150 years since the publication of On the origin of species today

By Grant Jacobs 24/11/2009

ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES was published in London on 24 November 1859, while Darwin was taking the water-cure at Ilkley. It was a very ordinary-looking volume bound in sturdy green cloth, 502 pages long, and somewhat expensively priced at fourteen shillings, not nearly as gaily decked out as Murray’s red-and-gilt version of Darwin’s earlier Journal of Researches and nothing like the pocket-sized duodecimo Darwin had at first proposed.

Thus opens Janet Browne’s third chapter, Publish and Be Damned, the second part of her two-part biography of Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin Power of Place - Janet Browne
Charles Darwin Power of Place - Janet Browne

I can thoroughly recommend her two books. What’s striking about them is that for very solid biographies with extensive research behind them and sizable bibliographies and other end matter, they’re very readable. Who wants a historical novel when “the real thing” reads as well as her work does?

Browne shows us that Darwin was quite aware of the social context and likely impact of his book, chronicling for us a sample of his letters written immediately after it’s publication. He was also aware of it’s limitations. Browne cites a letter written to Asa Gray (p85, Charles Darwin Power of Place):

Let me add that I fully admit that there are many difficulties not satisfactorily explained by my theory of descent with modification, but I cannot possibly believe that a false theory would explain so many classes of facts as I think it certainly does explain. On these grounds I drop my anchor, and believe that the difficulties will slowly disappear.

To me good science, excellent science, is science that throws open doors. All new ideas struggle, but they open the way for further and deeper understanding. It’s the pushing open stubbornly-stuck doors that’s hard. Sanding down the sticky points comes later, as Darwin knew. Given the scale of what he was trying to put out, it was an outstandingly good first attempt.

Like most excellent science, Darwin’s On the origin of species did more than tentatively open a new door and timidly poke a nose in. His book’s extensive and detailed consideration of objections to his own proposals gave others the wherewithal to see the substance of his ideas in spite of the reservations of the day.

On the origin of species gave what became the theory of evolution a firm starting point, from which it has grown since. This theory is now a (most would say, the) major foundation stone of all we do in biology. Understanding evolution underlies so many products and knowledge that we could barely live without it today.

With that I offer this short acknowledgement to an outstanding anniversary. Here’s a toast to “The Origin”.

Let’s not forget Wallace, the many other contemporaries of Darwin and the many, many others since who have built upon Darwin’s original work.

Browne’s two-part biography of Charles Darwin is well worth reading:

Voyaging covers the years prior to writing On the origin of species (ISBN 10: 0691026068; for the current cover, see a retail site)

Charles Darwin The Power of Place gives us the writing of On the origin of species and subsequent years (ISBN 13: 9780691114392)

0 Responses to “150 years since the publication of On the origin of species today”

  • Yes, I think it is easy to overlook the scientific contribution of the Origin of the Species and get caught up in the religious controversies.

    As a watershed moment in science, the publication of the Origin has to rank as one of the most important. And despite the contributions of other biologists in this era, there is still a heck of a lot that comes back to Darwin.

  • Saw your article a few minutes ago, good stuff.

    A surprising amount goes back to Darwin, particularly the bigger over-arching concepts. I made the brief mention of the more recent work as it adds considerably to what he wrote (but rarely replaces, testimony to how much of what he wrote has stood the test of time and critical examination).

    Some people (especially some particular religious groups) seem to have a tendency to criticise Darwin’s work without remembering it’s context (which your article gave) or that a huge amount of detail and understanding of underlying mechanisms has been added since.

    I think you’re right to write ‘religious controversies’; these isn’t a scientific one.

  • It is worth acknowledging that most mainstream churches have accommodated evolution by using the scientific/spiritual divide trick. If you take the Bible to be a record of interaction between humanity and God- rather than a scientific document- you’re no longer on the same ‘battlefield’. The (current) religious controversy often comes down to a more vocal and theologically suspect, fundamentalist crowd.

    But naive creationism had largely been abandoned by natural scientists before Darwin got his teeth into the problem (as I noted in my blog piece). It’s hard to image why an intelligent ‘designer’, would say decide to put an appendix into people. Just maybe, having a redundant organ that serves no purpose other than occasionally bursting and killing you painfully, isn’t such a neat design feature.

    The real scientific (or religious) revolution was producing such a compelling new way to research biology, that we jumped from having a theistically-influenced research model to an entirely naturalistic. In a single stroke, God was shut out of biology.

    Evolution already had its adherents before Darwin (and Wallace) came up with natural selection. The real revolution was cutting God out of biology.