The greatest book of all time

By Branden Holmes (Surroundx) on November 27, 2010

On the 24th of November, 1859, Charles Darwin's magnum opus On the Origin of Species was published by John Murray of London. Remarkably, the whole print run of 1500 copies sold out that day. Even more remarkable however was the fact that the original agreement was for 500 copies to originally be offered. But Darwin's close friend, the geologist and famed author of The Principles of Geology, Charles Lyell, pressed John Murray to increase the print run three-fold; a very risky venture by the standards of the day. And as they say, the rest is history!

As Darwin tells us himself in his Historical Sketch at the front of Origin, he was not the first person to raise the possibility of biological evolution; Aristotle was. He was in fact neither the originator of the idea of evolution, nor even of natural selection (that honour goes to Patrick Matthew). What he is actually known for is for his prescience in marrying the two together and extrapolating them, with the backing of huge amounts of evidences, to explain how so many species have arisen from so few, or possibly even a single, ancestral form.

Darwin's book introduced the general public to the idea evolution. The idea that species are not immutable, but rather that they have undergone much change throughout their tenure upon the Earth. But given the poor fossil record that was then known in Darwin's time, he had to rely heavily upon analogy. Namely, the analogy to artificial selection. Darwin was convinced, for example, that all breeds of cattle had descended from some one or a few aboriginal stock, and that over millennia man had exerted his powers of selection over them. Choosing only those individuals which fitted certain criteria, which depended both upon the region and the ideals of the farmer, they had collectively created so many breeds that by Darwin's time, no farmer could accept that they all derived from a small number, possibly a single, ancestor.

Unfortunately Darwin was unaware of DNA, and was thus deprived of the knowledge of where the variation necessary for evolution comes from: mutations. We see in his writing on the subject of variation great confusion. He raised many possible alternatives, amongst them an excess of food! But his views on variation must be analysed in their pre-DNA context. In his time nobody knew where variation came from. It wasn't until 1886 that the botanist Hugo de Vries came across some evening primroses which, though clearly evening primroses, were very different to the one that they were juxtaposed with in that field. He subsequently coined the term "mutation" to denote this abrupt departure in form from the parents.

Darwin's theory has subsequently been built upon by literally thousands of scientists. Thus many new things have been incorporated into Darwin's theory, most importantly genetics. But it is still the same basic theory that he laid out in the Origin. Thus modern evolutionary theory is still widely known as Darwinism. No other individual, before or since, has made as significant a contribution to our understanding of evolution as Darwin did.

Related articles:
Charles Darwin, evolution, natural selectio, On the Origin of Species

About Branden Holmes
I am an amateur evolutionist interested in the theoretical side of the subject.

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