So You Want to Read The Origin

The Origin of Species (by Charles Darwin) was an abstract.

Charles Darwin believed that no matter who thought of an idea first, it was really the first person to articulate it clearly and convincingly who should get the credit for it. Darwin believed that Wallace’s version of natural selection, published together with Darwin’s version of natural selection, was much better stated and more logical than his own. He also felt somewhat pressured to write The Origin (which is considered his quintessential work by most) in the short time he wrote it in (several decades!?!?) because he really had a lot more to say than space (600 pages) allowed.

These facts reveal, I’m sure, that Darwin was a total dork!

But how do we know all these things? Because he tells us in his autobiography, which is a truly delightful read. Darwin’s autobiography is one of a handful of writings that I’m recommending to you in order to do your part in celebrating, through the reading of the original texts, Charles Darwin’s two hundredth birthday.

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born within minutes of each other on Sunday, February 12, 1809. February 12 is therefore Darwin Day as well as some form of presidential holiday for Americans. I find it interesting that there is a substantial amount of hype regarding Darwin’s 200th birthday but almost none regarding Lincoln’s birthday. Interesting but virtually inexplicable.

Anyway, my purpose here and now is to make a few recommendations to you as to what you should read from the Charles Darwin canon. This is not from the perspective of True Darwin Scholarship. Technically, I’m not a Darwin scholar, so I would not know how to recommend the more erudite approach to this literature, and if you are a Darwin scholar, then you certainly don’t need my advice. I’m not suggesting this from the perspective of an educator in the life sciences, either. Rather, I’m suggesting specific readings (in a specific order) because I believe that this approach will captivate you and provide the most meaningful sampling of Darwin’s work with the least effort on your part.

And it will be some effort, because Darwin was writing two centuries ago and they talked funny back then, and modern English speakers (not to mention non-English speakers) may have a hard time relating to the style. But I’ve taken this into account as well, and my specific suggestions are designed and presented to smooth the process.

You should begin with a book called The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. If you go back to the original publication of this book, you won’t find it mentioned by this name in the early manuscripts for a couple of reasons. The clear distinction between the names of books vs. series vs. other published entities was not maintained in Victorian England in the same exact way it is now, and this volume underwent a complex and confusing history of publication, having started out as part of a different, larger work. But today, modern publishers have smoothed over all the early strangeness, and you can go to the bookstore, or, or wherever, and find a book called The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin and read it. (Example: The Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches (Penguin Classics)
. Also, you can also read my extensive blogging about The Voyage here.)

Don’t bother trying to find the most original version. Read any version you can lay your hands on, but any recently published version will likely be one of the revised editions. You want the revised edition, and you want to make sure to read the footnotes when you read the book (much of the revision is in the footnotes). Always read the footnotes when reading Darwin.

The Voyage (the book) starts before the voyage (the voyage) itself and chronicles Darwin’s travels over a five-year period. Because it is written retrospectively, Darwin’s experiences are to some degree placed in the broader context of Darwin’s later research and writing but not to the extent that you will find annoying.

You will learn a lot of things about Darwin, like his attitude towards slavery; his eye for ethnography; the fact that he was, above and beyond all else, a geologist rather than a biologist; and so on. Read it in a leisurely fashion. Skip around if you like. That won’t damage the story too much. By the time you are done with the book, even if you’ve really only focused on two-thirds of it or so, you’ll be totally accustomed to the nature of the language, and you will have learned a lot about Darwin, boats, the nineteenth century, and South America.

The next book you should read is Darwin’s monograph, Coral Reefs. You will not easily find a copy of this, but you can read it online. You can also skip around a bit with this volume. Let me tell you why I think you should read this book. Then you’ll know how to approach it. You can probably get everything you need out of this book in about an hour or two of perusal, once you know what you are looking for.

Darwin was a total geology nerd and, prior to his voyage, was only beginning to become recognized by his British colleagues as a young scholar with potential. And he looked up, in a big way, to the ultra-famous, imposingly famous, super-big-shot-famous geologist, Charles Lyell. As you will see a bit later on with my next selection, Lyell influenced Darwin and Darwin’s approach to science more than any other individual. Darwin respected Lyell and was afraid of Lyell.

Meanwhile, Lyell had this theory about how coral reefs formed. Darwin was quite excited to be going on this voyage, in part, because he was going to get to look at these reefs firsthand, and combining these observations with Lyell’s theoretical descriptions of the reefs was going to be cool. As  I said, he was a total geology nerd.

