Evolution Explained, Part 15 – Darwin’s Origin

This is Part 15 of a series of approximately sixty posts that outline evidence, support, and explanations for evolution. Receive updates and notification of all posts from dennismitton.com by selecting the Email Membership button on the sidebar of any page. Thanks!

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Copyright Dennis Mitton

Publication of Origin

Darwin's BookDarwin and his supporters knew that Alfred Wallace would soon be breathing down Darwin’s neck with a theory of evolution. Friends, recognizing the revolutionary nature of evolution, encouraged Darwin to publish his work soon. On November 24, 1859, The Origin of Species was published by John Murray (publisher of Jane Austen, Darwin, Goethe, Melville, and Doyle) in a run of 1,250 copies which sold out immediately. Subsequent editions continued to sell out and Origin – the full title was On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection Or The Preservation of Favoured Races In The Struggle For Life – has been continuously published in a variety of editions since that time. Mine is a marked-up and musty old Modern Library hardbound that smells of old books and tobacco.

What is special about this book and these ideas? Why hasn’t Newton’s Principia been a consistent money maker? Besides being written in an English even more arcane that Darwin’s, people just don’t care about math and physics. Well, physicist do, but the message of it doesn’t bump into people at church and while they live their lives. Apples fall from trees. When you push a ball it keeps rolling until something stops it. There’s nothing here that, on the outside, impacts anyone. Hutton and Lyell  (cf here) certainly caused a stir among scientists when they argued that the earth is almost incalculably old but most people if they heard a whisper of it, didn’t care and thought the writers to be daft. Their work was published at the dawn of the age of popular science and, like an explanation of gravity, had little impact on the daily lives of commoners.

Darwin’s Controversy


A young Alfred Wallace

But evolution? Now that’s a horse of a different color. Any Londoner wealthy enough to purchase a copy of Origin and educated enough to understand it would nod in agreement with Darwin’s first chapters where he writes about variations in domesticated animals and plants. His revolutionary argument that similar looking animals and plants likely came from a single progenitor eons ago raised eyebrows but didn’t start protests. But by the end of his work, when the reader figures out that there is nothing special about man, that the reader – and his chaste and proper wife – are simply naked apes given over to the same drives as cattle and pigeons, when this idea tacitly calls into question all of religion and Victorian propriety…now you’ve got a controversy. It’s a controversy that has never stopped. It’s a controversy that has been sliced and diced and parsed from every angle imaginable. And it won’t go away as long as religions do what religions do and proffer faith over demonstrable facts. There is no controversy in science though. Evolution has given rise to genetics, developmental biology, modern medicine, and an understanding of behavior, and is, in a very real way, central to the way the universe works. When asked what fact Richard Feynman would leave to a people with no clues about the nature of reality he said he would write down that everything is made of the same invisible particles mixed up in different ways. But I wonder if Darwin’s dictum of differential selection of varieties in specific environments is at least equally as important.

The Origin of Species

Darwin wastes no time getting to his argument. He begins straightaway explaining how domestication and artificial selection is used to develop wildly different animals within the same species. Much, if not most, of Origin takes place on a farm or in a garden. Just like Jesus purported to do, Darwin speaks to people where they live and even metropolitan Londoners or Parisians would have an understanding of farm life. He sets the stage by reminding readers that selection is not new or special – farmers and cattlemen and birders have been acting as the mechanism for selection since men began living with animals. In the same way, farmers have developed robust varieties of grains that do better or worse in specific environments. Selecting among varieties to purposefully create a desired effect is not revolutionary.

Origin of Species

Original Publication

He moves slowly to natural selection and shows that same selection process occurs in nature. We now understand, thanks to Lyell, that the earth is incalculably old and we see animals that give every appearance of stemming from the same original who are markedly different now. Darwin argues that this selection is the cause of variety among plants and animals on the earth. From our modern vantage, it’s painfully clear that he struggles without an understanding of genetics. Mechanisms that are easily described in modern books to modern readers are absent in Origin. Remember that Darwin is explaining something new to readers who have likely never imagined such a thing. And without an understanding of the means, he is always doing double duty to explain the result. But I am always impressed with how robust his arguments are. His observatory skills are impressive and he leaves no stone unturned. Though sometimes long-winded and tortuous, his writing is a model for scientific work as he imagines every argument against his ideas and lays them out on the table for dissection. One by one he parses them and describes their strengths and weaknesses and then compares them to his ideas. Usually, he shows how his evolution is the better explanation. Famously, though, he at times reveals what most disturbs him. Will the fossil record prove him wrong? What about intermediates? How are traits passed from parent to offspring? As bold as the work is there is a charming humility as Darwin never slams his fist on the table but rather invites you in and asks if you see things differently.

Should you read the book? It can be difficult and long and foggy. It’s Victorian, after all. It is passive and effusive at the same time and often overly descriptive. What Hemingway would describe in a page Darwin does so in ten. If you want to learn about evolution then please read another book. I suggest Jerry Coyne’s fine Why Evolution is True or anything by Dawkins or Gould. Or just stick with this series. But if you are versed in evolution, there are wonderful nuggets here, things that you might already know, but told with fresh eyes in a wonderful style. I never go away without new thoughts or fresh insights. It’s said that Origin is the least read of all the most influential books and I don’t doubt it. I can count on one finger the number of close friends I have who have read it cover to cover. But it’s a good slog and there’s nothing to say you have to read it straight through. You’ll learn something, and garner a deeper understanding of nature, and can join in with the elite group of people who have actually read the most influential science book of all time.

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Posted in Blog, Evolution Explained.