves included, to be explicitly related to every other living thing that ever existed, or will exist.

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