Coming out

Hi! My name is John. I've got a PhD in evolutionary biology, and I've spent much of the past decade writing about evolutionary ideas, as applied to everything from literary criticism, to language, to anti-terror policy, and even on occasion to biology. And I've got a confession - I've never read the Origin of Species.

Do I shock you? Good.

I am not proud of this (really, I'm not), but if my professional life has been less stellar than it might have been, it's not for want of reading Darwin. Here's why. Darwin was working at the dawn of biology. He had none of the specialist knowledge and techniques that have come to dominate the study of evolution, such as genetic and mathematical analyses. And the specialist knowledge he did deploy -- such as about animal breeding -- is little used by today's professional scientists. More generally, biology erases its past more effectively than any other science. E still equals mc2, and is likely to do so for some time, likewise F=ma, or any other physical law or mathematical proof you could name. But biology, with the exception of Darwin's theory, has always been more about the data, and data are temporary.

Another factor/excuse I could point to is that the essence of the theory of evolution by natural selection is so gloriously simple -- inheritance, plus mutation, plus selection, equals evolution -- that I've never felt compelled to tackle 400-plus pages of what I fear may be turgid Victorian prose to be convinced. While wanting or needing to read something are both good motives for picking it up, nothing is more likely to suck the fun out of a book than the feeling that you ought to read it.

None of this is meant to suggest that it's better not to have read Darwin, of course, just to illustrate that it's possible to have a professional relationship with evolution while remaining ignorant of its foundations.

Nevertheless, you wouldn't be much of a Marxist if you'd never read Das Kapital, or a Freudian if you'd never read The Interpretation of Dreams. (Although as I write that, I wonder whether I really want to call myself a Darwinian, and suspect that the fact that the label Darwinian can be attached to people as well as ideas illustrates evolution's contentious and insecure place in wider society, relative to other branches of science -- no one's a Einsteinian, or a Lavoisierian.) So it's time to fix that. And, ahem, inspired by Slate's splendid Blogging the Bible series, and recognizing that it's a freelance writer's lot to make work out of his inadequacies, I'm delighted that Scienceblogs are giving me the chance to read the book in public, and write about the experience.

Between now and Darwin day, 12 February, I'll be writing 15 posts covering the Origin's introduction and 14 chapters, plus a what-have-we-learned concluding effort. I may also try and weave in some other relevant stuff (for example, I've got an extreme geeky excitement brewing about the upcoming meeting on the evolution of society at the Royal Society on 19-20 January).

Of course, the point isn't just for me to parade my ignorance. It's for you to parade your smarts. So, if you've been meaning to read the Origin for ages and want some company, if you've read it already and want to share your thoughts, correct my errors or point out things I've missed, or if you've no intention of reading it but want to get an idea of what it's all about - welcome.

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 by John Murray of Albermarle Street, London, price 14 shillings -- "more than a week's wages for a labourer", at the time, according to Janet Browne, about $75 in contemporary terms, according to

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.

Join me back here soon [update: tomorrow] to tackle the introduction.


More like this

Awesome - and I just finished my last book (H.G. Wells War of the Worlds) last night, so I'm primed to start cutting into another book. I'll see if I can't swing past Borders on my way to work tomorrow...

P.S. Anyone else reminded of Defective Yeti's NaNoReMo?

I read most of "the Origin of Species" when i was eleven. I was thrilled when i discover it was on my school library (my previous school did not had library). I was an avid reader, so i devorate the book.

I was fascinated, but also i confess there were a lot of things i did not understood. My previous book about biology had been "the Facts of Life" by George Gamow. Which was aimed to be a more lite reading. Yet the prose was fascinating.

So it would be ten years later when i read an anotated (and shortened) version by Richard Leakey, that i could understand it better. While i became an engineer, i still have a soft spot for biology.

