Charles Darwin – On the Origin of Species

Charles Darwin – On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life

There is something to be said about reading primary sources. In this case, it is surprisingly readable. For a book about theory, Darwin is heavily empirical. Every facet of natural selection he brings up in the book is illustrated by real-life examples from nature, including animals, plants, fungi, and more. In a way it’s an Attenborough-esque nature tour, with more depth and a unifying theme.

The book stands up better than I expected. Science has advanced much in the last 160 years, but those advances are more updates and expansions than a wholesale rebuilding of natural selection theory. The biggest advances have been in genetics; the Origin of Species’ biggest shortcomings are in that area, though that isn’t necessarily Darwin’s fault.

Darwin also had a charming humility. His personality was more shy and retiring than brash and combative, and it showed in his writing. He’s hard to hate as a person, and his lack of dogmatism and certainty would in most cases be disarming. But considering the uproar he caused, that turns out not to have been the case. Darwin went noticeably out of his away to avoid mentioning the God hypothesis, though he does allude several times to the need for longer-than-biblical time scales for natural selection processes to operate. Even so, critics pounced. Even today, some people reject evolutionary thinking, though nearly always for religious rather than scientific reasons.

As with Adam Smith, the ratio of people who have strong opinions about Darwin to the people who have actually read him is very large. As a result, popular conceptions of his views tend not to be entirely accurate. I encourage interested readers to improve that ratio and read the book. The Origin of Species turns out to have literary value as well as scientific, and there is something to be learned from the delivery as well as the content.

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