One of the most famous and influential books of its (and any) time, The Origin of Species is, surprisingly, little read. True enough, most people know what it says -- or think they do, at any rate. The first comprehensive statement of the theory of natural selection it does, indeed, provide the basic argument and demonstration of what we think of as Darwinism. Not quite offering the misleading tautological Spencerian claim of "survival of the fittest", or the claim that man descends from monkeys (a typical perversion of the understanding of natural selection), the book did turn much of the world and how man thinks about it upside down. It is, well more than a century after its first publication, still a powerful and fascinating read.
In the Penguin edition J.W.Burrow's introduction provides a useful overview of the work and the world in which it was written. Darwin himself offers a brief historical sketch before jumping into his argument. The Origin of Species is built up on a wealth of information. What astounds throughout is how much Darwin knew, had observed, and had considered in forming and formulating his argument. It was not a scientifically ignorant or naive time in which Darwin worked. A great deal was already known at the time -- bits of the huge puzzle that, by themselves, were suggestive clues but needed a larger framework to be completely understood. Darwin provided that framework.
The argument is well presented, beginning with variations under domestication, then in nature itself, then the notion of the struggle for existence, leading inexorably to the conclusion that natural selection guides all. Darwin also addresses what appear to be the weaknesses in his theory. Without a Mendelian understanding of inheritance much is hazarded (and a fair amount wrong), but the gist of the argument remains sound and utterly convincing. (click for full review)
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