Introducing “On the Origin of the Species”

Now that I have a few posts under my belt, I’ve decided to kick it up a notch and develop a plan to tackle one of the biggest sources in my current curriculum: On the Origin of  Species by Means of Natural Selection, by Charles Darwin.

Although Darwin’s work was originally published in 1859, it still remains one of the most influential scientific works ever published. According to biologist, philosopher, and biological historian Michael Ghiselin, quoted in the introduction to the fancy edition of On the Origin left over from my grad school days, “To learn the facts, one reads journals. To understand biology, one reads Darwin” (9).  Since I don’t have a formal scientific background, I think building a more nuanced understanding of the foundations of biological science is an excellent place to start.

For those of you who haven’t set eyes on a copy of On the Origin, it’s massive, but not bloated in the way second rate fantasy novels are wont to be (and trust me: I’ve grumbled my way through enough of them to know).  After his voyage on the HMS Beagle, Darwin spent decades meticulously cataloging and organizing his observations, questioning their implications, and painstakingly building his case for the theory of natural selection (which we’ll get into in greater detail about at a later date). To avoid limiting myself solely to discussions of On the Origin for the next two months and to ensure that I’m able to give each section the attention it deserves, I will be addressing the 14 chapters either individually or in small groups over the coming months.

As you may expect, I’m one of those nerdy readers who will read every word from cover-to-cover, including introductions, forewords, afterwords, explanatory notes, etc. The front and back matter, especially in academic editions of classic works, can be tedious at best, but they often contain little gems of knowledge that can add levels of richness to the reader’s understanding of the book. For On the Origin, I’m especially glad I did.

As a reader without a background in evolutionary biology, (like myself), it came as a shock that Darwin did not study as a scientist, nor was he considered remarkably bright in his younger years: “Much has been made of Darwin’s supposed dullness, exemplified, it is thought, by his respectable but undistinguished performance as a student” (25). Darwin himself remained humble, stating in his own autobiography that “with such moderate abilities as [he] possess[ed], it is truly surprising that [he] should have influenced to a considerable extent the beliefs of scientific men…” (qtd. on pg. 25).

In today’s world, most of the people who get screen-time in conservation have lifetime stories of following a straight path toward their current careers from childhood. These paths seem invariably to include decorated academic careers from prestigious universities. Don’t get me wrong: science has come a long way since the nineteenth century, and these people are brilliant. However, I think those of us on the fringes can all draw a little inspiration from Darwin. Though he was interested in the natural world from an early age, he wasn’t exceptionally driven throughout his academic career—after he left medical school, he even entertained the possibility of becoming a parson. Yet, through circumstance that granted him a post on the HMS Beagle, he stumbled into a calling that drove him for the rest of his life and paved the way for today’s fields of biology and ecology.

We’ll get into the work itself in the coming months, but for today, I’m taking away that so long as we keep our minds engaged, our eyes open, and our curiosity alive, there’s no telling what we might discover.

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