On the Origin of Species

“A mountain is an island on the land.”

Charles Darwin

Well, here it is, Constant Reader. Finally. My review of On the Origin of Species, by Mr Charles Darwin, arguably the most influential science book ever, explaining the idea of evolution by natural selection.

The first thing that struck me was how very tedious it was. Darwin, I thought, was going on and on about various obscure animals and plants, going back to points made before, taking baby steps, pointing out the obvious, for 500 pages.

But then I realised that this length, this endless explication, was necessary in Darwin’s time, because the ideas were so revolutionary and so heretical: up until then, the prevailing idea was that God created each species separately. Darwin explains (politely, of course) why this view was illogical and, well, a bit stupid in the light of all the evidence. And then he shows, logically, painstakingly, what the truth must be. He talks about embryology, climatology, geology, any number of ologies, all with the aim of showing incontrovertibly that natural selection is the only possible explanation for the vast and ever-changing range of organisms on our planet.

Now, a bit of nit-picking, because that is what the English Student does best. In the introduction to the edition that I read (a facsimile of the first edition, in attractive green binding; I love university libraries), Ernst Mayr, whoever he is, claims that Darwin did not cite his sources. I’m sorry, but of the several charges that could be levelled against Darwin, this is not one of them. What is this but an acknowledgement of a source?

In a letter to me, in 1839, Mr. Herbert told me…


And I did something of a double-take when I read this:

Mr. Prestwich, in his admirable Memoirs on the eocene deposits of England and France…

Either the meaning of the word “memoir” has changed considerably since the Victorian age, or Mr. Prestwich is very old indeed.

Sorry. That was an attempt at a joke. I won’t try again.

On the Origin of Species is not exactly what you might call “light reading”. (Unless you’re Hermione Granger, that is.) But it’s interesting to see where it all began, and it certainly is convincing. And if you don’t want to commit to the whole 500-page slog, there’s a potted version in Chapter 14.

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