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The Legacy of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”

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The Legacy of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”

The Legacy of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”

Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” on November 24, 1859 and forever changed the way humans think about science. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Darwin’s landmark work became one of the most influential books in history.

Decades earlier, the British naturalist and scholar had spent five years sailing around the world aboard a research ship, H.M.S. Beagle. After returning to England, Darwin spent years in quiet study, examining plant and animal specimens.

The ideas he expressed in his classic book in 1859 did not occur to him as sudden bursts of inspiration, but were developed over a period of decades.

Research Led Darwin to Write

At the end of the Beagle voyage, Darwin arrived back in England on October 2, 1836. After greeting friends and family he distributed to scholarly colleagues a number of specimens he had collected during the expedition around the world. Consultations with an ornithologist confirmed that Darwin had discovered several species of birds, and the young naturalist became fascinated with the idea that some species seemed to have replaced other species.

As Darwin began to realize that species change, he wondered how that happened.

The summer after returning to England, in July 1837, Darwin began a new notebook and took to writing down his thoughts on transmutation, or the concept of one species transforming into another. For the next two years Darwin essentially argued with himself in his notebook, testing out ideas.

Malthus Inspired Charles Darwin

In October 1838 Darwin re-read “Essay on the Principle of Population,” an influential text by the British philosopher Thomas Malthus. The idea advanced by Malthus, that society contains a struggle for existence, struck a chord with Darwin.

Malthus had been writing about people struggling to survive in the economic competition of the emerging modern world. But it inspired Darwin to begin thinking of species of animals and their own struggles for survival. The idea of “survival of the fittest” began to take hold.

By the spring of 1840, Darwin had come up with the phrase “natural selection,” as he wrote it in the margin of a book on horse breeding he was reading at the time.

In the early 1840s, Darwin had essentially worked out his theory of natural selection, which holds that organisms best suited to their environment tend to survive and reproduce, and thus become dominant.

Darwin began writing an extended work on the subject, which he likened to a pencil sketch and which is now known to scholars as the “Sketch.”

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