Darwin’s ‘Origin’: Introduction

Darwin was born on the 12th February in 1809. His most famous work, On the Origin of Species laid out his theory of evolution by natural selection and, though it has it’s failings (like any great work that acts as the springboard for a whole area of research), it is still one of the finest scientific books ever written. In honour of Darwin’s birthday, I will publish each day this week sections of a distilled version of his work that I wrote some time ago, in which I aimed to preserve the rich and expressive feel of Darwin’s book. If you have never read the Origin, and wish you had, this will hopefully show why you should!

The first publication of the Origin occurred much earlier than Darwin had intended. He had been waiting to publish his ideas in a much fuller volume, ‘Natural Selection’. In 1858 however, he received a paper from Alfred Russell Wallace, a little-known and impoverished naturalist lying on his sick bed in the Malay Archipelago, detailing ideas very similar to Darwin’s. Under pressure from his friends, Darwin presented both Wallace’s and his own paper to the Linnean Society, and published the abridged volume, ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859.


Darwin's Galapagos finches



The origin of the myriad and wonderful forms of life that inhabit the globe is one of our greatest mysteries. Until I returned from my voyage on the H.M.S Beagle in 1837, I was convinced, like most naturalists, that each individual species was divinely created. My observations of the flora and fauna of South America during the voyage caused me to deeply question my previous opinions. Many years of painstaking research have subsequently made it possible to develop an entirely different concept of how species have originated and changed gradually over time.

H.M.S. Beagle

The idea that species are changeable tells us little about the natural world unless we can offer a mechanism by which this development occurs. A commonly-used explanation is that organisms have been altered in response to their external conditions, in ways that allow them to survive more successfully in those conditions. This explanation is incomplete and does not describe how change occurs. I argue that organisms have adapted to their environment and to other organisms through the accumulation of inherited variations which have caused gradual but significant modification of the appearance and function of each species.

This book an abstract of a much larger volume, the publishing of which was prompted by the of Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace, who studies the natural history of the Malay Archipelago, and whose own conclusions are very similar to my own. As a result, this abstract will touch only briefly on many topics, but will serve to demonstrate my argument before a more complete version may be produced.

Fancy pigeon breeds

First we will examine the variation seen in domestic species, both between individuals and between breeds. I will show how domestic strains have been changed by breeders through accumulation of inherited variations. Domestic species are the most familiar and well known to us, and by looking at them we can understand several principles that can be applied to species in the wild. I will then describe the concept of the struggle for existence, which is a result of the over-production of offspring. I will go on to bring these principles of inherited variation and struggle for life together in the process of Natural Selection, which I am convinced has been the main mechanism by which species have developed from their ancestral forms. The implications of this process and the relationships which exist between every living organism have affected our past and present, and will determine the future of the natural world.

‘I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained- namely, that each species has been independently created- is erroneous.’


Darwin’s Origin, chapters 1-3: variation and struggle

Darwin’s Origin, chapters 4-6: natural selection and some difficulties

Darwin’s Origin, chapters 7-8: instinct and hybridism

Darwin’s Origin, chapters 9-10: the geological record

Darwin’s Origin, chapters 11-12: geographies

Darwin’s Origin, chapter 13 and conclusion




© Natalie Lawrence: The Manticore 2018

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