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the Complete Review
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The Origin of Species

Charles Darwin

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To purchase The Origin of Species

Title: The Origin of Species
Author: Charles Darwin
Genre: Science
Written: 1859 (1st ed.)
Length: 477 pages
Availability: The Origin of Species - US
The Origin of Species - UK
The Origin of Species - Canada
L'Origine des espèces - France
Über die Entstehung der Arten - Deutschland
  • Full title: On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
  • This review refers to the Penguin edition, Edited and with an Introduction by John W. Burrow.
  • There are numerous other excellent, inexpensive editions, including the Oxford World Classics edition, edited by Gillian Beer:
  • Darwin revised the book several times in later editions. The 1st edition (reviewed here) is considered the most interesting and useful of these (an opinion with which we concur). However, readers should realize that it is not Darwin's "last word" -- though it is his strongest and clearest statement of his theory of Natural Selection

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Our Assessment:

A- : essential reading -- and interesting and well-presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic . 7/1860 Asa Gray
Edinburgh Review . 1860 Richard Owen
New Scientist . 4/2/2009 Eleanor Harris
The NY Times . 28/3/1860 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is clear that here is one of the most important contributions ever made to philosophic science; and it is at least behooving on scientists, in the light of the accumulation of evidence which the author has summoned in support of his theory, to reconsider the grounds en which their present doctrine of the origin of species is based. (...) The book is indeed, as he declares, "one long argument," and the theory can only be fully appreciated by patiently following the many consecutive and collateral lines of evidence which he converges on the illustration of a doctrine which is with him manifestly a profound conviction. (...) The book is full of a most interesting and impressive series of minor verifications; but he fails to show the points of junction between these, and no where rises to complete logical statement. (...) But it would be to fail to extract the best uses of this book, to expect a finality. Its best suggestion is to show us how far we are from the possibility of any finality. " - The New York Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       One of the most famous and influential books of its (and any) time, The Origin of Species is, surprisingly, little read. True enough, most people know what it says -- or think they do, at any rate. The first comprehensive statement of the theory of natural selection it does, indeed, provide the basic argument and demonstration of what we think of as Darwinism. Not quite offering the misleading tautological Spencerian claim of "survival of the fittest", or the claim that man descends from monkeys (a typical perversion of the understanding of natural selection), the book did turn much of the world and how man thinks about it upside down. It is, well more than a century after its first publication, still a powerful and fascinating read.
       In the Penguin edition J.W.Burrow's introduction provides a useful overview of the work and the world in which it was written. Darwin himself offers a brief historical sketch before jumping into his argument. The Origin of Species is built up on a wealth of information. What astounds throughout is how much Darwin knew, had observed, and had considered in forming and formulating his argument. It was not a scientifically ignorant or naive time in which Darwin worked. A great deal was already known at the time -- bits of the huge puzzle that, by themselves, were suggestive clues but needed a larger framework to be completely understood. Darwin provided that framework.
       The argument is well presented, beginning with variations under domestication, then in nature itself, then the notion of the struggle for existence, leading inexorably to the conclusion that natural selection guides all. Darwin also addresses what appear to be the weaknesses in his theory. Without a Mendelian understanding of inheritance much is hazarded (and a fair amount wrong), but the gist of the argument remains sound and utterly convincing.
       The wealth of examples can be a bit much, though many of the details are fascinating -- as are the conclusions Darwin (and those before him) reached from these facts. Darwin writes well, though some of the argument is inevitably a bit dry. Even now one feels some of the thrill of the slowly dawning of understanding of such a complex phenomenon, so different from the prevailing view of the world.

       A fascinating journey of intellectual discovery and proof, it is a valuable and enjoyable historical document, well worth reading. Darwin did not get it all right here (and he apparently got more wrong in the later editions, where he made an effort to answer his critics), but even his mistakes are of interest, as we see how scientific advances have allowed these to be corrected -- and how well the basic idea has stood up. A book too readily taken for granted (because readers think they know what it says), it is certainly recommended.

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The Origin of Species: Reviews: Natural Selection / Evolution / Darwinism: Charles Darwin: Other books by Charles Darwin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British naturalist Charles Darwin lived from 1809 to 1882 He is the author of the groundbreaking The Origin of Species, among other works.

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