I actually read the 6th edition of this work, which was published in 1872 and is known as The Origin of Species, i.e. dropping the ‘On’. But I’m still counting it as my 1850s book!
Darwin’s seminal work, which rocked the 19th century, posited that species on earth were not created immutable but, instead, evolved over a period of generations through a process of natural selection. Variations in species ensured that, over time, those best adapted to deal with the challenges in their environment would outlive those less suited: the ‘survival of the fittest’.
The prevailing theory among naturalists at that time was closely linked to the teachings of the Church; it held that life on earth had been designed ‘as is’ by the Creator, and therefore could not change. In particular, humans were believed to be unique creations, unrelated to other organisms. Darwin’s theory – backed up by substantial amounts of evidence – threw all of this into dispute.
By the time of the 6th edition, his views were gaining wider acceptance, at least within the scientific community. 150 years on, an even greater consensus has been reached (with some notable exceptions…), as his work has become central to modern evolutionary theory.
Where did I get hold of the book?
Rather appropriately for a work concerning itself with ancestors, I found this on my late grandma’s bookshelf. It’s part of a collection of lovely old hardback books, which reminds me of childhood holidays spent visiting my grandparents. The smell of the book takes me back 30 years – I didn’t think, then, that I would ever end up actually reading this one…
- Find the book in a library near you.
- Support local independent bookshops by buying the book from Hive (UK).
What did I learn from it?
I learned a massive amount about the detail of Darwin’s theory. These days we are all familiar with the general gist – that organisms adapt to their environment for their best chance of survival – but it’s only on reading about the sheer extent of his evidence that you realise what an incredible piece of work this is.
The insights into the 19th-century scientific process are fascinating. We think of science these days as being conducted in sterile labs, with men and women in white coats prodding things in petri dishes, far removed from the messy realities of life. Not so for Darwin. He thought nothing of spending an hour sitting watching an ant-hill, just to see what movement there was of the different ants resident there. He would be sent the legs of deceased birds by fellow scientists, and would detach the clods of earth clinging to them, in order to water the seeds that might be stuck therein, to see if they would germinate after such a prolonged period out of the ground.
Did you also know that Darwin was a pigeon fancier? Yup. He kept a variety of these birds, as he felt the best way to test out his theory was to observe one particular species in detail. And pigeons were the lucky creatures.
How did it make me see the world differently?
Small, incremental changes are just as vital as big ones
One major insight I had was that the theory of natural selection is closely linked to what I’m trying to do here with the Book Diaries. It’s all about very small steps taken over a period of time, leading incrementally to much bigger changes in the long term. In other words – and this is how it relates to you – if you can get into the habit of making tiny changes on a regular basis, the process will become more familiar, and eventually you will find it easier to make the really big changes – or, even, that they happen of their own accord.
The importance of libraries
I also had a huge wake-up call about the way we access information these days. (Well, not exactly a new insight: more of a reminder.) Perhaps it was because I spent an afternoon watching the ’80s TV version of The Day of the Triffids, but I suddenly realised that, if we were ever to experience a global catastrophe – that wiped out the majority of human life on earth and caused the destruction of civilised society as we know it – would we be in a position to rebuild?
The scientific progress that has been achieved by people like Darwin has taken generations. Libraries have been filled with books such as The Origin of Species, and many more practical works on growing crops, breeding animals, building homes and so on. But in recent years we have become so used to finding whatever we need via the internet that the value of physical information storage has taken a bit of a beating. Libraries are being closed across the country, bookfunds are being slashed, and access is becoming ever more restricted.
While I hope it’s unlikely that we will experience a global catastrophe any time soon (although we clearly cannot be complacent on this score), just think: how frustrating do you find it when your favourite internet site goes down even for a few minutes? What if the power went off for a whole evening? A week? Longer? What would you do then if you needed to find something out? Where would you go? Who would you ask?
For anyone who likes to have a contingency plan in life, I’d simply say: make friends with your local librarians and do everything in your power to help libraries stay open.
What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?
Altering my reading practice
Reading such a demanding non-fiction book has brought into sharp relief how much easier it is for me to read a work of fiction – at least for the purpose of this challenge. When reading non fiction I’m trying to make sure I retain all the facts; when reading a story I’m generally swept along by ‘what happens next’. If the book in question is ‘genre fiction’ (i.e. plot driven) rather than literary, it’s easier still.
Not wishing to get into an argument about the merits of different types of fiction, the aim of the Book Diaries is for me to read more books and, thereby, grow as a person with each new read. It is entirely possible to grow even by reading what others may dismiss as mere potboilers. The key, as I’ve said before, is to think about what you, personally, take from each book and apply that in a practical way in your own life.
After The Origin of Species, I think that every one of the books remaining on my list for this year will seem easier in comparison. And so I will attempt to do what I haven’t done for ages, and read a chapter or two last thing at night before turning out the light. Darwin, much as I love him, isn’t really bedtime reading.
My own research
One other thing. I’ve been putting off working on my supernatural novel, but The Origin of Species has reminded me that I’ve long been fascinated by the 19th century and its conflicted attitudes not only to science and religion but also to magic and the occult. I’m going to try and carve out some time to do more research for my novel on the back of this recent experience – maybe this is just what I need to find my second (or third) wind…
Over to you…
Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?
If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?
Please share in the comments below!