On the Origin of Species | Study Guide

Charles Darwin

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On the Origin of Species | Introduction | Summary



Darwin begins by framing his work within the context of his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, stating the conclusions he reached are the result of his personal observations. However, he clarifies the conclusions presented in this work are preliminary. He was advised to publish his ideas after receiving a manuscript from Alfred Wallace containing similar deductions.

Darwin bases his argument on research undertaken by his predecessors and contemporaries. He argues naturalists are aware new species rise from other species. However, he points out most scientists ascribe this fact to "external conditions," such as "climate" and "food." Darwin argues these are not the only means for the origins of new species.

Darwin goes on to detail the general structure of the rest of the book. He will first discuss domestication—or variation in species caused by humankind—followed by a discussion of variation in nature, the difficulties of survival, natural selection, the laws of variation, and finally the "apparent and gravest difficulties in accepting the theory." Darwin ends the introduction with a clear thesis: "Natural Selection has been the most important, but not the exclusive, means of modification" in animal species.


While Darwin emphasizes the preliminary nature of the conclusions presented in On the Origin of Species, the strength of his argument has held up thanks to the longevity his work has enjoyed since its publication in 1859. The fundamental principles Darwin discusses in the following chapters of the book set the foundation for modern scientific research in biology, ecology, and genetics.

Darwin admits part of the push for publishing this work was Wallace's manuscript. While scientific advancements often occur because of friendly competition, it is rarely stated so plainly within the introduction of the work itself. While Darwin was eager to publish on the idea of natural selection, it is clear he was willing to work with Wallace to some extent. Indeed, the first public presentation of the theory of natural selection was authored by both Darwin and Wallace and given as a joint talk to the Linnean Society in 1858. However, Darwin aimed to publish on this idea before Wallace and was able to do so successfully. It is perhaps unsurprising that despite the fact the theory of natural selection was conceived of independently by both Darwin and Wallace, it is Darwin's name that is often the only one associated with it.

This touches on a couple of themes within science—the first being scientific advances are rarely conceived of in a vacuum. Ideas are most often a product of a culmination of ideas, and thus are subject to independent invention by multiple individuals in the field. The other theme within the sciences is the tendency for specific individuals to be recognized for an idea conceived by many. Despite the fact Wallace conceived of the idea of natural selection at the same time as Darwin, he is often not recognized for his work.

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