On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition (Sterling, 2008)

This book has been produced on the premise that two beautiful things, when put together, make something even more beautiful, just like wine and cheese, a sail on the sea, the singer and a song, a dove on its leafy branch, a man and a woman. Right? Wrong! Our lives are just not that simple as a few seconds further thought will confirm. How about olives and custard, a modern highway beside a country cottage, an opera singer bugling a rock song, a bickering pair of ex-partners?

More than others, I would expect those in the world of art and literature to understand that a beautiful object becomes more beautiful through its harmonious relation to others. In a partnership, each must speak to the other—strikingly, wittily, subtly, shockingly, artistically—in one way or another but the conversation must take place and it must engage. Sadly in this edition, the powerful words of Darwin’s Origin of Species and the illustrations—a series of stunning images and quotations taken from his other books, notably The Voyage of the Beagle and The Autobiography of Charles Darwin—do not speak to one-another at all. They lie in stark isolation on the same page, a conglomeration of words and images, as scrambled as a dog’s breakfast.

To take just one example, Chapter 1 on “domestication” is full ofDarwin’s observations and explanations about breeding of domestic animals—pigeons, dogs, cattle, domestic hens. It could so easily have been illustrated by contemporary drawings and paintings, many by Darwin himself, of domestic breeds. What do we get? Tropical forests, HMS Beagle, Captain Fitzroy, flamingos, a photo of ants and extracts from the Voyage of the Beagle. It is the same throughout the book. Chapter 7 is about animal instincts and the behaviour of cuckoos, slave-making ants and the honey bee. Do we get photos and drawings of these species and their activities? Nope; it is illustrated with sketches of the Magellan straights, HMS Beagle (again), the Fuegians taken hostage by Captain Fitzroy and yet more extracts from the Voyage of the Beagle. The height of this madness is reached in Chapter 10 where the original title page to the Origin of Species is reproduced. Why isn’t this photo given its rightful place at the beginning of the illustrated edition (i.e. opposite page 1)? What we have instead is an illustrated story of Darwin’s life that flows randomly through the book without purpose. Only with rare exceptions such as in Chapter 12 (on oceanic islands) do we arrive at concordance, and oh what a difference that makes. To see for instance the vulnerability on the face of Robert Grant, Darwin’s friend in Edinburgh, at the same time as we are reading about him is powerful, except that we suddenly notice we are reading about him not in the Origin of Species but in an extract from “The Autobiography of Charles Darwin”…. aaargghh!

If there is a method in the mad layout, it is this: to plot the life of Charles Darwin in images and extracts and then superimpose it on the text of the Origin of Species. Was that a good idea? Do I need to answer that question? I cannot believe that the person who composed (if I can use that word) the layout of this book, or the people who supervised the process, bothered to actually read the Origin. Come on now – did you? In this post-modern world, must we ignore sustained intellectual argument in favour of flash image and sound bite? Do we gain some deeper artistic perspective by having our literary breakfast served à la scramble?

There is assuredly a niche for a properly illustrated first edition of On the Origin of Species. Sadly this book does not fill it, or at least fills it very awkwardly, and the opportunity to catch the 150th anniversary has now passed. As Darwin might have put it, the window of selective advantage has closed, and we have entered a long corridor of competition for publishing space from more trendy books. Let us hope that the 200th anniversary will not pass without publication of a new illustrated edition in which text and pictures are married together in blissful harmony – assuming we are still making books by then!

Four stars then, because it would be unthinkable to give the Origin any less, the illustrations in the Sterling edition are beautiful, the quotations enriching, the quality of printing high, and the introduction by David Quammen both thoughtful and illuminating. I reserve the fifth star for the 2059 illustrated edition.

About Martyn Murray

I fell in love with nature when I turned twenty-one camping under Acacias in East Africa, surrounded by giraffe and zebra with my nape hair raised by the distant roaring of lions. I went on to work for fifty years in Africa, Europe and Asia as an ecologist and conservation consultant. A few years ago I moved to the Isle of Lismore to pursue my passion for reconnecting people with the natural world. My first book, The Storm Leopard, is a journey across Africa and into the heart of the environmental crisis. My second, Origin of Species: Bite-Sized, contains the essence of Charles Darwin's greatest work – his theory of evolution by natural selection – in a text that is 15% the length of the original. The third, Beyond the Hebrides, is the story of a sea voyage in an old leaking boat and on how to keep personal freedom alive. I am currently working on a fourth which is about the global collapse of the natural world. Its working title is, In This Together. It challenges us all over our current connections with nature. More details are on my website, www.martynmurray.com.
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