The Legacy of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species"

Darwin's Great Book Profoundly Changed Science and Human Thought

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin. Library of Congress

Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" on November 24, 1859 and forever changed the way humans think about science. It's not an exaggeration to say that Darwin's landmark work became one of the most influential books in history.

Decades earlier, the British naturalist and scholar had spent five years sailing around the world aboard a research ship, H.M.S. Beagle. After returning to England, Darwin spent years in quiet study, examining plant and animal specimens.

The ideas he expressed in his classic book in 1859 did not occur to him as sudden bursts of inspiration, but were developed over a period of decades.

Research Led Darwin to Write

At the end of the Beagle voyage, Darwin arrived back in England on October 2, 1836. After greeting friends and family he distributed to scholarly colleagues a number of specimens he had collected during the expedition around the world. Consultations with an ornithologist confirmed that Darwin had discovered several species of birds, and the young naturalist became fascinated with the idea that some species seemed to have replaced other species.

As Darwin began to realize that species change, he wondered how that happened.

The summer after returning to England, in July 1837, Darwin began a new notebook and took to writing down his thoughts on transmutation, or the concept of one species transforming into another. For the next two years Darwin essentially argued with himself in his notebook, testing out ideas.

Malthus Inspired Charles Darwin

In October 1838 Darwin re-read "Essay on the Principle of Population," an influential text by the British philosopher Thomas Malthus. The idea advanced by Malthus, that society contains a struggle for existence, struck a chord with Darwin.

Malthus had been writing about people struggling to survive in the economic competition of the emerging modern world. But it inspired Darwin to begin thinking of species of animals and their own struggles for survival. The idea of "survival of the fittest" began to take hold.

By the spring of 1840, Darwin had come up with the phrase "natural selection," as he wrote it in the margin of a book on horse breeding he was reading at the time.

In the early 1840s, Darwin had essentially worked out his theory of natural selection, which holds that organisms best suited to their environment tend to survive and reproduce, and thus become dominant.

Darwin began writing an extended work on the subject, which he likened to a pencil sketch and which is now known to scholars as the "Sketch."

The Delay in Publishing "On the Origin of Species"

It is conceivable that Darwin could have published his landmark book in the 1840s, yet he did not. Scholars have long speculated on the reasons for the delay, but it seems that it's simply because Darwin kept amassing information he could use to present a lengthy and well-reasoned argument. By the mid-1850s Darwin began working on a major project that would incorporate his research and insights.

Another biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace, was working in the same general field, and he and Darwin were aware of each other. In June 1858 Darwin opened a package sent to him by Wallace, and found a copy of a book Wallace had been writing.

Inspired in part by the competition from Wallace, Darwin resolved to push ahead and publish his own book. He realized he could not include all his research, and his original title for his work in progress referred to it as an "abstract."

Darwin's Landmark Book Published in November 1859

Darwin finished a manuscript, and his book, titled "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races In the Struggle for Life," was published in London on November 24, 1859. (Over time, the book became known by the shorter title "On the Origin of Species.")

The original edition of the book was 490 pages, and had taken Darwin about nine months to write. When he first submitted chapters to his publisher John Murray, in April 1859, Murray had reservations about the book. A friend of the publisher wrote to Darwin and suggested he write something quite different, a book on pigeons. Darwin politely brushed that suggestion aside, and Murray went ahead and published the book Darwin intended to write.

"On the Origin of Species" turned out to be quite a profitable book for its publisher. The initial press run was modest, only 1,250 copies, but those sold out in the first two days of sale. The following month a second edition of 3,000 copies also sold out, and the book continued selling through successive editions for decades.

Darwin's book generated countless controversies, as it contradicted the biblical account of creation and seemed to be in opposition to religion. Darwin himself remained mostly aloof from the debates and continued his research and writing.

He revised "On the Origin of Species" through six editions, and he also published another book on evolutionary theory, "The Descent of Man," in 1871. Darwin also wrote prolifically about cultivating plants.

When Darwin died in 1882, he was given a state funeral in Britain and was buried in Westminster Abbey, near the grave of Isaac Newton. His status as a great scientist had been assured by the publication of "On the Origin of Species."

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McNamara, Robert. "The Legacy of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). The Legacy of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species". Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Legacy of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species"." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).

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