On the Origin of Species Summary

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we'll learn about Charles Darwin's influential book 'On the Origin of Species.' We'll examine the historical context surrounding the book and summarize Darwin's central points. We'll understand how and why this book has impacted society.

A Controversial Book Then and Now

The topic of evolutionary biology continues to be controversial as not everybody accepts the view that human beings evolved from lower biological forms over time. Perhaps you've been in a class or listened to a discussion where debate has erupted over Charles Darwin and his model of evolution.

Even in his own time, Darwin was no stranger to controversy. When he published On the Origin of Species in 1859 it created waves in the scientific community, the religious community, and within society at large. This ground-breaking book was applauded by some and condemned by others. It was (and in some respects still is) controversial.

The title page of the first edition of On the Origin of Species.
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So what exactly was On the Origin of Species? The official name of this book is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. But whew, that is a mouthful so usually it's just called On the Origin of Species, or even just Origin of Species.

Charles Darwin was a British naturalist (scientist) who published the book in 1859, just over a year before the American Civil War broke out in the United States. The book set forth the foundations for modern evolutionary biology. Darwin asserted that plant and animal life evolved from previous forms through a process called natural selection.

Darwin is known for having conducted his observation and research in the Galápagos Islands, off the coast of South America. These islands teemed with all kinds of exotic plant and animal life. In addition to the Galápagos Islands, Darwin traveled all over the world conducting observations aboard the HMS Beagle, during which time he formulated his evolutionary model.

Charles Darwin in 1854.
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Historical Context and On the Origin of Species

During the Enlightenment (18th century) a ''natural'' or ''scientific'' view of the universe became commonplace, weakening centuries of religious authority and dogma. Nevertheless, in the West it was still generally accepted that the God of Christianity had directly created the universe.

This view, called special creation, asserted that God created the universe out of nothing by divine decree, as recorded in the book of Genesis. Many leading scientists of the 18th and 19th century accepted this view, even as they were increasingly understanding the universe from a physical, material perspective.

In 1859, Darwin's On the Origin of Species definitely shook things up! In a time when special creation was widely accepted, Darwin's book was initially greeted with intense hostility. The religious community considered it blasphemy, and even many in the scientific community remained skeptical. However, within a few decades, his evolutionary model had become widely accepted within the scientific community.

Not everyone agreed with Darwin, especially early on. This image was designed to mock Darwin and his idea of evolution.
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The story behind Darwin's book is interesting. In 1855 another naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace published an essay proposing that new species came into existence at about the same time other species were becoming extinct. A friend alerted Darwin that Wallace was on the verge of major scientific breakthrough, and encouraged Darwin to more or less beat Wallace to it. Darwin and Wallace actually presented their research in a joint paper, but after Darwin's research was published in 1859, he became the figure commonly associated with evolutionary biology.

Main Ideas of the On the Origin of Species

In this book, Darwin argues that evolution takes place through a process called natural selection. Natural selection is the process by which organisms better suited for adaption to their environment survive, while those that are poorly suited to their environment do not. Basically it is nature ''selecting'' which organisms thrive and which do not. This process, Darwin asserted, was a driving force in evolution. This process is also commonly referred to as ''survival of the fittest''. This term, however, was actually coined by Herbert Spencer, another prominent scientist.

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