The Origin of Species by Charles DarwinRead about another book on the list.
Darwin wasn’t the first to propose that species have mutated through time; the idea of evolution has been around in some form or other since the ancient Greeks. But it was Darwin – and, simultaneously, Alfred Russel Wallace – who worked out natural selection as the mechanism by which evolution worked.
The Origin of Species put cats among pigeons and rattled clerical cages. Darwin knew it would; that’s why the book is so quiet and steady and reasonable, why it builds incrementally. This is “just one long argument”, made from ordinary things designed to appeal to the good sense of his readers: Darwin asks us to consider bees, pigeons, worms and hedgerows, to look around us and judge with our own eyes. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” he wrote, “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
It isn’t just zoologists and biologists who have explored and developed Darwin’s propositions. The work of political theorists, sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers has been shot through with Darwinian ideas, particularly the notion of competition for survival. “The history of all hitherto existing society,” the Communist Manifesto opens, “is the history of class struggles.” Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland explored the comedy of the relationship between humans and their animal kin. By the end of the century, authors such as HG Wells were exploring the darker aspects of the Darwinian vision – the bestial underside of human nature.
The book changed the way we think about the world. It demonstrated that the diversity of the natural world could be explained without recourse to supernatural agency and proposed instead that it had been shaped by chance collisions and incremental changes through billions of years. It also showed us that the Earth is not preprogrammed to progress. Species that outgrow themselves risk extinction, not because they are being punished for their hubris but because they are making themselves unfit, destroying the means of their own survival. “We are all netted together,” Darwin wrote. In confronting the daunting challenges of the coming decades, this may be his most important lesson.
On the Origin of Species is among Daisy Hildyard's ten best poems, books, and plays about our human inheritance, Clive Finlayson's five best books on extinction, and Gerald Imber's five best books on cosmetic surgery.