Full title: "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life"

A couple of years ago I heard two friends arguing the evolution vs. creationism debate. The one for evolution kept mentioning Darwin, until the other one asked "have you actually ever read Darwin ?", which certainly created an awkward moment since, come on, who's really read Darwin ?

Yes, this was the motivation for my buying this book. I consider myself well read in the topics of evolution (Dawkins, Sagan, Pinker, Robert Wright and others), and wouldn't want to get tackled by the "have you actually read Darwin" question, although I suspected in advance that reading him wouldn't really teach me much new on the topic (and was right!).

So here we are - "The origin of species", summarizing one of the most important paradigm shifts in the history of modern science, written by one of the greatest thinkers of the past few centuries - Charles Darwin. We haven't had much important scientific breakthroughs lately (unless you count the folks of String Theory finding yet another dimension as a breakthrough), so it isn't easy to appreciate the leap of thought required to produce a work such as "The Origin" 150 years ago. There was no genetic engineering, no Dolly, the human DNA was not mapped. Hell, nobody has even heard of the DNA at that time. Neither has anyone heard of genes (Georg Mendel held his pea experiments a few years after the publishing of The Origin, and his ideas weren't really acknowledged until the early 20th century).

Contrary to popular belief, in The Origin Darwin didn't stray too much from the Creationist path. Indeed, he was very careful not to offend (being a pious person himself, married to a religious woman) and not to make statements that are too bold. For example, in the conclusion he calls his theory:

The theory of descent with modification through variation and natural selection

And later he comes about as far as possible to heresy at that time by stating:

I believe that animals are descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. Analogy would lead me one step farther, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants are descended from some one prototype. Byt analogy may be a deceitful guide.

Darwin was a very smart guy, and by his book he sounds like a very thorough and meticulous, brilliant, modest biology/zoology/ornithology/botany geek. An example of his thoroughness could be his treatment of the different varieties of pigeons in the first chapter. A few pages there read like an encyclopedia, and this is not the only instance of such detail in the book. Another notable example is lots of references to barnacles, on which Darwin was a world-expert at his time after studying them for years.

He builds his argument masterfully, fighting off objections from several directions. The book begins by awing at the species and varieties undoubtedly created by selective breeding of farm animals and plants by human civilization. Then, he goes on to lay the foundations of his theory of natural selection by describing the varieties arising in nature, the fight for existence in the presence of limited resources, and so on. Then, a few chapters are spent on answering the various objections that has arisen to the theory. Darwin concludes by a couple of chapters that present further support to natural selection, from miscellaneous topics like geographical distribution of species, morphology and embryology.

A few random points of interest I found in the book:

  • Noting the power of random mutations, a story is told of two sheep growers who bred sheep purely from the same stock for 50 years. At the end, although they started with exactly the same kind of sheep, "The difference between the sheep possessed by these two gentlemen is so great that they have the appearance of being quite different varieties".
  • Darwin points out an interesting opinion: "Some authors believe it to be as much the function of the reproductive system to produce individual differences, or slight deviations of structure, as to make the child like its parents". I wonder if it still holds today.
  • A great rationale is given for subterranean animals eventually losing their eyesight. Since eye infections are a frequent disease, mutations that degenerate eyes, by "reduction of size, adhesion of the eyelids and growth of fur over them" may be actually advantageous to subterranean animals, which don't have a use for eyes anyway, but may as a result suffer less from dangerous inflammations.
  • Why has only one animal like the giraffe evolved ? Why aren't there competing species with ridiculously long necks. Darwin has an example to explain:
    In every meadow in England, in which trees grow, we see the lower branches trimmed or planed to an exact level by the browsing of the horses or cattle; and what advantage would it be, for instance, to sheep, if kept there, to acquire slightly longer necks? In every district some one kind of animal will almost certainly be able to browse higher than the others; and it is almost equally certain that this one kind alone could have its neck elongated for this purpose, through natural selection and the effects of increased use. In South Africa the competition for browsing on the higher branches of the acacias and other trees must be between giraffe and giraffe, and not with the other ungulate animals.
  • On page 171 (of my Signet Classic edition), in a section named "Organs of Extreme Perfection and Complication", there lies a quote by Darwin that is very commonly taken out of context:
    To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
    The creationists who throw this quote around as a "proof" that even Darwin didn't believe that evolution can explain the eye, probably don't know that this quote is followed by a brilliant rebuttal, in which Darwin beautifully explains why the eye is not a challenge for his theory. He also follows it on page 175 with another famous quote, of which the last sentence is often omitted by creationists:
    If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.

So, would I recommend this book ? This isn't an easy question. You have to be pretty hard-core to read it, I'd say. Hasn't Dawkins said enough ? Reading Darwin after Dawkins is kinda like reading Euclid's "Elements" after finishing a full course in geometry. It has historical merit, but probably won't teach you much new. Besides, The Origin is not a simple book to read and digest. Written in the typical packed style of the 19th century, I found myself dozing off and skipping a couple of pages in some instances. I don't know if I'll want to read Darwin's other books. Perhaps, but not now. I have to rest first and read simpler material, for a year or two :-).