Book Review: The Origin Of Species

By Charles Darwin, 1859

Review is copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2015.07.17

Copyright © 2014 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life
Author: Charles Darwin
Year: 1859 (Mine was 2003 mass-market paperback)
Publisher: Signet Classics
ISBN 978-0-451-52906-0
View It On Amazon
Author’s Wikipedia page


As is commonly known, Darwin’s book details his theories on natural selection and the evolution of species on Earth. The idea of evolution wasn’t new — it had been discussed as early as 546 BCE — but it was always an idea, a philosphy, vague speculation. By the 1850s (CE), naturalists and biologists still held a variety of opinions on the subject.

Darwin’s book changed that discussion forever. Within 20 years of publication, evolution of the species had become the mainstream scientific view. And this was before the discovery of genetics and many of today’s most famous fossils, which have consistently confirmed his basic theories.

What I Liked Least About It

There is very little about this book to dislike. The writing is precise, the thinking is clear. My least favorite characteristics include: (1) it seemed to be written for other scientists, not for laypersons, so the language was a bit thick for my layperson’s mind, (2) terminology has changed over 150 years, so not everything was immediately clear, and (3) to best grasp this book, I had to constantly remind myself what was known and not known in the 1800s.

As an example of that last point: Darwin repeatedly refers to the “principle of inheritance”, the mysterious mechanism by which offspring resemble their parents to varying degrees. Today, it’s basic middle school science to learn about chromosomes and alleles, and how they affect the appearance of offspring, but these were unknown concepts in Darwin’s time. He had no idea how one set of parents passed on traits to offspring. DNA was an even later discovery — today, it’s regularly used to establish relationships, even between different species, but in Darwin’s time, it was all a guess.
“The laws governing inheritance are for the most part unknown. No one can say why the same peculiarity in different individuals of the same species, or in different species, is sometimes inherited and sometimes not so; why the child often reverts in certain characters to its grandfather or grandmother or more remote ancestor; why a peculiarity is often transmitted from one sex to both sexes, or to one sex alone, more commonly but not exclusively to the like sex.”

— pg. 15

Another example: In the 1700s and 1800s, various scientists calculated the age of the Earth at 75,000 years, 96 million years, 400 million years, and other numbers, based on what little they knew at the time. Darwin admitted that a young Earth would prove his theory of natural selection untrue — it required that the Earth be exceedingly old.

Historical Context

Eventually, as I realized how little of modern knowledge that Darwin had to work with, it became less of a distraction and more of a miracle that he persisted in his theory at all. Placing his work in the proper historical context made it all the more amazing.

Plate tectonics was unknown until a couple of generations later. Radioactivity — and thus various dating methods we rely on today — was unknown. Many thousands of fossils, new layers of sediment, life in the deepest trenches of the Pacific Ocean — all found long after he died. In Darwin’s time, it was thought that the atom was a hard, solid, indivisible sphere. Germs hadn’t been discovered yet.

For historical context: Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities was published the same year. The U.S. consisted of only 33 states. The very first oil well was being drilled in the U.S. The Civil War hadn’t yet begun. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in 1859, and Washington Irving died.

What I Liked Most About It

First, I enjoyed that the book began in a place I could understand — unnatural selection, detailing the process by which planters and breeders have, over the centuries, produced new varieties of plants and animals not found in nature. In those cases, of course, humans select for desired characteristics: plumper and tastier fruit, faster-running or stronger horses, certain types of hair on dogs or cats. Darwin suggested that nature does something similar, but selects for advantageous traits. If a population of wild hogs suffers a long-lasting drought, the ones better able to forage for food, survive on less water, or migrate to more habitable environs will be more likely to survive to reproduce.

I also liked that he dealt with the difficulty of defining taxonomy terms (domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, variety) early on, because none of these groups are natural, they are divisions invented by humans, and there has always been some level of disagreement as to how the divisions should be drawn: “...I was much struck how entirely vague and arbitrary is the distinction between species and varieties” and “no one definition [of species] has as yet satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species”. This is still a problem today.

Darwin knew the arguments against his theory, and didn’t hide from them. In the book, he lists many, describes why they conflict with his theory, and deftly provides evidence for why each is incorrect.

Further Notes

Something that became more evident the further I read is that Darwin took pains to avoid discussing humans in the book. He was well aware that even scientists friendly to his theory considered humans to be a higher, special form of life — even if all other forms of life had evolved naturally, humans were still a special work of the Creator. My guess is that he knew his theory would be more palatable to a greater audience if he did not broach the subject.

The following notes are mentioned only because of my erroneous misconceptions before reading this book. First was my misconception that one of Darwin’s purposes in writing was to reinforce the idea that some humans were inherently better than others. Second was my misconception that evolutionary theory was thought up to disprove the Bible.

Some 20 years ago, when discussing the subject of evolution with a friend — long before I was convinced, and long before I had any desire to read this book or study the subject — I was told: “You know Darwin was a racist, right?” For the first time, I was told the full, original title of the book, including the phrase “the Preservation of Favoured Races”. I’ve since learned that this is a common and insidious denouncement, put forth by people who have never read Origin, and only effective on people who have never read it.

The word “race”, biologically, is unrelated to the social phenomenon of classifying human beings into artifial groups based on distinct physical characteristics. In biology, race is an informal taxonomic rank, below the level of species. It’s clear from reading this book that Darwin used the term interchangeably with “variety”. In Origin, the first use of the word race was in reference to varieties of cabbage, which is followed by a discussion of “the hereditary varieties or races of our domestic animals and plants”. As noted above, humans aren’t even mentioned in the book. If they had been, it’s not clear how Darwin would have treated the subject, but it’s well known that all humans alive today are members of the same subspecies, or race: “homo sapiens sapiens”.

(And Darwin himself learned taxonomy from a freed black slave named John Edmonstone, whom he described as a “very pleasant and intelligent man”.)

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Darwin was not an atheist bent on disproving the Bible or any tenet of religious belief. Like many Brits of his day, he was baptized in the Anglican church and attended religious schools. He maintained a belief in God, and this is evident in the book under discussion here. (Decades later, he wrote that “agnostic” might accurately describe his current state of mind.) But it is clear that his theory of natural selection was not based on a preconceived notion, but rather a conclusion to which he came after examining mounds of evidence.

By the time this book was written, geological evidence showing many extinct species was well accepted, and it was clear that humans hadn’t lived nearly as long as other types of life. It was already accepted, even among educated Christians of the day, that the Genesis story of creation could not be literally true.


I’m glad I finally read this. I wonder what my reaction would have been if I had read the book as a high school student, when I was a fanatic Creationist. I don’t know that it would have convinced me on its own merits, but perhaps it would have made an earlier dent in my force field.

It was slow going, partly because of my daily responsibilities — I didn’t have hours to just sit around reading it — and partly because the sentences were very long, and logically built upon the previous sentences and paragraphs. Often, an interruption would require me to re-read several pages.

It’s often listed (example) as one of the top science books that laypersons should read, but I found it tedious at times. I don’t know that I would recommend it to the average reader.

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