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Evolution of Evolution: 150 Years of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”

By Joe Romm on November 26, 2009 at 9:15 am

"Evolution of Evolution: 150 Years of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”"

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Here’s something else I’m thankful for:  Science.

Evolution NSF

Charles Darwin’s seminal work, On the Origin of Species, was published on 150 years ago this week, November 24, 1859.  You can read the first edition online here.  The National Science Foundation has an amazing special report which you can access by clicking here or on the image above.

No, it doesn’t bear directly on climate change, but I think this historic anniversary is relevant for a couple of reasons.  First, for all the angst over the public’s understanding of climate science – 72% think we’re warming and 82% of those think it’s a serious problem — only 39% of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” and it’s been around a lot longer and is as well-substantiated a theory as any in science.

Second, Darwin was, among other things, a great science writer.  For aspiring and practicing science writers out there, here is how the conclusion to his masterwork evolved — see Science (subs. req’d) and here:

NOTE BOOK OF 1837

Astronomers might formerly have said that God foreordered each planet to move in its particular destiny. In the same manner God orders each animal created with certain forms in certain countries; but how much more simple and sublime [a] power“”let attraction act according to certain law, such are inevitable consequences””let animals be created, then by the fixed laws of generation, such will be their successors.

SKETCH OF 1842

There is a simple grandeur in the view of life with powers of growth, assimilation and reproduction, being originally breathed into matter under one or a few forms, and that whilst this our planet has gone circling on according to fixed laws, and land and water, in a cycle of change, have gone on replacing each other, that from so simple an origin, through the process of gradual selection of infinitesimal changes, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been evolved.

ESSAY OF 1844

There is a simple grandeur in this view of life with its several powers of growth, reproduction and of sensation, having been originally breathed into matter under a few forms, perhaps into only one, and that whilst this planet has gone cycling onwards according to the fixed laws of gravity and whilst land and water have gone on replacing each other””that from so simple an origin, through the selection of infinitesimal varieties, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been evolved.

ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, 1859

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.

Interestingly, Science left out the final revision, that appeared in the second edition (online here, image of final page below):

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator 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.

So yes, even before the blogosphere, people kept rewriting and reusing their old material, sometimes making some pretty big changes.

Finally, as to why Darwin made that remarkable change in the final sentence, Dr. Charles F. Urbanowicz, Professor of Anthropology offers up Martin Gardner’s explanation:

“Darwin himself, as a young biologist aboard H.M.S. Beagle, was so thoroughly orthodox that the ship’s officers laughed at his propensity for quoting Scripture. Then ‘disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate,’ he recalled, ‘but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress.’ The phrase ‘by the creator,’ in the final sentence of the selection chosen here, did not appear in the first edition of Origin of Species. It was added to the second edition to conciliate angry clerics. Darwin later wrote, ‘I have long since regretted that I truckled to public opinion and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant ‘appeared’ by some wholly unknown process.” [stress added] (Gardner, 1984)

Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species, published on 24 November 1859,

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9 Responses to Evolution of Evolution: 150 Years of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”

  1. DavidCOG says:

    Thanks, Joe. Very interesting. I wasn’t aware of that revision between the two versions. Clearly influence over – and corruption of – science from vested interests and the status quo is nothing new!

  2. Wes Rolley says:

    While the term “theory” has a specific scientific meaning, the deniers, whether of climate or of evolution, continue to use the phrase that “it is only a theory.” Maybe, in the popular press, MSM articles and general discourse, we should replace the word theory with explanation. As Joe used it “…is as well-substantiated a theory as any in science.” might better not be so easily dismissed if we were to say “…is as well-substantiated an explanation of observed facts as any in science.”

  3. Edward says:

    No, Wes Rolley, it is Darwin’s LAW.

  4. mike roddy says:

    I guess we need this wakeup call once in a while. For all the talk about the pro evolution court ruling for a school in Pennsylvania, many schools throughout the Bible Belt continue to teach creationism.

    Or, as with climate deniers, introduce “doubt” into the theory of evolution.

