2009 marks not only the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, but the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a work that needs no introduction.
To honour this occasion, evolutionary biologist John Whitfield (who has surprisingly never read Origin) will be blogging Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species chapter-by-chapter.
I have two main, and entirely contradictory, aims. First, I want to read Darwin from the perspective of someone reasonably clued up about evolution at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and see how the man’s ideas stand up in the light of what we know and think about genetics, ecology, evo-devo, paleontology and the like.
But I also want to imagine it’s the 24 November 1859, and that the copy I’ve just picked up at my local book shop (the 1982 Penguin Classics edition) is in fact one of the 1,250 first editions published that day […] That evening, I settle in the parlour, put a taper to the gaslight, toss another urchin on the fire, and begin reading. Will I be thrilled? Horrified? Sceptical? Baffled? Bored? Let’s use part of our brains to try and ignore all that we now know about Darwin’s biography and legacy, pretend that this is our first encounter with his theory, and that evolution must stand or fall on the quality of the science and writing in the Origin.