A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 5, Chapter 25 : Life Itself (Darwin's Singular Notion) | Summary



In this chapter Bryson chronicles the history of the rise of evolutionary theory. Beginning with Darwin, he relates how the scientist, born in 1809 and with no great ambition, came to ride on the HMS Beagle. The captain wanted Darwin, who had just received a degree in divinity, as a dinner companion. The purpose of the voyage, which lasted from 1831–36, was to chart coastal waters. Darwin collected the specimens that would eventually result in his insights into natural selection and evolution.

Darwin did not form the theory of evolution on the voyage, nor was it a new idea. Instead, after reading a text by English scholar Thomas Malthus called Essay on the Principle of Population, which was about food supply and population growth, he began to think that "all organisms competed for resources, and those that had some innate advantage" would flourish and pass on their superior traits to their offspring.

On the Origin of Species, his groundbreaking statement of these ideas, was initially published in 1859. This delay in publication was necessary for several reasons: Darwin needed to organize the data he collected, process the mountains of data, and deal with his poor health. He also knew his theory of what he called "descent with modification" (he didn't call it evolution until the sixth edition of Origin of Species) would cause great controversy and debate. When Darwin received a draft of a paper written by a younger colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, that echoed many of Darwin's ideas, he decided to move his book into publication.

Darwin's and Wallace's ideas were presented together in 1858 during a meeting of the Linnaean Society; however, they were received with little fanfare. When Darwin's book was published a year later, it was not received well within the scientific community, including by Darwin's own friends. There was large support for the idea of intelligent design. This was the idea life must be the work of some intelligent being (God) and could not be the result of chance mutations over millions of years. Darwin's theory thoroughly rejects such an idea, and so it caused much controversy. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Darwin did not get recognition for his insights in On the Origin of Species and his later work Descent of Man (1871), which focused on human evolution, until after his death. In Descent of Man Darwin proposed the idea humans evolved from an ape ancestor; however, there was very little scientific support for this idea at the time, since only a few early hominid fossils had been found.

While Darwin was able to describe the processes of natural selection, he could not explain how new species originated. Gregor Mendel, born in 1822, provided this insight. An Austrian monk and trained scientist, Mendel experimented for years with pea plants by breeding and crossbreeding hybrids. His work showed how dominant and recessive traits, which would later be called genes, combined and "produced predictable patterns of inheritance." It was largely ignored in the scientific community. Finally, in the 1930s and 1940s, with the "advance of a refined theory called ... the Modern Synthesis" that combined Darwin's and Mendel's ideas, the work of both men gained widespread acceptance.


Few theories have generated such widespread controversy within both the scientific community and the general public as Darwin's theory of evolution. Bryson's treatment of the history of the theory highlights the causes of this controversy. The theory itself has an enormous amount of evidence to support it; however, it collides with religious teachings. This collision is still a problem today; thus, it should come as no surprise at the time the theory was initially proposed, it was met with a great deal of resistance. Bryson notes the concept of evolution had actually been proposed decades prior to Darwin and Wallace's conclusions, but it failed to gain any traction. This happened in part because it did not provide a mechanism for evolution, but also because of the controversy it generated.

In addition, the theory wasn't well received in the scientific community because it went against the understanding of nature at the time. The fossil record did not support Darwin's ideas. As a result, while On the Origin of Species was a commercial success, Darwin eventually "lost virtually all the support that still remained among the ranks of fellow natural historians and geologists."

Bryson also explains when and where the common image of humans developing from apes appeared. The idea was merely a "passing allusion" within On the Origin of Species and was made more explicit in The Descent of Man. This idea, too, was not strongly supported by the paltry fossil record at the time. In time, however, the concept would fundamentally influence the sciences of paleontology, biological anthropology, and archaeology, which Bryson discusses in later chapters.

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