Since our Summer Reading program this year centers around a science theme, your classics maven has elected to focus on one of the most influential science texts in history – Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.” First published in 1859, it made an immediate and lasting impact on society. In my mind, one thing that makes a book a classic is if it’s frequently referenced even by people who haven’t read it. Almost everyone knows about this book.
Charles Darwin was 22 years old when he boarded the HMS Beagle in 1831. He’d signed on to work as a naturalist during the ship’s exploration of South America and the Pacific Islands. In the Galapagos, he found animals that existed nowhere else on earth, including enormous tortoises. He became intrigued by the variations he found among the animals on different islands. On one island finches had beaks suited to breaking nuts, while on another, their beaks were formed for optimal berry picking. These observations planted the seeds for his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Darwin didn’t originate the idea of evolution, a concept that dates back at least as far as ancient Greece, but he was the first one to develop an explanation for how the process might work, and he supplied more evidence than anyone before. He spent more than two decades researching, gathering evidence and refining his ideas before finally publishing “The Origin of Species” at age 50. In his day, interest was growing in fossils and the extinction of species. His book tipped the balance for evolution in the scientific world from being a highly debated idea to a largely accepted one.
Outside of science, there has been more resistance to the idea of evolution. Only a few months after the book’s publication, the “Great Oxford Debate” took place, with hundreds of spectators arriving to witness the Bishop of Oxford exchange barbs with Thomas Henry Huxley, who defended Darwin and his theory. Then there was the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 in Tennessee, in which a teacher was tried for violating state law by teaching about evolution in the public schools. With the controversy continuing to the present day – within American culture at large, at least, if not within the scientific community – it’s probably a good idea for more people to read the actual book itself.
It’s worth the time, even if you’re pretty sure you already know what you need to. “The Origin of Species” is far from a compilation of dry, technical jargon. Darwin says, “We see beautiful adaptations everywhere and in every part of the organic world,” and he details many of them with exquisite descriptions of the natural world. His passages about the connectedness of all living creatures are downright inspirational. And his observation about what trouble will come to us humans if the bee population should decline is chillingly prescient.