I'm still just a junior student of biology. Although you make a good case for why reading Darwin isn't essential, I wouldn't want to graduate without the experience. I made it halfway through The Origin once before, but stopped when I realized I was constantly questioning whether each statement was considered currently valid. I didn't have deep enough knowledge of how the theory has evolved to spot where Darwin was mistaken, or what has been significantly expanded upon. I'm going to read along, and I look forward to your insights and the following discussion.

By Apophenia (not verified) on 08 Jan 2009 #permalink

Great! I am half-way through a 1958 Mentor edition. I am a little shocked at the Lamarckian ideas that seem to be hanging on.

I look forward to hearing your take.

I found Origin a relatively easy and rewarding read -especially when compared with 'Descent of Man'

It is not all that surprising that you haven't read 'Origin'. I have because it's not my subject and I wanted to learn about it, so I read most of the 'classics', Darwin's Origin, Eldredge and Gould Punc Eke, Dawkin's The Selfish Gene.

I went through university without reading any geology texts older than Holmes, but I have since gone back and read W. Smith's 'Strata', and Lyell's "Principles of Geology" which surprised me by its in-depth historical review. You won't find many modern texts discussing what the Koran has to say about geology - except for Harun Yahoo of course :)

Looks like this will be great! I hope I can find the time to follow along.

On a side note, it's funny that you should mention both "E=MC^2" and "F=Ma" as two laws that physicists still accept. Actually, it's precisely *because* physicists accept the former that they now reject the latter, at least under its original meaning. Newton thought that the "M" in "F=Ma" was constant, regardless of whether an object was in motion or not. What Einstein's theory tells us, however, is that this is not the case: as the velocity of an object increases, so does M in "F=Ma".

(A more precise explanation can be found in "force" section of the wikipedia entry on special relativity:

Of course, it might be responded that Newton's theory is still *approximately* true. And I agree---but so is Darwin's! In other words, I just don't see the alleged disanalogy here between physics and biology.

lurker42 - my copy is a reproduction of the first edition, which is apparently a lot less Lamarckian than subsequent efforts.

dtlocke - Thanks! Given how little I know about physics, I should always be careful about drawing parallels. One way to test this idea would be to look at the average age of citation in a biology paper versus a physics paper. I'd guess that biology would have newer refs, but I wouldn't bet my house on it.

Fantastic idea!

If you want to make this really interactive, set some due dates for each chapter (i.e. Introduction, next wednesday), so we can read along with you and have some good discussion in the comments.

This is a great idea; I'll be following along for my first reading of the book.

Regarding Lamarck: I just read a book that claimed that Lamarck's ideas (which he really just copied from someone else) are being somewhat justified through research in epigenetics. The environment can't change genes, but it can change the way genes are expressed (via methylation), and these changes can be passed on to offspring. For example, a mother smoking during pregnancy can cause methylation in the baby's genes, which disposes it toward obesity. The evolutionary explanation could be that the toxins from the smoke indicate a harsh environment, which leads to a "thrifty metabolism" in the baby, which requires less nutrients. When it is born in the U.S. with plenty of food, the thrifty metabolism isn't actually needed, and instead leads to obesity.

The book was Survival of the Sickest, not exactly an authority in science reporting, so I don't want to put too much weight in what I read there. Can anyone with more knowledge comment on the relationship between epigenetics and Lamarck? Are Lamarck's ideas being somewhat justified or not at all?

If it's true that they are, then maybe we shouldn't be shocked to see Darwin allowing for the possibility that there is something to them.

A quick comment on being a "Darwinian" or not. While scientists, specifically biologist, are universally accepting of evolution, the general society is not. (At least here in the U.S.) As a result being identified with the theory you support. During the battle over the structure of the universe you where either a Ptolemaic, Copernican, or Tychonic astronomer. (Some will call the Ptolemaic, Aristotlean and there wheren't many in the Tycho camp.) But still this was during a period when society had not yet full accepted a non-geocentric world view. One can only hope that eventually this will be true of Biology and Geology as well.

