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
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
— 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.
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
(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.
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
(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
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
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
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.