60 in 60: #16 – Darwin’s On Natural Selection (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

On Natural Selection
by Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Memorable Line
“The illustration of the swimbladder in fishes is a good one, because it shows us clearly the highly important fact that an organ originally constructed for one purpose, namely flotation, may be converted into one for a wholly different purpose, namely respiration.”

The Skinny
The world-changing book that provided the basic framework for and defense of the theory of evolution. This scientific text has had social and political relevance ever since publication in 1859. This extract includes “Struggle for Existence,” “Natural Selection,” “Difficulties on Theory,” and “Conclusion.”

Relevance? Argument?
Strangely enough, my first thought on reading parts of this abridged version of On Natural Selection was about population control–and that what Darwin observed about animals applied to human beings, and that those observations constituted social and political thoughts in a very raw form. When Darwin writes about each species’ desire to propagate and increase its numbers, and the repercussions of this innate instinctual, even cellular, commandment, it is not just a discussion of a component of ecosystems, a precursor to a discussion of evolution, it is also a warning about preserving the natural balance. “There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair. Even slow-breeding man has doubled in twenty-five years, and at this rate, in a few thousand years, there would literally not be standing room for his progeny.”

“Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of the species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount,” Darwin writes. And so it has been with humankind, with our own free will having mitigated our destruction at the possible cost of our destruction by overpopulation.

Darwin starts with seeds and evolves upward in these texts. Seeds are seeds and hard to get excited about, but in the dawdling about seeds Darwin is making a patience argument, much like Ruskin, but without any of Ruskin’s flare. Darwin’s flare is in the details of his argument, and thus going slow and discussing plants has the advantage of perhaps putting off guard those most likely to spasm into convulsions at the thought of monkeys being the ancestors of people. Thus there is mention of Linnaeus and gardens and climate, and at one point, much to my delight, “humble-bees” (which I hope is not a typographical error). From humble-bees, it is not much further to field mice, and by now we begin to see the faint outline, the kind of gradual curve, of Darwin’s ultimate destination–a sense of competition that becomes fiercer in our imaginations when it takes place between types of rodents than between types of vegetables. At the very least, we have a nice description of the relationship between certain organisms.

I like in particular the line “The dependency of one organic being on another…lies generally between beings remote in the scale of nature,” perhaps because of my father’s studies of invasive species, in which invariably the same near-sighted story plays out when human beings are involved–the bird brought in to eat the insect that was ruining the crops only to become a pest of a different kind, and the lack of the insect creating some other imbalance in a system devised by the universe’s greatest engineer and systematic ruined by us, some of the worst.

Darwin’s sentences tend to have an abstract quality even when he is talking about flesh-and-blood animals that I found interesting at times.* Although he includes his direct observations, he more commonly, at least in these selections, works with hypothetical examples and somewhat bloodless diagrams in word form. It is important to Darwin, it seems to me, that he not get bogged down in unnecessary description and detail. I kept thinking about his great expedition to the Galapagos and elsewhere–imagining in my mind’s eye, sadly enough, the scenes in Master and Commander. The whip of the waves and wind. The salty green eyes of the iguanas, and the black-rock coast. There’s none of that in On Natural Selection–we have to imagine it from our own context.

I’m not saying this kind of detail should be there–just that when, in “Difficulties on Theory,” Darwin gives us such detail, it invigorates the text with a kind of animated still-life, as when he writes, “Look at the family of squirrels; here we have the finest gradation from animals with their tails only slightly flattened, and from others, as Sir J Richardson has remarked, with the posterior part of their bodies rather wide and with the skin on their flanks rather full, to the so-called flying squirrel; and flying squirrels have their limbs and even the base of the tail united by a broad expanse of skin, which serves as a parachute and allows them to glide through the air to an astonishing distance from tree to tree.” Observations of flying lemurs, bats, logger-headed ducks, tyrant flycatchers, and much more soon follow, much to my entertainment (even recognizing that this was not Darwin’s primary purpose).

As someone with a scientist father (research on: fire ants, moths, rhinoceros beetles), the rest all seems rather tame, and it’s somewhat difficult on an emotional, gut, level to understand the furor this book created upon publication. Specifically, it is difficult to see how anyone, reading the gentle means by which Darwin places humankind within the rightful context of the natural world,** could really object to this assessment. I have wondered many times, perhaps in ignorance of accepted dogma, what stops a religious person from accepting evolution. What affront against religion is offered by this matter-of-fact text? That stops the worshipper from saying simply, “I believe in God, and I believe God created evolution to further His plan in this world.” (Other than, of course, that stubbornly literal six thousand years in the Bible.)

That simply observing the ways of the natural world, and its complex interdependency, should be grounds for such consternation seems to prove that we are indeed animals, no different than apes, ruled by emotions and instinct that override logic and reason.

* At others, my eyes glazed over.
** Recognizing that some scientists dispute the details of Darwin’s version of evolution.

For the first time, omissions are too frequent to allow uninterrupted enjoyment and comprehension of the text.

Question for Readers
Why is evolution incompatible with religious belief?

Next up, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Why I Am So Wise…


  1. says

    “Strangely enough, my first thought on reading parts of this abridged version of On Natural Selection was about population control–and that what Darwin observed about animals applied to human beings, and that those observations constituted social and political thoughts in a very raw form.”

