150 years ago, a book that changed history: Charles Darwin, Origin of Species

150 years ago today Charles Darwin’s “big book,” On the Origin of Species, was first published.  The entire publication run of more than a thousand copies sold out within a few days, making it a certified best-seller of its day.

A rare copy of the first edition, found in the loo of an old house, sold at auction at Christie’s for US$172,000.

Olivia Judson’s already got her day-after blog post up at the New York Times site, talking about a key issue in evolution:  Extinction.  She already blogged on the importance of the Big Book.

And the “Origin” changed everything. Before the “Origin,” the diversity of life could only be catalogued and described; afterwards, it could be explained and understood. Before the “Origin,” species were generally seen as fixed entities, the special creations of a deity; afterwards, they became connected together on a great family tree that stretches back, across billions of years, to the dawn of life. Perhaps most importantly, the “Origin” changed our view of ourselves. It made us as much a part of nature as hummingbirds and bumblebees (or humble-bees, as Darwin called them); we, too, acquired a family tree with a host of remarkable and distinguished ancestors.

The reason the “Origin” was so powerful, compelling and persuasive, the reason Darwin succeeded while his predecessors failed, is that in it he does not just describe how evolution by natural selection works. He presents an enormous body of evidence culled from every field of biology then known. He discusses subjects as diverse as pigeon breeding in Ancient Egypt, the rudimentary eyes of cave fish, the nest-building instincts of honeybees, the evolving size of gooseberries (they’ve been getting bigger), wingless beetles on the island of Madeira and algae in New Zealand. One moment, he’s considering fossil animals like brachiopods (which had hinged shells like clams, but with a different axis of symmetry); the next, he’s discussing the accessibility of nectar in clover flowers to different species of bee.

At the same time, he uses every form of evidence at his disposal: he observes, argues, compares, infers and describes the results of experiments he has read about, or in many cases, personally conducted. For example, one of Darwin’s observations is that the inhabitants of islands resemble — but differ subtly from — those of the nearest continents. So: birds and bushes on islands off the coast of South America resemble South American birds and bushes; islands near Africa are populated by recognizably African forms.

Of course you –you cognescenti, you — know Judson is the wit behind Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, a thoroughly delightful, funny and scientifically accurate book.  Which brings to my mind this question:  Why are scientists, and especially evolutionary scientists, so funny and charming, in stark contrast to the dull proles of creationism?

And, were he not ill at the time, can you imagine what a fantastic dinner guest Charles Darwin himself would be?

Darwin's hand-drawn "tree of life"

Darwin's hand-drawn "tree of life"

Meanwhile, at PBS, NOVA already featured “Darwin’s Darkest Hour” earlier this year.  NOVA research Gaia Remerowski alerts us to a coming production, “What Darwin Never Knew,” featuring progress made in evolutionary development, “evo-devo.”   Science marches on.

Remerowski illustrated her post with Darwin’s quick, hand drawing of a “tree of life,” a drawing that has become iconic in biology circles — like the one to your right.  This one comes from the website of “Speaking of Faith,” another PBS production that featured Darwin earlier this year.  SOF offered an online tour of some of the work of Darwin, too — other drawings from Darwin’s own hand.  Nice exhibit.

Our country’s advocates for good science education, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) carried Origin Day greetings and a rundown of a dozen projects commemorating the 150th year of the book, and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

Happy Origin Day, indeed.

5 Responses to 150 years ago, a book that changed history: Charles Darwin, Origin of Species

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    I know. I offered a few ideas to suggest the sarcasm was misplaced.


  2. jmatthanbrown says:

    Actually, Craig Ferguson is a comedian and the host of a late night television show–I was being a bit sarcastic to make a point.


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Josh, your mileage may vary, but I find it works best this way: Find someone with great chops in science, as evidenced by publications and citations, awards, etc.; there is about a 90% correlation with great sense of humor there. This is a SWAG figure, of course, but a good one.

    For examples, see Dick Feynman’s first memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (excerpt here), or Hans Zinsser’s Rats, Lice and History. Or, see how and why Ralph Alpher and George Gamow and Hermann roped Hans Bethe into signing on to their paper.

    What has Ferguson published lately? Ever? There are lots of funny people who have no science chops at all. See, for example, the Institute for Creation Research, or the Competitive Enterprise Institute — although, one might argue that the humor there is all pratfall, and unintentional.


  4. jmatthanbrown says:

    Mr. Darrell,

    Yes, being “funny and charming” is the first thing I look for in a scientist when evaluating his work. I call it the “F&C” test; it’s a way of demarcating between real scientists and pseudo-scientists. One of my favorite scientists is Craig Ferguson—I know he’s a good scientist because he’s extremely funny and charming.

    – Josh


  5. FYI, there’s a great book called “The Knife Man” about John Hunter, who was a leading figure in the birth of modern surgery. Though he certainly didn’t have a theory of genetic mutation and selection, he did create an elaborate museum showing evolutionary changes of a wide variety of animals over time. And he said that the first human beings were from Africa. Amazingly, this was 50 years before Darwin, and even riskier time to challenge the creationism orthodoxy of that era. Here’s the link on Amazon – http://bit.ly/7epgFW


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