On the Origin of Species is Charles Darwin's greatest work—his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Over the last 150 years Darwin's ideas have infiltrated and shed light on all the life sciences, reaching out as recently as the past decade to rejuvenate microbiology and parasitology. Yet Darwin's theory remains almost as controversial today as it was in his lifetime, particularly with regard to the teaching of intelligent design in schools. Strange though it may seem from this perspective, Darwin’s work owes much to the divine interpretation of nature which was prevalent in the Church establishment and society at large in Britain in the early 19th century. The Church’s position on nature was so deeply set, so detailed in its understanding, and so universally accepted, that no alternative could hope to challenge it unless rigorously grounded in careful observation and scientific thought. Darwin had to get it right or risk being unmercifully hounded and exposed. Is it any wonder that he waited 21 years from his pivotal insight into evolution before publishing the idea in his Origin of Species and, even then, only when spurred on by the parallel thinking of Alfred Russell Wallace?
The bite-sized adaptation is about 15% of the total text of the original 1859 edition. It is a section by section account which summarises each significant point. In order to retain Darwin’s voice, his turn of phrase is often used but clarified where necessary. Notable quotations are included to convey an even stronger sense of the original. Students and those with an interest in exploring Darwin’s writing will find the essence of his thinking contained in this concise account of his greatest work. Darwin scholars may usefully read the bite-sized version in tandem with the original work. A short introduction provides a contemporary context for Darwin's Origin.
"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."
"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."
Darwin's style of thinking is unusually fundamental. When discussing the enigma of the extreme perfection of the human eye for instance, he remarks that several facts made him suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light. It is this back-to-basics kind of thinking which enabled him to connect so much in his mind. His was the very antithesis of the compartmentalised mind which contemporary science encourages. And as a result Darwin was one of the most creative scientists ever, and surely the most creative biologist. What have become whole subjects in academia roll off his page with alarming frequency, some in the form of single sentences. A careful read of the Origin suggests that Darwin's legacy of emerging disciplines is not yet ended.