The first non-fiction work I chose to tackle so far was Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (better know as The Origin of Species). The work is well known by most and sparks up a really heated debate between two theories: creationism or Darwinism. I’m not here to hash out the merits or lack there of in either belief, but regardless of where you stand on the issue it is hard to argue that The Origin of Species is one of the most influential works of nonfiction ever written and thus makes my list. Of the many scientific breakthroughs that have been published; Galileo who proved the heliocentricity of our solar system, Newton who formulated the laws of gravity, Freud who emphasized the importance of the unconscious among others, it really is Darwin’s work that bears the most impact to us today.
Darwin’s backstory is quite interesting because it was on his path to joining the ministry at Cambridge where he found his love for biology, which would later frustrate scores of church scholars. While at Cambridge he met John Stevens Henslow who gave him the opportunity to study aboard the H.M.S. Beagle between December 1831 and October 1836. Aboard he was able to study in locations such as the East Indies, South America, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1839 the 30 year old Darwin published his first work: Journal of Researches into Geology and Natural History of the Countries Visited by the H.M.S. Beagle. A second edition followed in 1845 but during the 15 years Darwin was formulating his conception of his masterpiece: The Origin of Species. For example in 1839 Darwin wrote for his forthcoming second edition to Journal: “This wonderful relationship on the same continent between the dead and the living will, I do not doubt, hereafter throw more light on the appearance of organic beings on our earth, and their disappearance from it, than any other class of facts.”
When The Origin of Species was published in 1859 it rocked the worlds of both scholars and the religious. Up until that time it was commonly believed that the earth was created in 4004 B.C. as published in the 17th Century by Bishop James Usher. However, if Darwin was correct that timeline would be impossible as it would not allow enough time for Darwinian evolution to take place. This lead to liberal clergymen in the Church of England to declare that evolution and natural selection were simply an instrument of God’s design, and in 1950 the Vatican stated its official position: evolution is not inconsistent with Catholic teaching. Despite that the debate still stands strong and evolution is not allowed in some schools throughout the country, which I think is a shame. Even if you firmly do not believe in Darwinian evolution and subscribe to the strict theological creationism I believe there is a value to seeing the other side of the coin if only to strengthen your beliefs by understanding your opposition.
In Darwin’s third chapter: “Struggle for Existence” he introduces readers to his key concept: natural selection, and in later editions Darwin adds: “But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate and is sometimes more convenient.” In this chapter Darwin goes into great detail showing examples on how different species of plants and animals compete with each other for survival. He uses plants that compete to survive a drought, plants that compete to have birds eat their fruit and spread their seeds to propagate, and the struggle of population growth. Later in Chapter IV Darwin fleshes out the theory of an ecological niche, where animals vary to fit their distribution of resources and competitors.
The section I found most interesting were Chapters VI-IX where Darwin begins to take the counter argument and break it down piece by piece. Chapter VI begins with the argument, if all animals are constantly evolving why do we not see intermediate forms closely related to the species formed? Darwin explained that the competition between forms and the small number of intermediate forms brought extinction upon them. “If we look at each species as descended from some unknown form, both the parent and the transitional varieties will generally have been exterminated by the very process of the formation and perfection of the new form,” writes Darwin. Darwin however points out that animals do live with intermediate structures that remain functional. He points out that the flying squirrel and flying lemurs are examples of how bats could have evolved from non-flying creatures. He also states that the eye can be traced back to optic nerves covered with pigment and thus concluded that his theory would be debunked if you could not trace the formation of a complex organ through slight modifications, although at the time he wrote Origin he was unable to find any that would suggest that.
The rest of the book continued to use further evidence to support his evolution theory. He noted how species of plants and animals from one continent are more likely to be similar to other plants and animals of the same continent than to the same plants or animals in the same species of a different continent, even if they are from a similar climate. One observation that I found really amazing was that marine life on the Atlantic and Pacific sides of Central America shared little to no species. What makes this so amazing is that at points such as the Isthmus of Panama the distance between coasts is only a few miles. One very interesting point I found in the conclusion was when Darwin finally directly addresses the origin of humans. He stayed away from this point to avoid prejudices against his argument but states: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man.”
When I picked up On the Origin of Species I expected to be reading a textbook from Biology 101 in Old English, or something along those lines. Granted my initial expectations were quite dramatic and overblown, I was nonetheless extremely impressed by Darwin’s writing style. He was able to make difficult concepts clear to the reader even if they had little or no biological education. I’m not saying this is a light and easy read, but it was not the struggle to get through that I thought it would be. I thought Darwin did a commendable job livening up the dry subject matter of the book with life examples and painted each struggle for life so I could picture them in my mind’s eye. It took me a while to get through the book, I often found myself picking it up after catching reruns of Planet Earth on TV. If biology is an interest of yours reading this would help you not only understand a few major theories but also help further your interest in the subject.