Penguin Classics, 1985. First published by John Murray, 1859. ISBN 0-14-043205-1

Darwin wrote that , "When the views entertained in this volume on the origin of species, or when analogous views are generally admitted, we can dimly foresee that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history".

With the advantages of hindsight we can see that this was an understatement. The book has had an enormous impact , probably appearing in the indexes of more recent academic publications than any other 19th century text.

To answer the question of why, the reason is no doubt the same as when it was first published in 1859. His discovery combines simplicity with great explanatory power in an area of critical interest, namely the natural world and our place in it.

In contrast to the texts of today there are no formulas and only one diagram. The chapters have quick summaries and the whole thing has an easy flowing discursive style that is very accessible despite being a distillate of a large amount of widely differing knowledge.

He starts by looking at selection under domestication (i.e. not in nature) of animals, with special reference to the pigeon, showing how desired characteristics can be chosen by the breeder. In this respect after a discussion about pigeons and pigeon breeding in general, he can quote the skilled breeder Sir John Sebright as saying that, "he would produce any given feather in three years, but it would take him six years to obtain a head or a beak".

He goes on to extend the idea of selection to the natural state where nature takes the place of the breeder in selecting which variants breed successfully and which do not. The controller is not now the breeder with the feather or beak that he wants but rather the environment itself. Nature allows certain birds to reproduce that have the optimum colouring to avoid predators or attract mates or a beak type that best fits the most common functions.
The idea is developed in the chapters entitled Struggle for Existence and Natural Selection . As he puts it: "In the case of every species, many different checks, acting at different periods of life, and during different seasons or years, probably come into play; some one check or some few being generally the most potent, but all concurring in determining the average number or even the existence of the species".

There are many examples with studies of special cases such as isolation, intercrossing, convergence and divergence of characteristics, and the competition between individuals and varieties of the same species. He clearly states that the environment is the guide : "...the structure of every organic being is related, in the most essential yet often hidden manner, to that of all other organic beings, with which it comes into competition for food or residence, or from which it has to escape, or on which it preys".

He speculates on the characteristics of variation without knowing of Mendels identification of particles (genes from each parent that could be dominant or recessive). Mendel only published in 1866 with his work not being rediscovered until 1900 so Darwin leaves this as somewhat of a grey area. He observes variation and catalogues it stating that it changes in small increments over time and is subject to selection pressure.

He is the first critic of his own work, highlighting for example the patchiness of the geological record :"Why does not every collection of fossil remains afford plain evidence of the gradation and mutation of forms of life?" In the event these problems are being tackled a century later reinforcing his insight of any organ or instinct arriving at it's present state through many graduated steps.

The high scientific reputation and social position of Darwin (needed to launch his ideas successfully) is covered in an excellent new biography by Janet Browne entitled Voyaging.

{Return to my Home Page and latest recommended book}{Return to other recommended books}