Almost uniquely in the written annals of science, Darwin’s Origin remains as modern, fresh and accessible to the non-specialist reader today as when first published more than 150 years ago. He thought of it as an abstract of a much greater work that was never published; an abstract for Darwin maybe, but a massively wide-ranging synthesis of nature’s evolution for the rest of us. The book draws on an immense range of knowledge that Darwin organised and condensed in support of his thesis about a new way to understand the life around us, and ultimately ourselves.
Darwin’s writing soars whenever he gives himself a chance but his chapters are highly structured and compartmentalised (it’s an abstract after all!). In some sections the pace slows, such as the passages concerned with laws governing inheritance and laws of correlation in growth: here Darwin is working partly in the dark, on the right track but unable to see the fuller picture we now have before us. In others, such as in chapter 4 on Natural Selection, he struggles to connect the large number of major new topics that his theory is revealing. But in no time he is back on the chase. Following an inexorable logic, he hunts down not just the origin of species but the whole sprawling process that generates the diversified and multi-branched life of our planet, and no doubt that of countless other planets. Probing for answers from every angle; in one breath he draws insight from botany, the next zoology, the next geology, the next breeding of domestic animals and plants, and the next his own ingenious garden experiments, and keeps going until the particular riddle is solved and the next level of understanding attained.
His style of thinking is unusually fundamental. When discussing the enigma of the extreme perfection of the human eye for instance, he remarks that several facts make him suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light. It is this back-to-basics kind of thinking which probably enabled him to connect so much in his mind. His is the very antithesis of the compartmentalised mind which the contemporary world encourages. And as a result Darwin is one of the most creative scientists ever, and surely the most creative of biologists. What have become whole subjects in academia roll off the page with alarming frequency, some in the form of single sentences.
But even Darwin’s great mind freed by inheritance from material worries for a lifetime of unimpeded thinking, and enriched by privileged access to the best brains of the world, had to fight long and hard with the hidden concepts of evolution. For me, one of the most heroic elements of the Origin is Darwin’s struggle with the concept of heredity in the complete absence of knowledge about genes and chromosomes; amazingly he finds a workaround.
The Origin penetrates with its insights, satisfies with its analogies, and charms with its metaphors. Nothing today affords the same visionary breadth or covers the ground in such a fundamental way, not even introductory textbooks in evolution. Nothing else has been written like it, and it is hard to imagine that anything ever will. Buy yourself a copy, find a comfy chair, and enjoy the most amazing Victorian nature ride ever.
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