Author: Charles Darwin
Date Published: 1869
I have finally finished ‘The Origin of Species’, a book that is still so controversial that a movie about Darwin’s life couldn’t even find distribution in the United States. It took me over a year to finish.
‘The Origin of Species’ is about the means in which evolution occurs; Natural Selection. Through descent and modification Darwin shows how flora and fauna has drastically changed throughout time. (For the most part I adopted my ‘David Attenborough’ inner monologue while reading this book, which I recommend as highly effective and agreeable).
I really enjoyed the manner in which Darwin writes; he is mostly decisive and thorough, but at times the passionate manner of his explanations really show his love and wonder at nature. I especially enjoyed his descriptions of the habits of animals and his experiments, which really brought into focus just how dedicated Darwin was (he studied barnacles for around ten years!). Some of his tests were so odd and strangely humorous that I really enjoyed imagining him doing them (there was this particular experiment with fresh water shellfish and a pair of ducks feet that really made me laugh).
There were some chapters that I tore through, particularly those on geographic distribution and embryonic development, but there were other chapters that near bored me to death (hybridism….I loathe thee). I found it hard to read about any experiments involving plants, as I don’t have great knowledge of plants types and names.
Darwin is extremely candid about the weaknesses of his theory. Once you read the Origin of Species, it is easy to see how Creationists ‘quote mine’ the text. Basically, Darwin is a proper old-fashioned British gentlemen; he politely illustrates the ways his theory could be wrong. He dedicates an entire chapter, ‘Difficulties On Theory’, just to discuss these issues in stark detail. The word ‘fatal’ pops up frequently. However, after he describes these threats Darwin launches into lengthy counter explanations.
It’s ironic that the honesty and candidness that makes ‘The Origin of Species’ a truly great text is the central reason that it can be tarnished by deliberate misquoting. It is all too tempting for the few Christians who have read the text to take a quote from the beginning of a paragraph and leave out the rest in order to back their own position – a startling act of half truth and dishonesty. I have witnessed this firsthand a great deal, not only on the internet, but also in a few Jehovah’s Witness texts that I have come across. (At the risk of sounding like a raving school teacher) This, ladies and gentlemen, is why it is very, very important to read for yourself. Let others decipher texts for you at your own risk.
The introduction by J W Burrow was very informative and superb, a real pleasure to read rather than a chore. From this I learned that interestingly enough, ‘The Origin of Species’ barely uses the term ‘evolution’. Darwin didn’t even coin this term, though it is popularly attributed to him (It had been kicking about in science since around the 1830’s – I’m pretty sure it was first used by Lyell. The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, whilst in ‘The Origin of Species’, was used firstly by Herbert Spencer). Also, Darwin never speaks directly of where humans fit into this theory (british politeness and dapper sensibilities coming in), but it is the inevitable conclusion drawn from the implications of his theory that becomes the elephant in the room.
I can’t say that this book is accessible to a casual reader and it requires some dedication to get through. Every page is very dense and requires concentration to digest, rather than merely skimming. Now that I’m finished though, I can see the value and importance of the work. It is hard for a modern reader to grasp that truths which seem self-evident now were once inconceivable and indeed avoided despite the evidence. ‘The Origin of Species’ is the dogged, diligent explanation of certain inescapable facts that were being shied away from because of taboo. When you reach the end, you can see how our view of our role in life and nature was simultaenously expanded and shattered by the concepts espoused in this text.
♥♥♥½ – 3½/5
So, I’ve read ‘The Origin of Species’ now, but I’m a little stumped at what to read next on the subject. If anyone could point me in the direction of good, reliable, modern books on evolution, I’d be delighted.