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On the Origin of Species (1859)

by Charles Darwin

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
11,18295413 (4.14)1 / 364
A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die...'.
  1. 80
    The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins (IslandDave)
  2. 30
    The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared M. Diamond (WiJiWiJi, WiJiWiJi)
  3. 30
    The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen Jay Gould (Anneli)
  4. 30
    Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea by Carl Zimmer (yapete)
  5. 30
    The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution by Sean B. Carroll (Othemts)
  6. 41
    The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (themulhern)
    themulhern: The books are similar in structure and not nearly as dry as most other science or history.
  7. 20
    Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins by Ian Tattersall (John_Vaughan)
  8. 20
    Darwin's Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated by Steve Jones (Noisy)
    Noisy: Things have moved on somewhat in the last one hundred and fifty years. These two books bear a re-read ahead of the bicentenary of Darwin's birth in 2009.
  9. 20
    Evolution by Douglas J. Futuyma (davidsietsma)
  10. 31
    Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade (ColumbusLee)
  11. 20
    Darwin and the Beagle by Alan Moorehead (John_Vaughan)
  12. 10
    Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin (Michael.Rimmer)
  13. 47
    Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (2below)
    2below: Carroll was one of many Victorian authors influenced by Darwin's work. Alice is rife with evolutionary thinking--a crazy world inhabited almost entirely by sentient animals, with a heavy focus on eating and being eaten.

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English (85)  Spanish (3)  Portuguese (Brazil) (1)  Norwegian (1)  Finnish (1)  Catalan (1)  German (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (94)
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If you had an idea, perhaps one of the most important ideas of all time, but one that contradicted the established doctrine of a millennia old institution, how would you convince people your idea was right? And let's make no bones about the importance of Darwin's theory of evolution. As (the Russian Orthodox Christian) Theodosius Dobzhansky would famously put it over a century after Darwin's masterpiece was published: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Looking at the modern online "debate" (and by using that word I stretch its definition well beyond its elastic limit) between the pro- and anti-evolution camps, it's a rather depressing scene. The anti- camp tends to get hung up on the meaning of the word "theory". I'm currently striving to make a career out of studying number theory. Given that the theory of numbers requires an abstraction of thought far more chimerical than any theory in the physical sciences, perhaps these masters of debate would suggest that numbers don't exist either and thus the Thomas More Legal Centre will start giving out millions of dollars to the needy — after all what is a million? No, seriously, what is a million? (Or in a more earthy example courtesy of Tim Minchin, maybe those who dismiss evolution as being "just a theory" feel the same away about the theory of gravity, and maybe they'll just float the fuck away.)

The pro-evolution camp fares little better to be honest; and by the pro- camp I'm not talking about the scientific community. Scientists know evolution is the basis of how life works, most of them are about as willing to have serious debates on it as I would be to debate the true value of pi. No, by the pro- camp I mean the youtube commenters and the such like whose responses to Creationists tend to invoke the promiscuity of the latter's mother.

Based on modern sentiments, then, to convince Victorian England that his theory of evolution was correct Darwin presumably launched a scathing attack on the Church and highlighted the fact that we must descend from smelly, hairy apes because he'd seen yo' momma. Zing.

So is that how he kicks off his treatise, with a rousing assault on the enemy? Not exactly. He talks about dogs. And chickens and goats. And Mr Blyth, who knows more about domesticated fowl than you or I ever will. Oh, and pigeons. There's a great deal about pigeons. The first chapter is in fact distinctly unrousing. "We know all this, Charles!" you feel like yelling, "Shut up about the God-forsaken pigeons already." Chapter two rolls around and the talk of pigeons ends. Praise be. What begins is Darwin's definition of "species". Given the work's title it seems fair enough that we should know what a species is, so Darwin defines one as being a collection of animals that can interbreed. He notes some empirical facts about the geographical distribution of genera and varieties and again the whole chapter is entirely unobjectionable.

Chapter three follows up by pointing out that exactly how one wishes to divide up living beings into groups is immaterial and will always be slightly artificial. What we can agree on is that within each grouping of alike animals or plants there is individual variation, as discussed in Chapter 2, and we know from domesticated animals and plants that living things tend to pass on certain characteristics to their offspring; and if we didn't know that when we started the book we do after the extensive discussion in Chapter 1. Finally, again from domesticated stock, we know that offspring inherit much from their parents, but will sometimes have quirks of their own. Spend enough time gardening or with an isolated group of animals and you won't be able to refute this. Thus, Darwin points out in Chapter 3, what happens if one of these distinct quirks the offspring develops is actually advantageous? Slightly better camouflage, say, or the ability to survive with less water, or seeds that are slightly more palatable to birds, or flowers that are more attractive to bees? By the definition of the word advantage this offspring would have a slightly better chance of surviving and producing offspring of its own. Only slightly better, yes, and still open to the whimsy of the environment, but better nonetheless. And if humans can turn wolves into Basset Hounds in a few hundred years, presumably over a few hundred thousand years these small statistical gains can add up to result in a living thing that is so far removed from its descendant that breeding would be impossible between the two of them. Thus we have: the origin of species.

Darwin, it should be pointed out, has nothing to say about your or anyone else's mother in The Origin of Species.

