Nov 24 2009

On the Origin of Species – Turns 150

Published by under Evolution
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charles-darwin-standingIt may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the lapse of ages… — Charles Darwin,  The Origin of Species (1859)

One hundred and fifty years ago Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It was an instant success – being a highly anticipated work, and definitely has lived up to the hype.

The Origin of Species (as it is often shortened) is an absolute classic of science. Few books have had such an impact on our view of nature, and still produce so much controversy even after a century and a half.

The controversy over Darwin’s humble proposal began on day one. In a letter to Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog) wrote:

As for your doctrines I am prepared to go to the Stake if requisite … I trust you will not allow yourself to be in any way disgusted or annoyed by the considerable abuse & misrepresentation which unless I greatly mistake is in store for you… And as to the curs which will bark and yelp – you must recollect that some of your friends at any rate are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often & justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead – I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness.
— Thomas Henry Huxley

In other words – get ready for a fight, and I’ve got your back, buddy.

It is hard to imagine a book having the impact today that The Origin of Species did. The work was the culmination of decades of thought and research by Darwin – all tied together in one grand theory. Today this work would be spread out over dozens of papers, dribbling out over years. This is partly due to the pace of scientific progress today – a researcher sitting on an idea as important as evolution would risk being scooped – as Darwin himself almost was by Alfred Russell Wallace. (Some argue he was scooped, but his friends made sure that Darwin received first credit.)

Also, Darwin was a gentleman of independent means, while scientists today need to show steady progress in order to keep their job and their grants.

In any case, Darwin’s work changed the way we see the natural world, and our place in it, almost overnight. And his ideas have stood the test of time – 150 years later evolution is a vigorous and successful scientific theory.

The Origin of Species is a work now in the public domain. This means that you can read it for free – the book is available online at talkorigins.org.

Of course, if you still like to hold a bound wad of paper in your hands, there are many printings of the book available. One of interest is a version being handed out by creationist Ray Comfort. To “celebrate” the 150th of Darwin’s work, he is handing out thousands of free copies of The Origin of Species. But here’s the catch, he inserted an introduction in the beginning – 50 pages of long-debunked creationist nonsense.

I suppose this is only fitting – in a way it does celebrate the revolutionary nature of evolutionary theory, and the way in which it challenges our view of ourselves and the way nature works. The creationists are still desperately taking pot shots at Darwin, and failing miserably.

Comfort is a particularly intellectually lazy and sloppy proselytizer. His arguments are brain-dead and unoriginal. The National Center for Science Education has put together a nice point-by-point take down of Comfort’s intro (something anyone familiar with creationist canards could have done in their sleep).

I’m not worried about Comfort’s sad attack on Darwin. He is so incompetent that he is an enemy to his own side. In fact, it’s nice easy pickings for young science enthusiasts who want to cut their teeth on some easy pseudoscience. It would be a good assignment in science class – pick a dozen points and refute them with logic and evidence. Be Darwin’s Bulldog for a day, and make T.H. Huxley proud.

If a more upscale copy of The Origin of Species is to your liking, you may be interested to learn that a rare first edition has recently been discovered – in the guest bathroom of a  home is southern England. Imagine finding that lying around. It is going up for auction and is expected to fetch about $100k.

It’s been a while since I read The Origin of Species. I have a copy on my bookshelf – I will make it a point to read it again sometime this year.

Also – mark your calendars. On July 5 2037 we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton.

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