The Orgin of the Species by Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

The Orgin of the

by Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Type of Work:

Natural history text

First Published


Complete Title

The Origin of Species by Means of Natural

Selection , or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life

Book Historical Commentary

Charles Robert Darwin, the grandson of
the English scientist Erasmus Darwin, studied medicine at the University
of Edinburgh and prepared for the ministry at Cambridge. Following his
abiding interest in natural history, however, he became a naturalist and
sailed in this capacity on the H.M.S. Beagle from 1831 to 1838. The Beagle's
expedition took Darwin to various Southern Pacific islands and to the coasts
of South America and Australia.

Returning to England, Darwin became the
secretary of the Geological Society and, in 1840, published a treatise,

"Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle." At this time he met Sir Charles

Lyell, who encouraged him to write about his inbreeding experiments and
to expound on his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Later, in 1844, Darwin received from a
fellow naturalist, Alfred Wallace, notes outlining a theory - parallel
to, but independent of, his own - on natural selection. Darwin carried
on his research and, in 1858, published an essay delineating his own evolutionary
theory along with Wallace's findings. The following year, The Origin of

Species appeared. The book's first edition sold out in one day, stirring
an immediate clamor of controversy. It is still recognized as one of the
most disputed yet important works of biological study

Darwin went on to publish The Movements
and Habits of Climbing Plants (1865), The Variation of Animals and Plants

Under Domestication (1868), The Descent of Man (1871), and Selection in

Relation to Sex (1871). The Origin of Species has powerfully influenced
nearly every contemporary field of scientific and philosophical study:
biology, literature, law, psychology, sociology, theology, and other fields
of intellectual pursuit.

Despite the length and weighty content
of Darwin's work, the text is remarkably easy reading. Unfortunately, through
all the tempest and fanfare that have followed it for almost one and a
half centuries, few have actually studied its pages.

Text Summary

Early on in Darwin's first five-year voyage
on the Beagle, he observed that, despite the distances between the remote
areas he visited, the varieties of flora and fauna he found were similar
in structure and function. This led him to develop his idea that species
were not immutable, but were forced to adapt to their ever-changing environments.

In his introduction to the first edition of The Origin of Species, Darwin
noted: "I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the
[plant and animal] inhabitants of South America, and in the geological
relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These
facts seemed to throw some light on the origin of the species - that mystery
of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers."

After over twenty years of further research, Darwin published his findings.

Like all scientists, Darwin built his theory
upon those of his predecessors. However, scientific opinion was always
and remains - somewhat divided as to what contribution the theory makes
to the biological sciences. Throughout the book, Darwin openly admits to
the possibility of error and the need for further investigation; he is
careful to point out that the idea of evolution by natural selection is"one of long argument."

To comprehend the vast amount of information
contained in the work, one must examine it in its entirety. Still, this
sampling of chapter headings and brief content summaries may provide some
general information.

Chapter II: Variation

Under Nature

Variations within a species are indistinguishable
at first, but gradually may develop into differences that can restrict
one group', range or ability to obtain food or escape predators ... Thus,

"varieties tend to become converted into new and distinct species ... and
throughout nature the forms of life which are now dominant tend to become
still more dominant by leaving any modified and dominant descendants."

Chapter III: Struggle
for Existence

"... When a plant or animal is placed
in a new country amongst new competitors, the conditions of its life will
generally be changed in an essential manner....... If its average numbers
are to increase...... we should have to give it some advantage over a different
set of competitors or enemies." Each organic being is striving to multiply
to be vigorous, healthy, and to survive - often at the expense of members
of its own species or those of a competing species.

Chapter IV: Natural Selection;
or the Survival of the Fittest

The "fitness" of a species is modified
by several different processes. For example, sexual selection may occur
when males of a population must compete with