Review: “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin
Darwin’s feather-ruffling masterpiece. Part of my Pandemic Reading series.
Not all great books are great reads. Charles Darwin’s seminal work “On the Origin of Species” is a fine example of this dichotomy. Nevertheless, Darwin’s insights are profound; there is no doubt. Reading his book, it slowly becomes evident how orderly and deliberate are the inner workings of Darwin’s mind. His clarity of thought is, frankly, astounding. I had the distinct impression that Darwin was a person perfectly matched in temperament and attitude to his chosen field of slow, deliberate, meticulous observation. In no way does the arcane writing style and tedious laying out of his argument diminish his brilliance or the magnitude of his insights. However, after having read “On the Origin of Species,” I felt that the language and style of the book had gone a long way to its most significant insights becoming obscured by time and continual public discourse. It is perhaps a safe bet to say that for every news story, article, and debate about the importance of Darwin’s work, a distinct minority have read the book because the book is tedious and difficult to read. The works of many great scientists and thinkers fall into this same dilemma. Their work is specific, complex, and deeply enmeshed in one field of study. Yet their conclusions illuminate something universal that ultimately penetrates the culture and lingers in our consciousness for decades. The work and learnings of people like Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo jump to mind as examples of this phenomenon.
As for the muddled lessons swirling in the culture attributed to Darwin, one need only look into any male-dominated sphere where bravado and status are at play. “Survival of the fittest” is instinctively bound to strength and speed in those realms. This understanding of Darwin is incorrect. Also incorrect is the long misattributed quote about being the “most adaptable to change.” Neither of these widely misunderstood cultural tropes exists in this book in the forms we believe they do. Darwin is relentlessly nuanced. Those nuances flow not only from Darwin but also from nature. Ignore this at your peril.
“I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that natural selection has been the most important, but not the exclusive, means of modification.”
― Charles Darwin, “On the Origin of Species”
For me, the most potent takeaway from Darwin’s myriad insights is how every form of life on the planet, in a meaningful way, exists on a razor’s edge between ideal conditions for flourishing and total oblivion. One small change to an environment can completely upend the status quo where one species dominates a landscape. While, at the same time, another merely subsists in the shadows. Then, some small change in food supply or climate utterly transforms the environment. The barely surviving organism flourishes and propagates exponentially, and the formerly abundant species vanishes.
“A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die — which variety or species shall increase in number, and which shall decrease, or finally become extinct.”
― Charles Darwin, “The Origin of Species”
The real treasure of Darwin is the implicit directive to try and behold the mystery, the relentless complexity, and utter brilliance of life. We live in a vast undulating miracle of existence so often obscured by our smallness, our pettiness. We all know, deep down, how incredible life is. Still, the truth is so big and overwhelming that it demands a brain-busting awe that no human could sustain as a daily mindset. It would be impossible to do anything else if we were to try and hold the majesty of life on Earth in our minds as something we reflected on daily. One might sooner burst into flames trying to comprehend the profundity of our situation on this green and blue oasis floating in space.
“… the structure of every organic being is related, in the most essential yet often hidden manner, to that of all the other organic beings …”
― Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
Darwin and his work are essential for our understanding of the web of life and our place in it. Thankfully, there are intelligent, dedicated people working in all areas of science who, among their myriad contributions to our world, relieve the rest of us of the burden of reading this fantastic yet tiresome book.