November 24, 2007

On the Origin of Species: still going strong

On this day 148 years ago, November 24 1859, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin was first published. The just over 1000 copies of the first edition were sold out on the same day. Over the course of these 148 years new knowledge has been added and of course some of Darwin's propositions have been reviewed as science progresses. But at its core, his theory of evolution still holds true. That all life has a common origin and that over the course of innumerable generations living organisms have changed and adapted, generating the wonderful variety that we observe today. A variety that, although awesome in our eyes, is only a speck of all life that has ever existed and will ever exist. The very last words in On the Origin of Species are:

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.

It's a powerful idea that not only serves scientific progress; it has the power to inform all of our individual existences with clarity and reason instead of obscurity and mysticism. One would think that after so many years, more people would have realized its worth and taken it to heart.

The above quote from the book is probably one of the better known ones... deservedly I should add. But I think my favorite part is from the last page of the introduction.

No one ought to feel surprise at much remaining as yet unexplained in regard to the origin of species and varieties, if he makes due allowance for our profound ignorance in regard to the mutual relations of all the beings which live around us. Who can explain why one species ranges widely and is very numerous, and why another allied species has a narrow range and is rare? Yet these relations are of the highest importance, for they determine the present welfare, and, as I believe, the future success and modification of every inhabitant of this world.

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