Darwin's Origin of Species
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Darwin's Origin of Species

A Biography (A Book that Shook the World)

Janet Browne

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eBook - ePub

Darwin's Origin of Species

A Biography (A Book that Shook the World)

Janet Browne

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About This Book

No book has changed our understanding of ourselves more than Darwin's Origin of Species. It caused a sensation on its first day of publication in 1859 and went on to become an international bestseller. The idea that living things gradually evolve through natural selection profoundly shocked its Victorian readers, calling into question what had been for many the unshakeable belief that there was a Creator.

In this book, Janet Browne, Charles Darwin's foremost biographer, shows why Darwin's Origin of Species can fairly claim to be the greatest science book ever published. She describes the genesis of Darwin's theories, explains how they were initially received and examines why they remain so contentious today. Her book is a marvellously readable account of the work that altered forever our knowledge of what it is to be human.

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A Note on Editions
1 Beginnings
2 ‘A theory by which to work’
3 Publication
4 Controversy
5 Legacy
Sources and Further Reading


Writing this book was a very enjoyable process and I am particularly grateful to my editor Louisa Joyner for her encouragement and support. The rest of the team at Atlantic Books were also fabulously efficient and friendly in seeing it through production. Jane Robertson worked wonders on my prose. Elsewhere, friends at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London have offered much useful advice. Special thanks, as always, are due to Bill Bynum and Michael Neve, very knowledgeable and stimulating Darwinian colleagues. I am also extremely grateful to the students who have, over the years, patiently discussed Darwin with me. This short study is written with them in mind. Most of all, this book is for Kit and Evie, students of other subjects, but only too familiar with Darwin over the dinner table. Their opinions are important to me and I hope this will provide a more connected story.


Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published in November 1859 in London by the firm of John Murray. The publisher’s advertisements indicate that the most likely date of publication was Thursday, 24 November. This first edition is nowadays mostly seen only in rare book collections. Several modern reprints of the first edition text are available in different formats, including on the internet. The first edition has also been reproduced in the twentieth century as an exact photo-facsimile, the most well known being edited and introduced by the biologist Ernst Mayr and published by Harvard University Press in 1959. All quotes in the present volume, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from this facsimile.
The second edition was produced very soon after the first, on 7 January 1860. Darwin managed to make a few significant corrections. Three thousand copies were printed, making this the largest edition issued in Darwin’s lifetime. Six editions were published by the time of his death in 1882, each one with corrections and alterations. The third edition (1861) is interesting because Darwin added a short ‘Historical Sketch’ in which he described other evolutionary theories. In the fifth edition (1869) he first used the expression ‘survival of the fittest’. The sixth edition, issued in 1872, is usually regarded as the last that Darwin corrected. He intended it to be a popular edition. It was printed in smaller type and cost much less. It was extensively revised and included a whole new chapter in which he answered criticisms. Most modern copies of the Origin of Species are based on this edition.
At the same time, editions were published by Appleton in New York. These do not completely match the English ones in content because Darwin often supplied corrections and other material either in advance or after each London edition. Translations were issued in eleven different languages during Darwin’s lifetime and he tried to supervise each one, not always successfully. The first French and German translations did not satisfy him and he sought out new translators, hence later editions in those languages are closer to Darwin’s original intentions. The book has received detailed bibliographical attention from Richard Freeman in The Works of Charles Darwin: An Annotated Bibliographical Handlist (2nd edn, Folkestone, Dawson Archon Books, 1977). A sentence-by-sentence analysis covering the changes made to all editions in English in Darwin’s lifetime was published by Morse Peckham, The Origin of Species: A Variorum Text (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959).


Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species is surely one of the greatest scientific books ever written. Yet it does not fit the usual stereotype of what we nowadays expect science to be. It is wonderfully personal in style. It has no graphs or maths, no reference to white-coated figures in a laboratory, no specialized language. The years leading up to its publication were crammed with unexpected setbacks, chance encounters, high emotion and controversy. It sold out to the book trade on publication day and the arguments that it ignited spread like wildfire in the public domain, becoming the first truly international scientific debate in history. Readers attacked it or praised it, and struggled to align their deep-seated religious beliefs with Darwin’s disquieting new ideas. From the start it was acknowledged as an outstanding contribution to the intellectual landscape, broad in scope, full of insight and packed with evidence to support his suggestions – but passionately criticized at the same time for proposing that all living beings originated through entirely natural processes. Apes or angels, Darwin or the Bible, were burning topics for Victorians. Many of these issues are still very much alive today. In fact, the writing and controversial reception of Darwin’s Origin were never set apart in some cold esoteric world of science. Its story, in many ways, is the story of the modern world.
From today’s perspective, of course, Darwin’s role as one of the makers of present times has never been more evident. His writings challenged everything that had previously been thought about living beings and became a crucial factor in the intellectual, social and religious transformations that took place in the West during the nineteenth century. In time, Darwin grew to be one of the most famous scientists of his day, a Victorian celebrity whose work even in his own lifetime was regarded as a foundation stone for the modern world. Were we descended from apes? Must we give up the story of Adam and Eve and regard our purpose in this world as meaningless, little more than an animal existence? It was not just a question of arguing about the literal truth of the Bible. Few people, even then, believed in the Garden of Eden as a real place. Instead, Darwin seemed to be expelling the divine completely from the Western world, calling into doubt everything then believed about the human soul and our sense of morality. If humans were no longer answerable to God, their creator, were they free to do what they liked, without any moral constraint at all? ‘Is it credible that a turnip strives to become a man?’ enquired Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, in 1860. Darwin was popularly supposed to have assassinated the idea of God and once, jokingly, labelled himself the ‘devil’s chaplain’.
Retrospectively, it is common to label those stirring times as the ‘Darwinian revolution’. The words usually come with a warning attached, for it is now clear that many of the themes addressed by Darwin were not new, either to him or to his readers. Even so, the label retains much of its meaning in the mind of the public. As so often happens, one man and one book have come to represent a larger transformation in thought. Yet the impact of evolutionary ideas has waxed and waned since Darwin’s death, paradoxically sometimes at the same time. At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, for example, when the evolutionary imperatives of competition and progress were expressed in the social sphere through imperial expansion, free enterprise and eugenic doctrines, and the words ‘survival of the fittest’ were on every lip, many biologists felt that the scientific side of Darwinism was utterly incompatible with early genetics. Paradoxically again, in the 1930s and 1940s, just when a number of avant-garde biologists hoped to produce a new ‘evolutionary synthesis’, there was strong support for rival systems based on environmentalist ideas of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Meanwhile, the John Scopes ‘monkey’ trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, in which the fundamentalist politician William Jennings Bryan led the prosecution against a science teacher charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution, and the agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow the defence, has gone down as a watershed in the relations between science and religion. For a while it was against the law in Tennessee to teach evolution in schools.
At the start of the twenty-first century, Darwin’s ideas have never been more prominent – although arguments are as heated as ever. Transformed by the modern understanding of heredity, and refined in a thousand different ways as knowledge marches onwards, the idea of natural selection is the cornerstone of most biological thinking across the globe. Palaeontologists trace mass extinctions and bursts of change in the fossil record, molecular studies throw light on the origins and diffusion of early mankind and genes are reg...

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