On the Origin of Species | Study Guide

Charles Darwin

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On the Origin of Species | 10 Things You Didn't Know


On the Origin of Species is one of the most scientifically noteworthy, impactful, and viciously condemned biological texts ever written. Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 to explain his theory of natural selection—the notion that species evolve based on traits and characteristics of individuals that allow them to thrive more easily in their environments, while individuals without these subtle traits die out. Composed after extensive studies around the world, Darwin's text was met with harsh criticism from the established Christian tradition that claimed species had always existed "as they were," and therefore did not change over time.

Although Darwin did not intend to undermine religious authority, his findings clashed with Christian dogma―a conflict that would lead to more than a century of debate. However, On the Origin of Species proved to be the defining text of modern evolutionary biology, and it acted as a catalyst for understanding the living world in an entirely new way. Scientists have since used Darwin's work as a springboard to further their own research, and the theory of evolution he established has become the primary scientific lens through which people understand the development of life on the planet.

1. On the Origin of Species was inspired by Darwin's incredible voyage around the world.

Darwin had the opportunity to accompany the British survey ship, HMS Beagle, on an exploratory voyage around the world. Although Darwin's most notable biological findings came from the Galapagos Islands, the voyage took him to many distant lands including South America, the South Pacific, South Africa, and Australia. During his time aboard, he had the privileged status of "gentleman naturalist," and he was allowed to collect samples and specimens in each location at will. His main setback throughout the voyage, was persistent seasickness. Darwin took extensive notes that would inspire him to write On the Origin of Species, and he collected over 1,500 different plant and animal specimens to bring home.

2. Darwin was almost denied a spot on the Beagle voyage due to the shape of his nose.

Darwin was very nearly excluded from the HMS Beagle's voyage—all because of his nose. The ship's captain, Captain Fitzroy, was an ardent follower of the Swiss poet and scientist Johann Kaspar Lavater, who posited that an individual's character could be determined by physiological traits such as their facial structure or the shape of their nose. Fitzroy was convinced that, due to his nose shape, Darwin would be a poor addition to the voyage. Darwin's uncle protested the captain's decision, and he was eventually allowed to come along. Speaking of the voyage, Darwin recalled:

[Fitzroy] was convinced that he could judge a man's character by the outline of his features; and he doubted wheather [sic] anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage.

3. Darwin's father wanted him to become a doctor—but Darwin hated the sight of blood.

Before his interests in the natural sciences, Darwin was training for the priesthood. But earlier still, Darwin's father persistently pressured him to pursue medical practice. Darwin's father was a medical doctor, and he wanted the same career for his son. Unfortunately, Darwin was made extremely uneasy by the sight of blood, so his father quickly realized this wasn't a realistic option. Darwin attended medical school from 1825–27, and he was forced to observe primitive surgical operations that, due to the medical limitations at the time, were conducted without the use of anesthetics or painkillers.

4. Darwin was inspired by his grandfather, who used poetry to write about evolution.

Although Darwin is often credited as the father of evolutionary theory, other scientists had proposed similar hypotheses beforehand. One such figure was Darwin's own grandfather, the accomplished botanist Erasmus Darwin. Erasmus believed that species did, in fact, change over time, but he never published these theories in scientific form. Instead, he used poetry to hint at the possibility of evolutionary change in animals and plants—a clever method that prevented him from coming under attack by Church officials. Darwin was very familiar with his grandfather's work, and he saw it as an inspiration for his own theories. Darwin's poem "Economy of Vegetation" combined references to biblical creation with a more scientifically based allusion to the "Big Bang" theory, reading:

"Let There Be Light!" Astonish'd Chaos heard the potent word. Through all his realms the kindly Ether runs, And the mass starts into a million suns; Earths round each sun with quick explosions burst.

5. Contemporary critics have noted Darwin's persistent racism.

Despite Darwin's impact on the natural sciences, contemporary readers often find his writings to be incredibly racially insensitive. While traveling with the HMS Beagle, Darwin encountered many cultures and peoples that the British, at the time, considered uncivilized and backward. In his writings, he describes the peoples of Tierra del Fuego in South America as "miserable, degraded savages."

Although Darwin believed all human beings were of the same species, he divided them into distinct racial subsets, attributing different traits to each. This underscored his belief that whites were more "evolutionarily advanced" than other races—a troubling aspect of his theory that was used to justify racism and racially oppressive policies in later decades.

6. Darwin delayed publication of On the Origin of Species for 20 years—a time known as "the long wait."

Darwin finished his text in the late 1830s, but On the Origin of Species wasn't officially published until 1859, leading critics to refer to this period as "the long wait." Many scholars believe that Darwin delayed publication due to fear of the inevitable backlash from both the scientific community and the Church. However, contemporary researchers have disputed this, claiming instead that the delay was a result of Darwin's declining health, as well as the fact that he was working on numerous other projects at the same time.

7. Darwin's publishers wanted On the Origin of Species to focus primarily on pigeons.

When Darwin was working to finalize On the Origin of Species, his publisher, John Murray, received a strange suggestion: focus on pigeons. The critic and editor Whitwell Elwin wrote to Murray to discuss Darwin's work, and he was convinced that the text would be best-received if it used pigeons as the primary focal point to discuss evolutionary biology. Elwin claimed:

Every body is interested in pigeons. The book would be reviewed in every journal in the kingdom, & would soon be on every table. The public at large can better understand a question when it is narrowed to a single case of this kind than when the whole varied kingdom of nature is brought under discussion at the outset.

While Elwin's claim that the public can more easily understand a narrower study focused on one particular subject makes sense, it's unclear why he thought pigeons were the best option.

8. There are over 250 species named after Darwin—as well as a city in Australia.

Darwin's monumental contributions to modern biological science are reflected in the wide array of species that have been named in his honor. More than 250 species of plants and animals pay homage to Darwin in either their common or scientific names. The trend persists in recent years, as well: in 2009 Darwin was privileged to have a newly discovered species of dung beetle named Canthidium darwini.

Darwin's influence extends beyond living organisms as well, as the city of Darwin, Australia, is named in the biologist's honor. The city—capital of Australia's Northern Territory with a population of more than 100,000 people—was renamed for the naturalist in 1911. Contrary to popular belief, Darwin never visited the area where the city was founded, although he did visit Australia during his travels.

9. One famous biologist championed Darwin's theory—and became known as "Darwin's bulldog."

Although Darwin received quite a bit of criticism for his theory of natural selection, one contemporary of his fought tooth and nail to defend it. The British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley became known as "Darwin's bulldog" for his constant and adamant defense of Darwin's scientific theories. Huxley wrote extensively in Darwin's defense and organized events and lectures to combat the widespread condemnation Darwin faced from religious officials and dissenting scientists. Huxley once famously defended Darwin against a conservative bishop who asked, mockingly, whether or not his lineage came from apes. In response, Huxley claimed he'd rather be descended from apes than from a "wealthy bishop who prostituted his gifts."

10. In addition to studying exotic species, Darwin also ate them.

Darwin was a famously adventurous diner, and he was a member of the "Glutton Club" at Cambridge—a group of experimental eaters. Darwin met with his friends weekly to try strange birds from the English countryside, most of which they recalled enjoying. The only exception was when an owl was served, a grotesque meal that Darwin called "indescribable."

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