Happy Birthday Origin of Species

Like others I would like to say Happy Birthday Origin of Species. I’ve been mulling over what I wanted to say about the book all day.

Like Bora (linked to above), I first read the Origin of Species when I was 13 or 14. I don’t necessarily think I was too young, rather I didn’t know enough about biology. Most of it was over my head. I have read it several time since and am always surprised at how much sense it makes. One hundred and forty eight years on down the road and the book still holds up well. Granted evolutionary theory has progressed and deepened since Darwin’s day – genetics and Evo-devo come to mind. Our knowledge of past life is much richer and deeper, it seems like some new species is named every other day (see here, here, and here for examples). Yet, for all that The Origin of Species still has a fresh, original, modern ring to it. Maybe it is because every time I turn around some new study comes out that tests Darwin’s ideas and finds them correct. As this post points out, Darwin wrestled long and hard with the theory and anticipated almost every creationist argument against the theory. The results of the struggle show up in The Origin of Species with telling effect. The arguments build on each other, the facts amass in a logical, tightly argued fashion until, by the end of the book, you realize you have just climbed a mountain and the evidence is overwhelming.
Like Bora, I have read a number of his other works – some in their entirety (Voyage of the Beagle, the Coral Reefs book, The Descent of Man, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the Orchid book, and The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication) others in part (the carnivorous plant book, the earthworm book) – and am continually amazed at Darwin’s powers of observation and his fascination with the natural world around him. Darwin’s view of the world, expressed in the following comment:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

is the world we live in today. The above paragraph occurs on the last page of The Origin of Species. It comes a few lines before the more poetic, widely quoted, and sublimely moving:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Yet, it is more important than the latter quote. Understand the first quote and you understand Darwin and The Origin of Species. Laws acting around us, (modern biology would probably dispute the idea that laws acting around us are responsible for evolution – and who can blame them – and in any case I suspect that Darwin’s “laws” are equivalent to our “processes”) are what allow us to understand the pattern of red spots on the wings of the butterfly Heliconius or the origins of life.

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