My favourite quotations from The Origin of Species

I’ve been reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1st ed., 1859) whilst preparing an abbreviated edition Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species: Bite-Sized for publication. Along the way, I came across several passages which seemed especially formative, telling or charming – in the magical sense of the word. Here are some of my favourites:

Introduction
When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.

…I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained—namely, that each species has been independently created—is erroneous.

Chapter 1.  Variation under domestication
That most skilful breeder, Sir John Sebright, used to say, with respect to pigeons, that ‘he would produce any given feather in three years, but it would take him six years to obtain head and beak.’

Chapter 3.  Struggle for existence
Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult—at least I have found it so—than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind.

Not until we reach the extreme confines of life, in the arctic regions or on the borders of an utter desert, will competition cease.

Chapter 4.  Natural selection
Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature?

I can see no good reason to doubt that female birds, by selecting, during thousands of generations, the most melodious or beautiful males, according to their standard of beauty, might produce a marked effect.

Chapter 5.  Laws of variation
It makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception; I would almost as soon believe with the old and ignorant cosmogonists, that fossil shells had never lived, but had been created in stone so as to mock the shells now living on the sea-shore.

Chapter 6.  Difficulties on theory
Long before having arrived at this part of my work, a crowd of difficulties will have occurred to the reader. Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered; but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent, and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to my theory.

Look at the family of squirrels; here we have the finest gradation from animals with their tails only slightly flattened, and from others, as Sir J. Richardson has remarked, with the posterior part of their bodies rather wide and with the skin on their flanks rather full, to the so-called flying squirrels; and flying squirrels have their limbs and even the base of the tail united by a broad expanse of skin, which serves as a parachute and allows them to glide through the air to an astonishing distance from tree to tree. We cannot doubt that each structure is of use to each kind of squirrel in its own country…

Chapter 7.  Instinct
It has been remarked that a skilful workman, with fitting tools and measures, would find it very difficult to make cells of wax of the true form, though this is perfectly effected by a crowd of bees working in a dark hive. Grant whatever instincts you please, and it seems at first quite inconceivable how they can make all the necessary angles and planes, or even perceive when they are correctly made. But the difficulty is not nearly so great as it at first appears: all this beautiful work can be shown, I think, to follow from a few very simple instincts.

We can see how useful their production may have been to a social community of insects, on the same principle that the division of labour is useful to civilised man.

Chapter 9.  On the Imperfection of the Geological Record
I have found it difficult, when looking at any two species, to avoid picturing to myself, forms directly intermediate between them. But this is a wholly false view; we should always look for forms intermediate between each species and a common but unknown progenitor…

A man must for years examine for himself great piles of superimposed strata, and watch the sea at work grinding down old rocks and making fresh sediment, before he can hope to comprehend anything of the lapse of time, the monuments of which we see around us.

What an infinite number of generations, which the mind cannot grasp, must have succeeded each other in the long roll of years! Now turn to our richest geological museums, and what a paltry display we behold!

Chapter 10.  On the Geological Succession of Organic Beings
No one I think can have marvelled more at the extinction of species, than I have done. When I found in La Plata the tooth of a horse embedded with the remains of Mastodon, Megatherium, Toxodon, and other extinct monsters, which all co-existed with still living shells at a very late geological period, I was filled with astonishment…

Chapter 11.  Geographical Distribution
In the course of two months, I picked up in my garden 12 kinds of seeds, out of the excrement of small birds, and these seemed perfect, and some of them, which I tried, germinated.

As the tide leaves its drift in horizontal lines, though rising higher on the shores where the tide rises highest, so have the living waters left their living drift on our mountain-summits, in a line gently rising from the arctic lowlands to a great height under the equator.

Chapter 12.  Geographical Distribution — continued
I well remember, when first collecting in the fresh waters of Brazil, feeling much surprise at the similarity of the fresh-water insects, shells, &c., and at the dissimilarity of the surrounding terrestrial beings, compared with those of Britain.

In the Galapagos Archipelago, many even of the birds, though so well adapted for flying from island to island, are distinct on each; thus there are three closely-allied species of mocking-thrush, each confined to its own island.

Chapter 13.  Mutual Affinities of Organic Beings: Morphology: Embryology: Rudimentary Organs
Embryology rises greatly in interest, when we thus look at the embryo as a picture, more or less obscured, of the common parent-form of each great class of animals.

Community in embryonic structure reveals community of descent.

Chapter 14.  Recapitulation and Conclusion
I can see no limit to this power, in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life.

Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.

Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.

Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.

When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

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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.
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