  5. From Peru says:

    Denialists are Denialists:
    Climate Change Deniers.(“skeptiks” they call themselves)
    Evolution Deniers (“creationists” they call themselves)

    Both deeply rooted in the Republican Party.
    Both conservatives.
    Both liars
    Both…(the list is almost infinite)

    Some clarification of evolution:
    Evolution is both a FACT and a THEORY.

    Lifeforms change, that’s totally clear from observation of current species(the most recent one: the new strain of Pandemic Influenza 2009/AH1N1 that conservatively will, (if it hasn’t yet) cause 5 MILLON DEATHS worldwide)and the fossil record.That’s a FACT.

    But what is the MECHANISM? There are various THEORIES, some disproved by evidence, some likely in the right track:

    1)Lamarchism(1800s): false
    2)Saltationism(1800s):false
    3)Darwinism(1800s): only partially right because cannot explain variations (there were not genetics yet), so Darwin invoked Lamarchist mechanisms.
    4)Neo-Darwinism (mix of Genetics + Darwin’s Theory, early 1900s): in right track, can explain evolution in small scale as observed in Nature, but has problems for the great changes(example: fish to amphibians)
    5)Neutralism(since late 1900s): complement the previous one, useful for intra-species evolution as observed in Nature and in the Lab.
    6)”Punctuacted Equilibrium”(since 1980s): explain better the big changes, but still struggles with the biggest steps(like cells to multicellular organisms)
    7)”Developmental biology”(since late 1900s): it blames the big changes to changes in few “regulator genes” like the HOX genes. Explain better “macro”-evolution, specially if combined with the previous one.

    These are the theories. Combine them in the right context, and we can began to undestand the MECHANISM of evolution, still not well understood.

    My list really fit your title “evolution of evolution”.
    Biology and Climate Science, both achieving astounding victories and right predictions, and facing equally defying conundrums and misteries.
    This is how Science works.

    And both SEVERELY MENACED BY REACTIONARY CONSERVATIVES.
    This is how Ideology can destroy the works of hundreds of scientists, and ultimately(in the case of Climate Change) destroy the lifeforms that have taken billions of years of evolution to reach the current biodivesity ,in your beautiful planet and Motherland, Planet EARTH.

  6. Ryan W. says:

    Common descent, and thus some form of evolution, is well supported by material evidence. But the Neo-Darwinian synthesis is in its death throes. If people weren’t so ideologically opposed to the notion of any sort of ‘intelligent’ mechanism, materialist or otherwise, existing in the genetic code they wouldn’t have been so blindsided by the discovery of epigenetics and possibly neo-lamarkian mechanisms. There is a lot more information in the genetic code than is likely to be produced by purely random chance, that is; mutations which are totally random followed by natural selection.

  7. DavidCOG says:

    Ryan W. says:

    > There is a lot more information in the genetic code than is likely to be produced by purely random chance, that is; mutations which are totally random followed by natural selection.

    Evidence for that? No, you’re just pushing your vague creator hypothesis further down the chain. Or maybe you’re working towards the irreducible complexity argument?

    If you have any confidence in your argument, take it to http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/ – and prepare for it to be dissected and dispatched. Or the other way around.

  8. Jonathan says:

    There is an entire literature on science and religion. It seems mostly to be written by present or former practicing scientists. The book “Questions of Truth” by John Polkinghorne, a distinguished quantum physicist, and Nicholas Beale has another quote attributed to the sixth edition of “The Origin of the Species”:

    “As my conclusions have lately been much misinterpreted … may I be permitted to remark that in the first edition of the work, and subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous position … ‘I am convinced that natural selection has been the main, but not the exclusive, means of modification’. This has been of no avail. Great is the power of steady misinterpretation..”
    (from Questions of Truth, p141)

    Darwin’s position mostly reflects his newer naturalistic views but it also leaves open the question of whether or not God is also a source of modification. I read “2001, A Space Odyssey” and saw the movie when it was released. I also have the movie on DVD. What was the monolith? Was it God? Was it some extraterrestial civilization? The question is never answered.

  9. From Peru says:

    I forgot to say that Lamarchist-like or Saltation-like(example, duplication of HOX genes) mechanisms are not totally disproved.

    So keep an open mind: the evolutionary theories are themselves evolving rapidly.