Chris Miller - That's a good idea. How about this - I'll put the intro post up tomorrow, and then aim for a chapter every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That'll mean finishing on the 11th Feb, and then we can reflect on the 12th.

A further note on tactics: I shan't be reading ahead, but I have read the intro and first chapter now, and based on that I'm thinking that the way to do this is to zoom in on a few of Darwin's themes and remarks from each chapter and spiral out from those. That'll be a lot more interesting than going 'And then Darwin says... and then Darwin says' - I'm sure there are plenty of other places you could find a synopsis, if you wanted (and from what I've read so far, Darwin himself seems quite good at summing up as he goes along) - and it'll leave plenty of room for you chaps to raise the themes that interest you.

I've read ... bits of it. Most notibly the beginning bits. Never got all the way through though, I might just have been the victorian writing style because my abiding memory of it was that it wsa vaguelly similar to Dickens. =D

Dude, this is fucking great! All the Darwin is TEH GENIUS OF ALL TYMZ motherfucking circlejerking is so fucking annoying, and really just a diversion from the reality of evolutionary biology.

This is a wonderful idea! I read parts of Origin as part of a Biology of Populations course, but never read the entire work. I'm going to follow along and read it completely for the first time as well. I look forward to the discussions.

Excellent! I've been meaning to read it for years, and it's halfway down a pile of to-be-read-when-I-have-the-time books. I'm not a biologist or even a scientist, so it will be interesting to have your, and/or anyone else's, point of view while reading it.

By erasmus31 (not verified) on 08 Jan 2009 #permalink

Seems I hit a jackpot - the yet-to-be-read pile contained in addition to The Origin of Species, The Reluctant Mr Darwin and Why Darwin Matters. I'm ready!

By erasmus31 (not verified) on 08 Jan 2009 #permalink

I am right there with you. Will read along and learn.

By Sterling G. Smith (not verified) on 08 Jan 2009 #permalink

Fantastic timing! I've been meaning to read Origin for years, and recently ordered myself a copy, which arrived today. Hopefully this blog will act as a motivation to get the thing read.

Cool! I have collection of 4 of Darwins works called "From so simple a beginning" and am in the middle of the voyage of the beagle, but I think I'll skip ahead to 'origin' and read along. I'm studying microbial ecology, so I will be glad to offer my input as needed.


I read it at the end of last year, so I should still be able to remember most of it. I've just started Steve Jones' "Almost Like a Whale - The Origin of Species Updated" to get things a bit more up to date.

I, also, have recently started reading The Origin of Species (I believe mine is the 6th ed., so somewhat mucked about with after multiple contemporary comments). I initially found it hard-going, but am getting into the swing of it, now.

I also started blogging about it - pulling little quotes out and adding my own commentary as I went along. But then I'm not a biologist, and have no specialised knowledge in the field, so reading your commentaries will be enlightening.

Looking forward to it (and hopefully I can keep up...a chapter every two days might be pushing it for me!)

Oh, I am so into this! I've never read it either, just bought it a month or so ago actually but haven't gotten around to it yet (so much to read...). A great idea.

I am a physicist, but I have never read Newton's Principia. Of course the fact that it is written in Latin is an obstacle for me. From what I have heard of it, it would be quite hard for me to follow. Even though Newton invented calculus, he did many of the proofs geometrically. Newton got the physics right, but many people have figured out better ways of explaining it.

I find evolutionary biology interesting, especially evo-devo. So much has been learned about evolution since Darwin and I think I would want the much more complete view that is available now, than you would get from the Origin of the Species.

Excellent! I just received my copy for Christmas. Now, I will have someone to help me decipher it - I am a business major trying to understand a bit more outside my major.

Man, I was totally thinking about doing the very same thing and blogging about the entire book to celebrate Darwin '09 (not in English though). Just today I was telling a friend. Now I know how Darwin felt when he recieved that famous letter from Wallace.. Oh well, this will surely be better than anything I can come up with..

