The origin of sense

On the Origin of Species

By Charles Darwin

Such is the power of this book that most people in the developed world understand its basic concepts unconsciously. That said, the book itself remains very important.

The theme of Darwin’s book that is most striking is its tacit argument for sense. Darwin spent decades observing nature and noting down what he saw. This extensive research enabled him to draw the conclusions that came to shape our view of the natural world, but it is his practices that are the most influential. In this book, Darwin details his observations and how anyone can use them to interpret nature. It is as simple as that. Interbreed pigeon varieties for decades, he seems to say, and you too will come to the same conclusion as I: that their unique variations exist for a reason and have diversified from those of a common ancestor.

Darwin’s logic is so sound, that he hints at things he didn’t even know about. Although Mendelian genetics was under way while Darwin was working on his theory, he was not aware of the practice. So it is with surprising confidence that Darwin states, “community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking,” speaking in part of genetics. “And not some unknown plan of creation,” he adds.

The question of creation occurs time and again in this book, almost always as a counterpoint to one of Darwin’s observations. He ponders why, for example, there are no frogs native to New Zealand and then shows that it is because that country is an island and frogs wouldn’t emigrate there because they cannot survive the sea water that would block their route. “Why, on the theory of creation, they should not have been created there, it would be very difficult to explain,” he says.

Perhaps the single most surprising thing about this book is in many ways how little Darwin knew. Creation theory must have held back naturalists for so long before Darwin dared to delve. The modern reader will be shocked by how his own basic, 20th-century understanding of genetics fills in a great many gaps in Darwin’s theory. Usually in this book, where Darwin says, ‘that’s the way it is, but I don’t know why,’ the reader can answer him with genetics. How this book would have been different, if only Darwin had read Mendel!

In many ways, that makes this book a more thrilling read today than it would have been when it was published in 1859. We know so much more now; nothing can hold us back in the thirst for knowledge.

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