But something went differently than originally planned. When Darwin started to observe coral reefs “in the wild,” he quickly started to notice things that were unexpected. Lyell’s model for how coral reefs formed did not fare well under the test of observations that Darwin was making in the field.

Now, the next part of the story is conjecture on my part, but reasonable conjecture. While on the voyage, Darwin wrote letters back home, sometimes including his scientific observations. One such letter, it seems—a letter about coral reefs and how Lyell was seemingly wrong in his theory about them—was passed around back home and impressed people sufficiently that it was read at a scientific meeting and published, unbeknown to Darwin. I suspect that this embarrassed Darwin a great deal, because it was a sidelong attack on Lyell or, at least, could be seen that way.

As it would turn out, Lyell did not get mad at Darwin and accepted Darwin’s new understanding of coral reef formation and development. But Darwin was still a scholar who leaned towards caution. In his monograph on coral reefs…the book I’m suggesting you have a look at…he developed a method of making scientific assertions that was based in part on methods he had learned from Lyell, but which I believe was taken by Darwin to a greater height. Darwin would assemble all the prior writings and facts about a topic, catalog all the explanatory models, develop falsifiable hypotheses which he would then, in turn, try very hard to falsify and, in the end, present what was left: some descriptive and some explanatory theory about what something was and how that thing worked.

I believe that while this approach was shown to Darwin by Lyell, and may have been part of Darwin’s nature, that it was sharpened and underscored by the fact that Darwin’s first real contribution, his first real bit of novel research with new results destine to change the way we think about a certain natural phenomenon, was in conflict with the theories of his hero Lyell, the man he feared.

The monograph on coral reefs was his first run at this approach. It’s all in one neat little not-too-long volume. Go online and have a look at it, enjoy the prose, peruse the volume, pay attention to the structure of the argument, and read it as carefully or as casually as you like. You won’t be able to avoid enjoying it.

The third Darwin book you should read is Darwin’s autobiography. This is a great companion volume to The Voyage of the Beagle because it focuses on Darwin’s life before and after The Voyage. There are notes throughout added by Darwin’s son, clarifying or correcting here and there. It is roughly written, like a first draft, and could be a bit unfocused and wandering except that, since it is a chronological memoir, it has a natural structure that holds the “plot” together. Darwin’s autobiography is short, engaging, and includes at least half the famous “Darwin stories” you’ve heard in college lectures or read in the writings of Stephen Gould. This is where we learn Darwin’s attitude towards medical school, for instance.

That’s it. Read The Origin if you want, but even though Darwin saw it as an abstract, it is mind-numbingly long. Same with Descent. His other books are highly specialized or a bit quirky, though all are fun. I won’t dissuade you from exploring all of Darwin’s other work, but I strongly recommend the plan I lay out above.


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3 Responses to “So You Want to Read The Origin

  1. February 6th, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Irradiatus says:

    Well, I already started the Origin, but as soon as I finish it, I’m gonna have to follow the rest of your plan (It’s like a diet plan for Darwin!).

    Very well done, Greg!

    Maybe it’s just me, but I was actually surprised at how readable the prose in The Origin actually is (it really doesn’t sound that old from a language perspective). The only thing I’ve had to skip through are the very long descriptions of, say, every possible morphological and behavioral difference in pigeons he could think of…

  2. February 6th, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Yes, it’s the “every single thing he can think of” part that makes Darwin both sometimes hard to read AND the brilliant work that it is. Wait ’till you get to the part about the wild chickens…. (Or is that in Descent… )

  3. February 7th, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    lynn fellman says:

    I enjoy seeing ways that artists and scientists are similar. We all bring filters to our experiences, whether it’s a belief system or ignorance, impatience or indifference. Very curious to learn from you, Greg, that although Darwin brought preconceptions about the reefs, he was still able to observe in a matter of fact way. He had a formidable filter to remove. Artists are also close observers — of colors, forms and behaviors. Although after data is gathered, artists and scientists diverge in their methodology. Most artists (not all have this method) will take the experience and bring it inward to develop a unique interpretation — moving away from observable reality. Darwin’s defining moment with the coral reef is a good example of the path scientists choose. As Greg has explained, he developed a methodology that scientists follow today. He invented how science works.

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