On the Origin of Species – Charles Darwin
I have set myself a reading challenge, to complete The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Originally published on 24 November 1859 it was the result of 20 years work, mulling over his initial concept, working through ideas, testing and challenging the theory of Natural Selection, before comprehensive peer review and publication.
I was supposed to read it about 30 years ago, (yikes!) as it was on the reading list for my degree in Environmental Science. As things turned out I was a bit too distracted by concerts (c’ mon – it was the ’90’s!) to take much interest in the theory of evolutionary biology. Feeling a bit bad about this, about ten years ago (a mere 20 years after the degree), I decided it was about time to give it a go.
As with nature, language and presentation of ideas have evolved since The Origin of Species was published, and I struggled with some of Darwin’s language. Descriptions of people have moved on thankfully, I may have gulped on reading about ‘base savages’ and terms like sports and monstrosities have been replaced with mutations; his general sentence structure is flowery compared to the paired down style of modern academic texts and it takes a bit of getting used to. It wasn’t long before I gave up first time around, but since a fellow blogger – April Munday is persevering with it, I thought I would give it a second chance and compare notes.
Reading The Origin of Species in 2019 is a very different experience to that of someone reading it in 1859. Darwin had to be very careful about how he presented his ideas as they were at best controversial and at worst heretical or possibly even ludicrous, difficult to decide which he would have considered worse. What we now refer to as Natural History, was then known as Natural Theology and was closely tied to the church. All Naturalists at both Oxford and Cambridge were clergymen within the Church of England, scientific theories relating to nature were often contentious and strictly controlled given their impact upon theology.
The theory that species evolve through mutations that help them better adapt to their environment, was in direct opposition to the established view that each species was created intact by God as the finished article. Presented in the wrong way, Darwin could have been ridiculed, socially ostracised, financially ruined or all of the above.
Cut to today and Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection has become the established view of the scientific community. Thanks to David Attenborough and those who have followed in his footprints, Natural History, and evolution (particularly of dinosaurs) is part of modern culture and most of us accept it without giving it a second thought. There are of course exceptions, as ridiculous as it might seem to me, it is illegal to teach the theory of evolution in some parts of the world, and even here in the UK, I know of at least two local (Oxbridge educated) Creationist politicians who dispute the age of the Earth and the existence of dinosaurs.
Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection in a nutshell
To spare you reading the entire text, this is Darwin’s theory as summarised by Ernst Mayer as a series of facts and two inferences – he does it more succinctly than I can.
- Every species is fertile enough that if all offspring survived to reproduce, the population would grow (fact).
- Despite periodic fluctuations, populations remain roughly the same size (fact).
- Resources such as food are limited and are relatively stable over time (fact).
- A struggle for survival ensues (inference).
- Individuals in a population vary significantly from one another (fact).
- Much of this variation can be inherited by offspring (fact).
- Individuals less suited to the environment are less likely to survive and less likely to reproduce; individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their heritable traits to future generations, which produces the process of natural selection (fact).
- This slowly effected process results in populations changing to adapt to their environments, and ultimately, these variations accumulate over time to form new species (inference).
Darwin introduces the book by referring to ideas that struck him whilst on an expedition aboard HMS Beagle. In fairness the concept would have been familiar to him; his Grandfather Erasmus Darwin was an eminent physician who published Zoonomia (1794–1796) foreshadowing the theory of evolution and Charles used the work as a reference whilst developing his own theory.
Darwin tested his theory using hereditary variations in pigeons and he presents this information first before going on to demonstrate variation within nature.
To date, this is as far as I have got – but it’s considerably further than last time and I’m getting into the swing of it. I am reasonably confident that this time I will actually finish it, I’m sure my tutors would be delighted – if they haven’t as yet shuffled off this mortal coil.here