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On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin was the book of the year 1859, if not book of the 19th century, for it challenged what many had believed for a long time regarding the origin of mankind and species. Contrary to existing beliefs rooted in Christianity that God was the creator of everything on earth, Darwin disputed the status quo and put up another thesis. Darwin rather argued that nature plays a central role in the process of natural selection and goes a long way in determining which species will survive and which will become extinct.
The author explored his theory of natural selection by referencing facts that prove difficult to oppose. His aims were twofold: 1) prove that species were not created separately, and 2) show that natural selection was the main architect of change. Of course, “old habits die hard”, so even though his arguments attracted enormous admiration, there were criticisms in equal measure. But contrary to popular belief, Darwin did not stray too much from the path of proponents of creation.
When Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life on 24 November 1859, many were left in shock, but not surprised. During this time geologists, naturalists, and paleontologists were involved in a heated debate over the origin of mankind. The debate had reached its climax, and, even though not officially stated, many felt as if something big was on its way, and they were dreaded.
The hyper reactions to this work were understandable. Its release promised to topple over everything that mankind had known for a long time. It challenged the works of Darwin’s teachers as well as his peers and pioneers in the industry. Among the alarmed included men of science like Adam Sedgwick, Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, and Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, as well as religious leaders. Each of these had established their theories about creation, and which had been adopted by a considerable percentage of the scholar population.
The mixed reactions with which the book was received played a central role in making it a top seller in its own right. The publisher John Murray received more than 1500 orders long before the publication date. A month after its release, another 3000 copies were produced. Darwin was instrumental in pushing forth the book’s sales through marketing techniques used today. He hosted public lectures, marketed in journals and magazines as well as implemented controversial tracts to get the book out there. His tactics worked.
Natural selection as the architect of change
Besides just proving that species were not created separately, Charles Darwin was also focused on showing nature as the agent of descent. Darwin argues that nature plays a central role in the process of natural selection and goes a long way in determining which species will survive and which will become extinct.
Most readers had already been introduced to the theory of evolution via a book that Robert Chambers published anonymously called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Darwin begins by ridiculing this work as it lacks a means through which evolution can happen. For that reason, one of history’s greatest thinkers sought to prove that evolution took place and continues to happen. He also presented a theory called natural selection through which he explained how evolution works.
Natural selection is the backbone of modern biology. Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace described this theory as analogous to artificial selection, a process through which animals and plants with desirable features are systematically favored in domesticated breeds for reproduction. He described natural selection as the “principle by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved.”
Although simple, this is one of the most powerful concepts ever presented. It underscored the need for individuals to adapt to their environments if they are to survive and reproduce. Provided there are variations between species and these variations can be inherited, individuals with the most advantageous variations will be selected.
After reading Darwin’s theories, Herbert Spencer came up with the phrase “Survival of the fittest,” which became the ultimate summary of natural selection. Darwin himself, in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, noted that Herbert Spencer’s summary was more accurate and equally convenient. Non-biologists still use the phrase today. However, biologists avoid it as the term ‘fittest’ may be construed to mean functionally superior. Furthermore, it is mostly applied to individuals as opposed to the entire population as Darwin had intended.
Natural selection and perfection
Charles Darwin held that natural selection was the pathway through which humans progressed towards a perfected state. Look at it this way, with each instance of natural selection, species with advantageous traits are selected for the next phase of life. The ability to adapt to the environment becomes more complex in the next round. As time goes by, species move towards perfection. This leads to the creation of the wondrous adapted species that we see today.
Darwin believed that the progression to these new heights was gradual and happened in incremental steps over an extended period. Even though it might take such a long time, the author maintains that the ultimate result of natural selection is the perfect specie. At no point can you expect the results of this process to be species that are worse compared to their forbearers. In other words, this theory pictures evolution as a positive progression in natural history.
However, we must treat Darwin’s assumptions on natural selection with some contempt, even though he is one of the greatest thinkers of all time. As much as natural selection is shown to yield amazing adaptations, it does not necessarily mean that it is an all-powerful force that pushes living organisms towards the direction of progress. As long as you have ‘good enough’ genes, you will provide offspring for the next generation. They do not have to be perfect.
Additionally, this is a process and not a guiding hand. It is mindless and mechanistic. There are no specific goals for the whole process and is not aimed at achieving progress or creating a balanced ecosystem. Overall, natural selection is a combination of variation, differential reproduction, and heredity. It just chooses whatever variations are in the population. The end result is evolution.
Humans are not as special as we think
At no point, Charles Darwin explicitly mentions humans as a part of the evolutionary process. The position of humans in his theory of evolution is not clearly defined. However, throughout different sections of the text, he alludes that humans evolve in the same way as animals do.
For instance, to reinforce his arguments, he presents an example in which a human hand and arm structure are compared to the bat’s wings and porpoise’ paddle arms. This comparison is a clear demonstration that Darwin considers humans to have undergone the same evolution scheme as porpoises and bats.
Darwin clearly states that all living organisms are a part of his scheme of common descent of man with modification. With this statement, Darwin hints humans hold the same position in evolution as other animals. He doesn’t want an outright distinction between humans and animals. Whereas the Creation story considers human beings to be so special and favored by God, Darwin’s theories do not. Rather, to him, our development is controlled by nature.
Effects of Darwin’s book
The religious world, specifically Christianity, was the first to be impacted by On the Origin of Species. The book was a serious blow to the Bible’s position on creation. Whereas Christians had grown to believe that humans were created by God on the sixth day, Darwin begged to disagree. Progressively, more Christians started to scrutinize some sections of the Old Testament. Today, more Catholic and Anglican churches find some consistencies between evolution and their beliefs.
Thanks to his works, Darwin founded a new branch of life science known as evolutionary science. He made four important contributions to evolutionary biology, which grew beyond his earlier intentions. He talked of the non-constancy of species, branching evolution, which implied a common descent of all species, consistency of evolution with no breaks, and evolution as the basis of achieving perfection of species. Darwin left an unbreakable mark in biology with his arguments. Up until the late 19th century, all evolutionary proposals endorsed the notion of linear evolution. Of course, Darwin canceled all of that by insisting on gradual evolution.
Charles Darwin had so many and diverse accomplishments that they cannot all be fitted into one category. They are best split into three fields, namely, the philosophy of science, evolutionary biology, and modern zeitgeist. Whereas a bigger part of On the Origin of Species concentrated on the second domain, it had traces of the other two contributions as they informed his ideas.
On the Origin of Species (or, more completely, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) became the ultimate guide on how the history of science would turn out. Before it, religious leaders often took the lead on matters of science. After it, science increasingly became a profession on its own. The fact that Darwin rarely presented an argument without supporting it with facts from different disciplines has made his logic to stand the test of time.