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

Martyn is a writer, sailor and conservationist. His first book, The Storm Leopard, is a journey across Africa and into the heart of the environmental crisis. His second book, 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. His third book, Beyond the Hebrides, is the story of a sea voyage in an old leaking boat beginning in an Irish creek and ending on the remote islands of St Kilda in the west of Scotland. It is a tale of romance and adventure which arises from one man's exploration of practical ways to keep personal freedom alive in today’s demanding society. Visit Martyn's website at www.martynmurray.com. Martyn was born and brought up in Ayrshire, Scotland and now lives in North Berwick. He went to school in Perthshire, and studied at the Universities of Edinburgh, Zimbabwe, Malaya and Cambridge for degrees in Zoology with field research into: shelduck along the Scottish coast; impala in the Zambezi Valley; wild figs and figwasps in the Malaysian forests; and wildebeest migration in the Serengeti. This work was underpinned by theoretical investigations into competition, conflict and social behaviour. Martyn is a consultant in biodiversity and natural resources management.
This entry was posted in Nature Books, Reviews, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s