On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition by Charles Darwin and David Quammen (Author and Editor)

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On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition by Charles Darwin and David Quammen (Author and Editor)

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A formidable volume in size, but this companionable republishing of the first edition, with so many brilliant illustrations and added written features is a must-buy. It might remain a coffee-table item and not a well-digested science classic, but that is the risk we must face.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: November 2008
Publisher: Sterling
ISBN: 978-1402756399

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There are books I think you have to read, and there are books you have to read. This is one of the latter, and finally in a volume that goes a long way to making it one you have to own – with the approach to this classic making this edition the definitive one for a long time to come.

The introduction gifted to us here by David Quammen lets us learn that it could possibly have been called 'On the Transmutation of Species', as Darwin laboured over his work for a long time using that term before 'evolution'. He also towards the end called it my abominable volume, which is only part of the huge history of this incredible work. He spent years thinking about his theories, having survived five years on the HMS Beagle, and after various drafts and opinions formulated over years for private consumption, was getting towards a huge magnum opus – a quarter of a million words long, and he felt halfway there. But with similar conclusions coming from other people, he felt the urge to rush through a shorter, briefer volume, more for the layman.

This book comes to us in such a huge format it would appear he stuck with the original half a million words, and to have taken just as long in its creation.

Before the days of Darwin of course there was a very muddled idea about the birth of life on earth. Christianity suggested the world was 6,000 years old, with fossils either put where they are found for our entertainment, or as the remains of Godly mistakes, or demons. Those a bit more enlightened realised the forefathers of all animals were somewhere to be found in a much longer history – although the variation in life was not explained. Of all the various lifeforms around, it was thought many had a unique antecedent.

Darwin starts by revealing the most plain argument against that - the results of human selection – that of adopting and adapting domesticated animals for improved benefits in farming, working dogs, and more. It was obvious that animals diversified from their originals at our hands.

For the person tempted to see what this classic is like as a read, chapter two might be a stumbling block too much too soon. Darwin thinks aloud – and justifies his ideas to his fellow scientists – on what is a species, what is a variant, and so on. There is a reason for this – he shows us how the most successful – the 'best' – types of animal, have the most success in providing variants. Note I used my word 'best' and not the 'fittest' – "survival of the fittest" was not Darwin's own phrase, and only comes into the book in his fourth published rewrite.

Chapter three is back on firm ground – Darwin clearly writes from great intelligence, unique levels of reason and brilliant experience. He had found no horses in Paraguay, because of an insect that prevented them surviving at some stage in their life. If mankind were to come along and hunt the larger birds, they would allow the smaller, insectivorous birds to live to destroy more of the insects, thus perhaps allowing the horses to enter that territory. Natural selection is evidently an immensely balanced play of power.

The writing is so clear - and importantly, not at all constrictive or proscriptive - that it allows us to extrapolate to the nature of mankind, where humans have evolved to breach the rules of evolution – with our central heating, health care and more, we have allowed ourselves to live in places beyond our naturally viable scope, and for much longer. The main crux of the natural selection arguments, in chapter four – one of the more definitive ones – goes into many details very well regarding the copious laws of nature. Plants are forced by Mother Nature, or evolution (something, anyway) to follow evolutionary progress, as while they could so easily self-pollinate, they accept a stranger's pollen more readily, and use that for the next generation.

What becomes clear from reading the text is that it could have been written very differently. The R word is seldom evident, despite Darwin's complex and changing attitudes to Christianity. He could so easily have started by saying 'God seems to say and do this, but I say this…'. Instead he starts very scientifically from the bottom and works up, formulating what he finds into a theory, and not working the facts to suit a theory he needs to work for him.

Of course, this book is not just the original Origins. We get excerpts from Darwin's other writing – his geographical and scientific reportage, his autobiography, his letters. The amount of double page spreads that do not feature at least one splash into other texts, or a picture, can be counted on one (albeit mutated) hand. Some of the images are priceless, in recounting the cartoonish backlash, or in teaching us how to skin a sea serpent.

It does make it slightly awkward to decide quite how to read the whole thing – I broke off after each chapter to catch up with the picture captions and bonus material, and it worked. It makes this book, in DVD parlance, the triple-disc Director's Edition, with so much behind-the-scenes material we can wallow for hours – or, luckily, ease through the original, first edition facsimile we get here.

It could have had at times a better approach, however - there is no attempt made to annotate this volume, although it would clearly help many times. On page 167 here, Darwin is practically talking of dominant and recessive genes - so where was Mendel at that time in his thinking? In chapter nine he goes further towards guesswork about some future fossil record - what do those in the know in 2008 think of these ideas?

Also, for a text that has been in the public domain for 150 years, this is very poorly proof-read. Yet still it remains a near-excellent book. It may be slightly self-defeating – it is not a short book anyway, and can get quite dry, and with this huge edition taking a lot of wrist-power to keep it gently open before one you may feel tempted to leave it on the shelf for yet another rainy day that never arrives. It certainly looks a book to prize and cherish. But those choosing to read it will find it actually a very readable book.

2009 will mark Darwin's bicentennary, and 150 years since the Origin's original publication. I am very glad that due to the publishers' generosity to the Bookbag I was able to turn to a classic such as this at such an appropriate time.

For more modern science writing we can recommend The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing by Richard Dawkins

Booklists.jpg On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition by Charles Darwin and David Quammen (Author and Editor) is in the List Of Books To Celebrate Charles Darwin's 200th Anniversary.
Buy On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition by Charles Darwin and David Quammen (Author and Editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition by Charles Darwin and David Quammen (Author and Editor) at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition by Charles Darwin and David Quammen (Author and Editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition by Charles Darwin and David Quammen (Author and Editor) at Amazon.com.



Having started the year with the above, I managed to close it with Richard Dawkins' audio version of the book. While I love his voice (if not his unusual way of pronouncing canine as "cannine"), he might not be the best narrator - there is an obvious jump in volume and attack to his voice due to every pause the producers had in the recording. The benefit of that is there is a variety in the telling, for I found it a little dry, and following the script with the original book format is not the way we're supposed to consume audio CDs, surely?

Still, Dawkins is superlative in his field, and the way he sheds something like 20% of the text to make it more accurate, more relevant to modern thinking, and more condensed and concise than ever before, is to be lauded. It's just one further option available - while we head away from 2009 as I write, there is no way in which Darwin is less essential just because we've passed his anniversary.

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