Review of On the Origin of Species (1859)

Charles Darwin (writer).

Read in 2020.

Read in its sixth edition.

It is good thus to try in imagination to give any one species an advantage over another. Probably in no single instance should we know what to do. This ought to convince us of our ignorance on the mutual relations of all organic beings; a conviction as necessary, as it is difficult to acquire. All that we can do is to keep steadily in mind that each organic being is striving to increase in a geometrical ratio; that each, at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation, or at intervals, has to struggle for life and to suffer great destruction. When we reflect on this struggle we may console ourselves with the full belief that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.

The most striking aspect of reading Darwin in 2020 is how well contemporary and subsequent generations of scientists and science writers have represented him. Their love is well founded. A lot of the favourite examples of later writers, including the cuckoo and the sterile worker ant, are right here in the original. They are presented with a freshness that is still compelling. It is amazing to think about the naturalists of the time taking Lyell’s geology into account, grappling with Cuvier’s palæontological evidence of extinction and what we now call deep time, and converging on descent for extending Linnaeus’s systema naturae. It is no wonder that Wallace independently came up with an idea like Darwin’s. This idea gradually came within easy reach, even without any understanding of genetics, though natural selection would not be fully accepted as the main driver of evolution until the discovery of DNA.

What makes the read exciting today is not so much the content but the obvious effort and anxiety surrounding its presentation. Darwin never attacks Genesis or the church directly and actually professes some belief in divine creation (quoted below), but he continually contrasts his theory against the once-prevailing belief that each species had been created independently. He did not have to resort to a veneer of deniability as Galileo did in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), because he lived in a more enlightened time, but Darwin did not take his task lightly. His concern about directly and necessarily contradicting a warmly held, hugely important false belief is present in every word. As a result, the book is a cornerstone in almost all subsequent natural philosophy.

How admirably careful he was. Page after page of detailed, thankful references to the work of other naturalists and scientific authorities, including one “Rev. W. Herbert” with “great horticultural skill” and “hot-houses at his command”. The phrase “careful observer” is a recurring form of high praise, in the age before ubiquitous photography. Darwin himself included only one diagram; the book is almost all lovingly crafted prose. Some of the smaller details are a bit dull to the uninitiated layman, but the attention to counterarguments is sometimes humorous.

The author’s own experiments and observations are many, varied and fun, but not central. The closest thing to a misrepresentation by later popularizers concerns the example of finches on the Galapagos. Darwin does mention the islands once in an early chapter, as an inspiration, but he does not go into any detail until near the end, and his field work with birds from those islands was actually quite sloppy and peripheral to the theory.

Part of the reason why it was possible for Wallace and Darwin to come upon the idea without any knowledge of genetics was the relative wealth of nature in their time. In fact, one of Darwin’s many clear and easily accessible examples concerns the thylacine:

Numerous cases could be given of striking resemblances in quite distinct beings between single parts or organs, which have been adapted for the same functions. A good instance is afforded by the close resemblance of the jaws of the dog and Tasmanian wolf or Thylacinus—animals which are widely sundered in the natural system. But this resemblance is confined to general appearance, as in the prominence of the canines, and in the cutting shape of the molar teeth. For the teeth really differ much: thus the dog has on each side of the upper jaw four pre-molars and only two molars; while the Thylacinus has three pre-molars and four molars.

A good point, but the thylacine went extinct in 1936. You can’t fault Darwin for that, but he is annoyingly vague on the subject of evaluating fitness. He asserts that “new species become superior to their predecessors” and talks about “victory in the battle for life”, as if humans driving the thylacine extinct should be interpreted as a sign of our fitness, quality or rightness in some Nietzschean scheme of justification. This is Darwin’s most serious error in this particular book.

It is likewise false that “no fear is felt” in nature, but the author’s final words are still true, minus the bit about deism and the hint of Lamarck. He begins his last paragraph with the image of the tangled bank, an image that prefigures a modern ecology robbed of Nietzschean superiority, and he ends it with the scientist’s great love of life and parsimony.

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

non-fiction text