Artefact of the month - November 2009
On the Origin of Species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin.
This month’s artefact celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first edition of Charles Darwin’s seminal work On the origin of species, which was first published 24 November 1859.
Darwin described Origin as ‘one long argument’ for his theory of evolution by natural selection.
‘As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form’.
Taking his inspiration from the observations he made during the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836), his studies of the variation in domestic breeds and after reading An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus, Darwin had developed “a theory by which to work” by 1838. He subsequently spent many years developing his theory and meticulously gathering evidence to support it.
Darwin originally intended to publish a much larger book on natural selection. However, following encouragement from Sir Joseph Hooker and Sir Charles Lyell and after receiving a paper from Alfred Russell Wallace revealing that he had independently developed a similar theory, Darwin finally wrote Origin. The paper Wallace sent to Darwin was presented to the Linnaen Society by Hooker and Lyell along with extracts from Darwin’s manuscript on 1 July 1858, see our July 2008 artefact .
Darwin’s target audience was the educated general reader and the book was hugely successful. The first edition of 1,250 copies was sold out on the day of publication and less than 2 months later a second edition of 3,000 copies was published on 7 January 1860. Six editions were published during Darwin’s lifetime and by the 6th edition the title had been shortened to The origin of species. Since its first publication Origin has never gone out of print and has been translated into over 30 languages.
Darwin’s theory was met with much controversy and in each new edition Darwin addressed the arguments of his critics. Many scientists were not convinced that natural selection could be as powerful as Darwin suggested and although the only comment on human evolution in Origin, is “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”, the implications were obvious and not well received. Darwin went on to discuss the evolution of humans directly in The descent of man, published in 1871.
Darwin's theory revolutionised evolutionary thinking and 150 years after the publication of the first edition of Origin, natural selection remains the primary explanation for adaptive evolution.
Darwin Online is the largest repository of the works of Charles Darwin. It contains a collection of his writings both published and unpublished, including On the origin of species.
Celebrations for Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin have been taking place throughout 2009. Details can be found on the Darwin 200 website.