Review – On the Origin of Species

Posted April 13, 2017 by Nicky in Reviews / 11 Comments

Cover of On the Origin of Species by Charles DarwinOn the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

I’m doing a biology degree, and I’ve always been an admirer of (and a believer in) the theory of evolution through natural selection, so it seemed high time I finally went to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Not that Darwin came up with the idea out of nothing, of course; it was “in the air” at the time, and other scientists were thinking along similar lines — Lamarck and Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, to name just two. Not to mention, of course, Alfred Wallace, who could’ve beaten Darwin to publication.

But Charles Darwin was the first to publish a theory which really made sense, which hung together and was testable. He may not have known about genetics or had a clear idea of how heritability occurs, yet it’s startling to read this and realise how close he was to right at times. He may not always have backed the right theories, but he considered everything he could imagine, and carefully related it to his own theory. It’s remarkable just how willing he was to consider where his theory might be wrong, and discuss those weaknesses. It’s also remarkable how often he tested what he could, whether it be the germination of seeds soaked in sea water or how pollination works; he may not have had the equipment that we have now, but his attitude is surely a lesson that every aspiring scientist should take to heart.

Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can read this and come away without understanding Darwin’s theory. He’s painstakingly clear, at length, with examples. If you’re reading this and coming to the conclusion that he didn’t support the idea of one species evolving into another, “macroevolution”, your reading comprehension is at fault. He makes it quite clear that “microevolution”, small changes in existing species, can and will lead to new species.

Darwin was not right about everything, but he was right in many key ways — and he would be the first to admit that he could be wrong. He gave us a working, testable theory, one which has ample proof both in his work and in the world around us. Creationists have far too much to explain, by comparison.

Rating: 5/5

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11 responses to “Review – On the Origin of Species

  1. arbieroo

    The idea of evolution may have been “in the air”, but the idea of natural selection certainly was not in 1839, when Darwin came up with it (20 years before Wallace did). Erasmus Darwin’s and Lamarck’s ideas did not involve natural selection at all.

    • Sure, from all I can remember of what I’ve read the mechanism of evolution was not understood before. But people were thinking about evolution and how it could work at the time — books like Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts strongly suggest that Darwin’s theory was “an idea whose time had come”; someone would’ve worked it out, if not Darwin (arguably, Wallace). Darwin himself felt himself beholden to other theories already being tossed around.

      • arbieroo

        Wallace did independently come up with the idea of natural selection – 20 YEARS after Darwin did and Darwin was in fact very dismissive of earlier theories of evolution.

        • Yes, but independently — and Wallace was still a child when Darwin was on the Beagle, so he certainly couldn’t have done it at the same time.

          Rebecca Stott’s book includes an intro with a lot of description of how he tried to acknowledge other thinkers of the day, possibly in the second edition of On the Origin of Species. From what she quoted there, he was pretty anxious to acknowledge his debt to those who came before, even as he thought they were wrong.

          I’m not meaning to downplay Darwin’s insight and impact, but we didn’t need Darwin specifically to elucidate the theory. That he was someone who could articulate it so well and criticise it has been a great benefit, but… it didn’t need to be him any more than it needed to be Hubble who spotted red shift proving that the universe is expanding, you know?

          • arbieroo

            That’s a false interpretation. In the first edition, Darwin totally ignored or dismissed the earlier thinkers on evolution. In private he repeatedly disparaged both his grandfather’s and Lamarck’s ideas repeatedly. In the second edition he reluctantly discussed earlier contributions to evolutionary theory despite believing them to be wrong, because of the enormous barrage of criticism he received for not having done so previously. He in fact never genuinely “acknowledged” any debt to his predecessors but was forced to pretend to.

            As for “it didn’t need to be him,” that argument applies to any and every scientific discovery ever and is therefore completely pointless. If one person discovers something and the next person to do so, independently, was a child at the time the first person did, that’s evidence that the idea was NOT “in the air”!

            It’s abundantly clear that Stott did not do a thorough job of researching Darwin’s life. I recommend John Bowlby’s biography, though I caution you not to put too much emphasis on his “it’s all the parents’ fault” theory of his character and ill health, since Asperger’s Syndrome has greater explanatory power.

