Thursday, 25 October 2007

On the Origin of Species

I’m not sure if I should admit it publicly but until today I had never read Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’. I have owned a few copies over the years (and there is probably still one hiding in the loft) but it is only through reading it on-line at that I have gradually worked my way through it. I cannot say it held any great surprises and my understanding of his theories from my more general readings over the years was pretty accurate. What did come as something of a surprise was how readable it is and how lacking in pomposity his style was. (Why I should have expected him to be pompous I do not know, but I did.)
There are a few quotes I could easily pick out as my favourites but the one I have chosen below will appeal to all whose botanical studies have extended to include the ongoing arguments about the simple Blackberry or Bramble.
When the views entertained in this volume on the origin of species, or when analogous views are generally admitted, we can dimly foresee that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history. Systematists will be able to pursue their labours as at present; but they will not be incessantly haunted by the shadowy doubt whether this or that form be in essence a species. This I feel sure, and I speak after experience, will be no slight relief. The endless disputes whether or not some fifty species of British brambles are true species will cease. Systematists will have only to decide (not that this will be easy) whether any form be sufficiently constant and distinct from other forms, to be capable of definition; and if definable, whether the differences be sufficiently important to deserve a specific name.
In short, we shall have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience. This may not be a cheering prospect; but we shall at least be freed from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term species.

One and a half centuries later we are little nearer sorting out our Brambles. Poor Darwin had reckoned without the ability of systematists to argue with each other until the cows come home......


  1. The Origin is worth reading because it founded a discipline and is the work of a reluctant genius. As Darwin admitted, by that stage in his life he had become a machine for gringing out facts. The Voyage of the Beagle is a more exciting read.

  2. I have read the Voayge of the Beagle a couple of times and loved it. Which makes it all the more surprising I hadn't read Origin of Species before.


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