Charles Darwin was, at least as far as Im concerned, the greatest biologist ever, and On the origin of species by means of natural selection is one of the most important books ever written. It kicked off biology as serious science. And it gave me something cool to study when I left school, so Im not complaining.
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The Idea: Natural selection and Evolution
This book is all about building a case that life on earth has evolved (i.e. the character of organisms has changed) over time, and that the main mechanism of that evolution (a term that doesnt actually appear in this book, its place being taken by the nifty phrase descent with modification) is natural selection. Ill try to break it down as much as possible, following Darwins logic.
(1) organisms reproduce
(2) they vary in ways that make them more or less successful at producing viable offspring
(3) some of that variety is heritable
(4) over time, populations of those organisms will evolve
Its really all very simple, and its quite amazing that it took so long for someone to work it out as well as Darwin did.
Darwin clearly spent a lot of time considering his theory before he finally published this book. The final result has the sort of clarity and logical flow that is only present when ideas have been well thought out and carefully considered. And its chock-full of evidence backing it up. Its a solid, methodical presentation of a brilliant idea.
The writing style is not exactly reader-friendly (or, at least, not modern reader-friendly. For all I know, readers in Darwins time might have found it quite a good read. I guess were just not as pleased by long, complex sentences as they were in those days.) He uses lots of long sentences and very long paragraphs, which can be a bit daunting when he also utilizes such a large and impressive vocabulary. But hes not trying to impress us with his incredible command of the English language, and the book is remarkably free of jargon. What little jargon there is is explained in a glossary at the back of the book. Darwin presents ideas as clearly as he can, and he never tries to obscure his meanings. Rather, he painstakingly develops all his ideas and statements.
Not quite Darwin
This book reveals, unsurprisingly, that Charles Darwin was not a true, pure Darwinist in the modern sense (although the term is basically void of meaning, with different people using it in different contexts). He held to many notions that are considered un-Darwinian (or, more accurately, are not good or accepted aspects of evolutionary theory). For example, he believed in Lamarckian evolution and group selection. References to both (though not referred to as such) are scattered throughout the book.
Lamarckian evolution is the idea that organisms can inherit acquired characteristics, and that use and disuse of muscles and organs influences their evolution. Basically, Lamarck believed that organisms determined the direction of their evolution through striving. For (the classic) example, the giraffe originally had a far shorter neck, but continuous striving caused individuals necks to lengthen, a trait which they passed on to their offspring, who stretched and grew yet longer necks, passing this to their own offspring, and so on down to the present long-necked mammal.
Group selection is the idea that organisms evolve for the good of the group that groups can evolve in a way that is disadvantageous to individuals if it benefits the entire population or species. Both of these ideas are are no longer a part of evolutionary theory, and it would take too long to explain why, so if you dont know, just take my word for it. Darwin didnt think he was writing about the only form of evolution he supposed he was merely introducing the most important component of evolutionary change.
Difficulties on theory
Charles Darwin had a gift for considering things from all angles, and his own difficulties on theory that he includes in the book are still among the favourite arguments of evolution-denying religious fundamentalists (and general cranks) today. For example, creationists are fond of pointing out the impossibility of, say, an eye evolving by natural selection. Anything less than a perfect eye is useless, they say. The intricate system of cornea and lens and iris and retina and so on must have come into being all at once. To use a phrase commonly employed these days by those ill-equipped to back up their words with critical thinking, the eye is irreducibly complex.
Darwin dissects arguments of this sort with admirable and impeccable reason. His responses to his own objections are flawlessly logical and very insightful. In the case of the eye, he points out the myriad types of eyes present in modern animals, so many that one can use them to form a gradation between no eye and a human eye or a squid eye. If all these eyes, many of them little more than bits of pigment which allow orientation towards light, serve well today, why should similar eyes have been worthless before? How, he asks, can we doubt the usefulness of eyes that are little more than blobs of translucent tissue with a tiny light-sensitive bit when animals with these type of eyes still exist today? Many other objections are disposed of equally brilliantly.
(For those of you who are now feeling the urge to point out that mere logic holds no currency within the domain of science, you will be pleased to know that Darwins reasoning is now backed up by lots of empirical evidence. Eyes, for example, have evolved tens of times over the course of lifes history.)
But how does it work?
Ive often wondered how Darwins work could possibly have been accepted given its two massive flaws: it doesnt explain how heredity works, and it doesnt explain how variety comes about. All Darwin was really telling readers is what happens as a result of variation between individuals and the fact that offspring resemble parents. Sure, they knew variety exists, and they knew that offspring are similar to their parents, and Darwins theory was a perfectly logical result of these and other known factors, and was backed up by a lot of evidence and reasoning, but it just feels like theres something missing.
But then what about Newtons Law of Gravitation? It didnt explain what gravity was or how it originated, or why it worked, just described its effects. Its even less complete than Darwins theory of natural selection, and yet everyone was willing to accept Newtons work practically right off the bat and Newtons maths turned out to be a bit off anyway (just a tiny bit, as a result of things explained by Einstein and not relevant here). Darwins theory wasnt exactly complete, but it was complete enough.
If youre not yet familiar with the concept of natural selection and evolution, this book really wont be for you. A lot of it is inaccurate and outdated, and reading it will only give you a haphazard and, in some places, completely wrong idea of just what evolutionary biology is all about. Id recommend you first read Almost Like a Whale, the modern version of The Origin written by Steve Jones, and then perhaps some of Richard Dawkins books, or something by Ernst Mayr, before you read this.
Other Evolution Reviews
What Makes Biology Unique? by Ernst Mayr
Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould
The Selfish GeneThe Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins