On the Origin of Species

Darwin's seminal work is one of the most important books ever published

Posted by Karen Myers, Curator, on March 31, 2022

Widely considered to be one of the most important and influential books of all time, the History of Medicine Library holds a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species, a book that everyone has heard of but almost nobody has actually read. It’s full title is “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. It was written for the general public and its initial print run of 1250 sold out on its day of publication on 24 November 1859. However, Darwin had formulated his theory almost 20 years before.

Prior to becoming a naturalist, Darwin studied medicine in Edinburgh and had considered life as a physician, but he could not stomach the brutality of surgery before anaesthetics and the suffering of patients.

"After having spent two sessions in Edinburgh, my father perceived ... that I did not like the thought of being a physician, so he proposed that I should become a clergyman. He was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination. I asked for some time to consider ..."

Natural history studies and certain mentors changed the course of his life. After initial objections by his father, Darwin gained a berth on the HMS Beagle (1831-6) as a gentleman "amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting anything worthy to be noted in natural history"

He was 26 by the time the Beagle landed at Sydney and spent from 12th January to 14th March, 1836 in Australia and Australian waters. He visited Sydney in January, travelled over the Blue Mountains to Bathurst, and turned 27 as he explored Hobart and its environs as far as New Norfolk. A further week was spent at King George Sound in Western Australia. Australia is mentioned around 39 times in this pivotal work, New Zealand 20+ times.

1859 : On the Origin of Species

In the Origin’s introduction Darwin relates that he first conceived of his theory of evolution when travelling the world on board the Beagle. On his return from the five-year voyage, he speculated about his theory with “a sketch of the conclusions” in 1844. He was only prompted to publish the “abstract” of the Origin because his poor health and the fact that his contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace had recently sent him a “memoir” reaching a similar conclusion. He maintained that a complete work was “still 2 or 3 more years” away.

According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, only the plants and animals best adapted to their environment will survive to reproduce and transfer their genes to the next generation. Animals and plants that are poorly adapted to their environment will not survive to reproduce.

Some have used the theory to justify a particular view of human social, political, or economic conditions. All such ideas have one fundamental flaw however, as they use a purely scientific theory for a completely unscientific purpose, misrepresenting and misappropriating Darwin's original ideas. Politics took up the evolutionary ideas of Darwin with Herbert Spencer building a whole school of 'social Darwinism' on the notion of “the survival of the fittest”- the idea that certain people become powerful in society because they are innately better. Social Darwinism emerged in the late 1800s espousing a loose set of ideologies in which Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was used to justify certain political, social, or economic views. Social Darwinism has been used to justify imperialism, racism, eugenics, and social inequality at various times over the past century and a half. Charles Darwin not only did not coin the phrase 'survival of the fittest', he argued against it. Darwin opposed social injustice and oppression. He would have been shocked to see the events of generations to come: his name attached to opposing ideologies from Marxism to unbridled capitalism, and to policies from ethnic cleansing to forced sterilization.

As social Darwinist rationalisations of inequality gained popularity in the late 1800s, British scholar Sir Francis Galton (Darwin’s half-cousin) launched a new 'science' aimed at improving the human race by ridding society of its 'undesirables'. He called it eugenics.

Eugenics — the 'science' of 'racial improvement' - became a popular social movement that peaked in the 1920s and 1930s. Australia’s elite were active participants in the eugenic movement. It was promoted through books and films with local fetes and exhibitions holding 'fitter family' and 'better baby' competitions around the country. The Victorian Eugenics Society led a campaign that resulted in mental deficiency legislation passing through Victorian parliament in 1939. Only the onset of war prevented the policies being put into place. After shocking revelations about the Holocaust came to light post WW2, the eugenics movement was discredited.

Every bacterium resistant to antibiotics attests to the truth of evolution but sadly some people still reject the theory : creationism almost died off in the early 1900s but it was revived at the end of last century. Fundamentalism and the undermining of science and intellectualism have been on the rise in recent times and can be seen to be playing out with climate science deniers and anti-vaxxers movement gaining prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic. Read On the Origin of Species and consider Darwin himself was filled with doubts. Contrast that with the certainty and blind faith of self-styled ‘experts’ who show little doubt about what they proclaim.

How did the College come into the possession of such a seminal work? It was entrusted to the College as part of the Sir Edward Ford bequest, donated to the College on his death in 1986. Ford was a former curator of the History of Medicine Library as well as Vice President of the College from 1970-72. He oversaw the development of the collections for many years and is the most significant contributor to its richness.