20 August 2013

Review: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin

Trade paperback, 672 pages
Published 2003 (originally 1859)
Acquired and read October 2012
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
by Charles Darwin

Okay, not the world's most exciting read, but an important one, and let's be honest: someone with much worse prose than Charles Darwin could have ended up writing this one; indeed, there are a couple nice turns of phrase here and there. I like how he claims that science makes the world more beautiful in his closing lines: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved" (398).

Though Darwin is very cognizant of the limitations of his scientific sight, pointing out how little we actually see: "I look at the natural geological record, as a history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines" (288). An animal disappearing from our fossil record does not necessarily mean the animal disappeared from the Earth (277-78). In fact, he turns the sparse nature of the paleontological record into a virtue of his theory, because he comes to view the fossil record entirely differently because of his theory. A sneaky, adept move, I think.

My edition was the Broadview one, which is great because it reprints the first edition of the Origin before it got watered down and bloated, but with the second edition's necessary corrections, though not its substantial revisions.  Less great is Joseph Carroll's introduction, which spends a weird amount of space arguing against Thomas Kuhn for some reason. I must admit I'm kinda biased against the guy, though, because he's an advocate of evolutionary literary theory, which I've yet to see produce interesting results.

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