    Not that this is where you were going with the thought above, but one of the most terrifying and repulsive interpretations of Darwin are by eugenicists who took this rather bland and seemingly innocuous text and use it to justify their sterilization or murder of the ‘undesirable’ elements of the human species. My uncle is a biologist, and we were talking the other day of the American scientists who devoted enormous amounts of energy in the late 19th century trying to prove that Africans were further down the evolutionary tree by taking meticulous and copious measurements of their skulls…

  2. Curt says


    Just finished a PhD at FSU in the humanities in which I looked at how Third Culture thinkers are becoming our new public intellectuals. Been away for about a year, and only started reading your blog after I left. Had I known you were there, I would have looked you up. Anyway, regarding this post, I was thinking that your question might have been more helpful if you framed it this way: “Is evolution incompatible with religious belief?” Our own Dr. Michael Ruse has written about his many times and suggested that it is not. I am a recovering monotheist who has freed himself from those shackles, but I do accept that religious belief can take on forms different from, say, traditional 20th century American fundamentalism or current fundamentalist Whabbism. Right? There are plenty of liberal Anglicans out there who have no trouble squaring their religious beliefs with evolution. Stephen Jay Gould, as I am sure you know, has written about this many times and demonstrates a via media between the likes of Phelps and Dawkins. Anyway, thanks.

  3. says

    Some Christians accept evolution as God’s way of creating all living things up to and including humans, and they interpret the 7 day creation time-table as figurative, or they posit that 1 day for God might be thousands of days for people. But if you probe long enough, even these open-minded Christians will have problems with other Biblical statements they insist on taking literally. This causes some of them to stand firm and close their minds, refusing to cross any line that may lead to a slippery slope. Others, like my younger self, realize that there are certain things in the Bible that, by no stretch of logic, can be taken literally, and it’s useless to try. If there is a God, he gave me the ability to know that certain actions always cause certain reactions. It’s ridiculous to think He would set up such an orderly system and then put me to some test by challenging me to stop believing it.

    Here’s a question for anyone who might know the answer: Is it true that writing was created 6000 years ago? That would partly explain the belief that the world is only 6000 years old.

    Here’s a paradox: The printing press is technology and some Christians don’t like technology. They say we were better off in the garden of eden with no cars or televisions. And not only is the printing press technology, but so is cuniform writing in clay. But the only way people know about the Bible is the invention of writing and the printing press.

    I like Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene? It builds on Darwins theories but emphasizes a gene-centered view of evolution, in other words, all living things are hosts for genes, which adapt and evolve at a cellular level to survive.

    Hey, Jeff, did your Dad ever have to fill trenches with water or gasoline to stop swarming legions of army ants, like in Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson?

  4. says

    The discussion makes me realize what a secular Christian I grew up as. I never questioned the ease with which evolution and the concept of “God’s plan” sat together until people started pointing out the beliefs of some sects of Christianity. I have a hard time rationalizing this disconnect or understanding the energy that is expended on anti-evolutionist arguments(based on religious concepts).
    I can’t help but recall Darwin’s association with Galton when you discuss his relationship to eugenics. Of course what I’ve read might just be exaggeration. It seemed that Darwin was sympathetic but did not endorse Galton’s ideas.
    And my wife is a biologist, her field of study? Brine shrimp…Sea monkeys!

  5. says


    The 6000 figure is usually done through adding up the different ages given for individuals. The most famous is the Ussher chronology although there are several others that come out with roughly the same length of time.

    The Sumerian Cuneiform script did appear in the Uruk period 4000BC to 3100 BC. This was when civilization in the Fertile Crescent transitioned into the Bronze Age. Different authors demarcate between proto-writing and writing proper so there’s some debate.

  6. says

    Thanks, jmnlman. I’m thinking that the two factors kind of bolster one another.

    In other words, people added up the ages of individuals in the Bible through each generation back to Adam, and it came to 6000 years. The fact that nobody was taking notes 6000 years ago makes it difficult to readily prove the world is older than that. I’m not saying it can’t be proven by science, only that we have no document to show to a fundamentalist literal-translation Baptist.

  7. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Curt: I think I framed it that way because I take it as a given that for millions of people, it isn’t compatible. Good discussion here.

  8. says

    I grew up in a family where my parents cited that “6000 year” thing as being merely figurative (while accepting as literal quite a few other things). I have other relatives (my parents were/are Methodists) who are Southern Baptists who take that 6000 year figure much more literally. I can’t remember ever not accepting natural selection/evolution as a scientific explanation for what has transpired over billions of years, but I did end up leaving my first church over 10 years ago just because it didn’t seem compatible enough with the idea of evolution. Ironically, the church that did seem to reconcile Darwin’s theory of natural selection with Christianity the best (for me, that is) was the Catholic Church. Go figure?

    That being said, living in the Southeast all my life, it is rather depressing listening to the blather about forbidding the teaching of evolution in schools and the knowledge that if I want to keep my job (I’ve never bothered to stay at a school long enough to earn tenure), I better not bring up Darwin’s ideas when talking about history, despite Spencer’s bastardized Social Darwinism being a major influence on imperialism, the two World Wars, and even some of our racist attitudes today.

  9. says


    While writing doesn’t exist there certianly do exist human artifacts that are much older than 6000 years, as well as art (sculptures, paintings, pottery, etc.) I grew up Mormon and both of my parents were vehemently opposed to evolution. I’ve shed the beliefs of my youth and am no longer surprised at people’s ability to ignore things that disagree with their world-view. If anything it is simply more evidence how much more animal we are, despite our protests to the contrary.

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