Excellent stuff, this. I'm teaching Origin this term (among others) in my Intro to History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science. I think I will require my students to read this blog. They are, after all, in the Honors section so asking a little extra shan't be unexpected.

A quick comment on the Lamarckian presence in Origin... let's not forget that the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis (natural selection plus mendelian genetics = eureka!) did not come about until roughly the 20th century. Though Mendel was around while Darwin was writing, he was 36 when Origin was published in 1858 and did not finish his pea experiments until 1863. In fact, his "Experiments on Plant Hybridization" was presented as a paper, only, and in 1865. Mendelian assortment didn't gain currency until the early 20th century, being rediscovered only in 1900.

Lamarckian inheritance--"inheritance of acquired characteristics", well-beloved by Soviets long into the 20th century--and Lamarckian theories of evolution were very well-established by the time Darwin began his scientific training. Indeed, Stephen Jay Gould has called Lamarck the "primary evolutionary theorist", establishing a paradigm that laid the groundwork for Darwin, Wallace (Alfred Russell Wallace), and others.

Fascinating stuff.

By Alison Reiheld (not verified) on 08 Jan 2009 #permalink

Excellent idea sir, I may read along with you. I'm no biologist but I love shooting the breeze about evolution and all it entails with friends and colleagues. However whenever I mention that fact that I haven't read Origin I get treated as though my opinion is worthless despite the countless contemporary books on the subject sitting on my shelves! May as well get it out of the way if only to silence the doubters...

I've read the Origin once, several years ago, and I keep thinking I should read it again -- it's both long AND dense, too much there to properly assimilate in one go. I don't really have time to read along just now, but I'll enjoy following this series as a commentary.

For background: I'm a code-monkey with an interest in all things evolutionary, and a long-time veteran of

The good people at scienceblogs tell me that this is working now. I have managed to subscribe by clicking the 'subscribe' whatnot in the url window, although the link at will apparently not be working for a short while yet.

Apologies for the difficulty, and thanks for your patience.

When I landed the job as the education officer of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, I had also not read the book- I think I once dropped it after three pages. The style is more than laborious, in fact tedious is not an unfair word, but the content is brilliant. It is easy to overlook the brilliance because we have assimilated the ideas, but in Darwin's time they were ground breaking. I have witnessed heated discussions on this book between Neville the Devil who is an IT specialist living in Los Angeles (who hates "the Origin..") and Dave "Schmickfred" Green who is a doctor living in Cape Town (who loves it). Devil can't get past the archaic pedantic style. Schmick sees only the remarkable content. I have given up trying to mediate. I have no doubt that a version of this book that respects Darwin and the modern reader would be very well received.

By Anthony Paton (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

Im an English and Psych student (Dual honors) and Origin is required reading for my English option this semester.

Thanks for doing this, should give some interesting insights.

By silverrose (not verified) on 13 Jan 2009 #permalink

Fabulous. I'm a lawyer/writer with no science background. I've been reading pop science this year - everything from Natalie Angier's The Canon to Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. I just bought The Origin of Species recently. Now I can read it with someone who can unpack the science for me. I'm in.

How did you a PhD in Biology without reading that book?
Something was wrong there and still is...

Thanks for the discussion!
I found my way to Darwin by way of The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner (1995). I found an Everyman volume that included Voyage of the Beagle.
Google Earth was my partner as I read my way around the earth. This was anything but "turgid" Victorian prose. It was a great read!
So I just kept reading when I finished Voyage and started Origin. In this context Origin was at times fascinating and at times emotionally compelling.
I will be eager to read your posts as you explore this wonderful book.

I must confess I have read the Origin of Species 4 times why? you may ask I love the old style of reading and always found it very compelling and perhaps the best science book since modern times. I have also read Descent of Man and Voyage of the Beagle which are very good reads. This will be a very interesting blog on the Origin of Species glad you did it!

By C Hancock (not verified) on 24 Jan 2009 #permalink