Read an Excerpt
From George Levine's Introduction to On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859)1 is one of the major books of Western civilization, and possibly the last major scientific text fully readable by nonscientists. It was written before the full force of scientific specialization had created the division we are used to today: science written for scientists, and intelligible only to them, or popular science aimed not at being science but at explaining it, and (usually) making otherwise too difficult scientific ideas attractive to the nonexpert.
Darwin was certainly writing for scientists, but he knew that his book would be read by many nonprofessionals, and by many who were deeply invested in the religious and cultural implications of his ideas. The book is thus a work of real science, offering the strongest possible technical arguments for its ideas, while at that same time it does much of the work of popular science. But Darwin was never a popularizer like his "bulldog" and partisan, T. H. Huxley (also a distinguished scientist), who took upon himself the job of fighting all the fights, particularly the cultural ones, that Darwin's ideas were to arouse. More than a hundred years later, and despite the triumph of his ideas in the world of science, Darwin continues to need his bulldogs, for the very availability of his text to lay readers makes it particularly susceptible to critique from the whole spectrum of cultural and religious critics, many of whom do not seem really to understand its arguments. The upside of this condition is that the book has survived longer than virtually all other scientific texts—whose usual life span is necessarily very short because science moves so quickly. Its ideas remain important, and they are well and lucidly argued. Evolution, the dominant idea with which Darwin's name is permanently associated (though he didn't actually use the word), was promulgated and firmly established in The Origin of Species. And we can still read the book now, even without the help of Huxley or the modern polymath popularizer and scientist Stephen Jay Gould.
This is not to say it is an "easy" book, or one that prima facie will thrill lay readers out for a good read. It really is a good read, despite (or, one might say, because of) the rigor of its argument and the almost overwhelming accumulation of details deployed in support; but it is deceptively simple. No book with so clear and well argued a position has been so variously interpreted and so widely misunderstood; few have been as difficult for its readers fully to absorb. The simple argument is so fundamentally anti-intuitive that even now, after 150 years, it has been difficult not to distort it in directions more comfortably consistent with readers' assumptions about the way the world is. Reading the book remains an adventure, and the activity of imagining Darwin's prolific, diverse, and often very beautiful world continues to be an exciting challenge to one's tacit assumptions about the way the world works.
The Origin of Species is not only a fundamental work in the history of science; it is a unique book in the history of English literature. There are few as important. That Darwin was a great scientist everyone knows, but it is not immediately obvious that he was a great writer as well. Yet no writer of the nineteenth century had to struggle more strenuously with the limits of language, none was more imaginatively and creatively metaphorical, few were more influential in shaping other writers' imagination of the world: none had a more significant and lasting effect on Western culture.