            • His letters certainly show that he intended to acknowledge his predecessors, or wished to be seen doing so at any rate — letters to both his friends, with whom he had no need to dissemble, and his critics. While he didn’t believe (at first) he’d been pre-empted in talking about natural selection specifically, he did say in a letter to Hooker: “it is foolish work sticking up for independence or priority”. He acknowledged in a letter to the Reverend Baden Powell that “I had intended in my larger book to have attempted some such history; but my own catalogue frightens me”, in answer to a letter asking why he’d failed to acknowledge other thinkers (including Baden Powell himself).

              And here’s a quotation from a letter by Darwin to Gardeners’ Chronicle: “I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection.” That doesn’t sound forced or ambiguous to me! (Matthew’s work came 28 years before that of Darwin, by the by.)

              All of these quotations are mentioned in Rebecca Stott’s book, which I in turn recommend to you. If she didn’t do her research, someone must have, to pull out all the quotations she uses from his letters. 🙂 It’s mostly focused on those other theorists, at least the ones which Darwin treated as significant. She does interpret his thoughts/feelings pretty freely, at least in the opening chapter, but she bases it on primary sources.

              • arbieroo

                This is the unscientific practice of cherry-picking to support one’s view. Darwin spent decades fighting his own desire for credit because he viewed it as ungentlemanly to worry about such “vanities” and this becomes abundantly clear if one reads the whole correspondence, rather than selecting the bits that back up one’s preconceived notions.

                • Stott is perfectly aware of that aspect to his character, as I recall. I don’t have primary sources on hand, and frankly don’t have time to dig into biography as much as I’d like, but there are several quotations which amply demonstrate that Darwin definitely acknowledged Patrick Matthew’s priority (the ones I can think of are in a letter to Lyell and in an edition of the book). More importantly, other people also acknowledge Matthew’s priority.

                  To go back to the original point, I’ve checked my notes. As well as Matthew’s anticipation of the theory of evolution by natural selection, other people had the idea of natural selection without carrying it through to Darwin’s conclusion. James Hutton suggested it as a way of improvement within species, while William Charles Wells proposed it as a method of creating new species. The two ideas of evolution and natural selection weren’t combined until Matthew, then Darwin and then Wallace each formulated their theories, but I do think it definitely was “in the air”. I appreciate that the fact that it didn’t need to be Darwin is relevant to all scientific discoveries: that’s kind of my point. They come when we have the tools to observe them, often growing out of earlier research or new technology. Darwin was brilliant and took a step others weren’t willing to make, but he didn’t come up with the theory in a total vacuum.

  2. arbieroo

    I’m supposed to be giving a talk regarding Darwin (and Einstein and Dirac) and Autism at the National Astronomy Meeting, first week of July; I’m not sure I’m gonna get through all the reading in time! I have the first two volumes of Francis Darwin’s edition of Charles’ letters which make a pretty good zombie barricade on their own (and there’s a third!) and I’m too interested in this Matthews angle not to investigate further, so Stott goes on the TBR mountain…The blurb on Goodreads is a bit worrying, though; only people who have never looked into the matter AT ALL would think Charles Darwin invented the concept of evolution of species. Maybe Stott was targeting such people, though…

    • Looking at my ebook edition of Stott’s book, doesn’t look like Matthew has a section in it. He’s mentioned as someone that Darwin credited, but his theories weren’t actually influential because they were rather buried in an obscure volume. I know someone recently actually tried to argue that Darwin and Wallace were both aware of his work, but I think most people agree it’s unlikely. If you find a book that does go into Matthew’s contribution more, I’d love to read it.

      • arbieroo

        Well, I’ve ordered the book, now. It’s a worthwhile topic, even if I don’t necessarily end up agreeing with all the conclusions in it and I don’t get through it before the end of June; it probably isn’t as relevant to the question of Darwin’s autistic vs. neurotypical nature as reading the Letters is but I loves me some evolution theory.

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