It's hard not to smile during the first few chapters of the book. Darwin lays out truths so self-evident that no one could refute them without losing all credibility. It's slow paced, sure, but only because Darwin is making sure that there can only be one inevitable conclusion. Even if you think your faith is irreconcilable with the conclusions he draws I think you'd be hard pressed to fault his logic. Indeed, most doubters of evolution seem to be Young Earth Creationists, those who believe that the Universe was created on Saturday 22nd October, 4004 BC, a remarkably specific date determined by the Irish Primate James Usher (not to be confused with rhythm and blues singer Usher Raymond IV who, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't made any attempt to calculate the exact age of the Earth). It's no coincidence that the Venn diagram of Christians and non-believers in evolution tends to intersect on this particular group: Darwin's theory requires hundreds of thousands of years for undirected evolution to work. A cat with laser eyes might have a massive advantage over its brethren but that advantage comes to naught if it gets ran over before it can make laser-kittens. Over many years, though, the chances of every laser cat that randomly appears being ran over tend to zero. Fortunately for Darwin, Victorian geologists aged the Earth at many millions of years old, ample time for laser-kittens.

As important as what is in the book is what isn't in the book. I smiled as I saw where Darwin was going with his argument. But oh how I cringed every time he tried to explain the mechanics of inheritance but couldn't because Mendel's theory of genetics wouldn't be widely publicised for another forty years. He also, wisely, doesn't apply his theory to humans, merely suggesting near the end of the final chapter that via evolution, "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." By the 1870s and his publication of [b:The Descent of Man|185407|The Descent of Man|Charles Darwin|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1311644193s/185407.jpg|728232] England had almost unanimously accepted evolution and was thus more willing to accept that man too had evolved from "lesser" lifeforms. Indeed, one of the more controversial aspects of Darwin's later work wasn't that we might have evolved from the same creature as did chimpanzees and orang-utans, but that the civilized English gentleman sipping his tea in the club was of the same species as the dark skinned, spear-carrying savages one heard of in fantastical books. That even this revelation was accepted by the majority of readers hopefully conveys the power of Darwin's arguments. And one more thing that doesn't appear in The Origin of Species is the woeful line that "we evolved from chimps". Few statements show a more feeble understanding of evolutionary theory than the notion that most extant species have been the same for hundreds of thousands of years while new species branch off. After all:

(Image by Matthew Bonnan as part of the Second annual Stick Science Cartoon Contest.)

Whatever your personal beliefs, it's hard to claim that The Origin of Species is anything short of a masterful argument. If, as Young Earth Creationists claim, God made the Earth look four and a half billion years old, hid fossils in the ground, and constantly tweaks species to better suit their environment but makes it all look like it's occurring naturally, then Darwin simply brought us all one step closer to understanding God. If on the other hand God either isn't there or doesn't care, then Darwin brought us one step closer to understanding the Universe itself, and I can think of no goal more sacred than that. ( )
  imlee | Jul 7, 2020 |
1. This book was writing a long time ago. His style is to logically present his arguments.
A. There has been a great deal of genetic understanding since then.
B. There is a lot of speculation about what might cause variation as he puts together his logical arguments.
2. Many authorities are cited that are meaningless to me 160 years after the book was written. But, then, I am not a biologist
3. Early on he lists objections which people might (and do) raise against his proposal of evolution though intermediate species. Then later on elaborates on them. I was impressed that he responded up front to the objections that I heard listed against him a century later.
4. The book is full of comparisons, analysis of what they mean, and how such differences may have formed. It could easily fill a semester at college. These get rather tedious to a person who isn’t a specialist in the field.
A. Thus, for someone who wants to learn what Darwin actually said without wading through all the examples and discussion, I recommend the last chapter: Chapter 14. RECAPITULATION AND CONCLUSION.
B. Although labeled Recapitulation and Conclusion, his thesis came through here clearer than it did earlier: He asserts that there were not multiple creative acts (as believed by most experts of his time), but that there was one creation of life with variation thereafter.

( )
  bread2u | Jul 1, 2020 |
  5083mitzi | Apr 25, 2020 |
Rating this was not easy. I think this book is a 5 star for importance however this was a tough book to trudge through. I listened to it on audio and I don't think I could have finished it otherwise. ( )
  authorjanebnight | Dec 6, 2019 |
5 stars, naturally! ( )
  haraldgroven | Sep 8, 2019 |
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» Add other authors (102 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Darwin, Charlesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Appleman, PhilipIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Beer, GillianEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Burrow, J. W.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bynum, WilliamEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Carroll, JosephEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Eliot, Charles WilliamEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ghiselin, Michael T.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grassé, Pierre-PaulIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hellemans, LudoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Huxley, JulianIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Landacre, PaulIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mayr, ErnstIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Peckham, MorseEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Quammen, DavidEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rook, RuudTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Simpson, George GaylordForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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by David Quammen
On the Origin of Species is a surprising, peculiar work in many ways but among all its peculiarities my favorite is this: Seldom in the history of English prose has such a dangerous, disruptive, consequential book been so modest and affable in tone. That's because its author, Charles Darwin, was himself a modest and affable man—shy in demeanor though confident of his ideas—who meant to persuade, not to declaim or intimidate. You can hear it in his opening sentences:
When on board H.M.S. 'Beagle,' as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.
He sounds lik a gentle uncle, clearing his throat politely, about to share a few curious observations and musings over tea.
When on board H.M.S. 'Beagle,' as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years' work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable: from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.
"It may be difficult, but we ought to admire the savage instinctive hatred of the queen-bee, which urges her to destroy the young queens, her daughters, as soon as they are born, or to perish herself in the combat; for undoubtedly this is for the good of the community; and maternal love or maternal hatred, though the latter fortunately is most rare, is all the same to the inexorable principles of natural selection."
Multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.
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For the first five editions the title was “On the Origin of Species”, the sixth edition of 1872 changed the title to “The Origin of Species”.
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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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Tantor Media

2 editions of this book were published by Tantor Media.

Editions: 1400102154, 1400108640

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