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

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

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.

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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,