Darwin’s Early Origins

The first edition of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of the Species’ has a typo hidden in it. Resolving mistakes is part of scientific method, and Darwin sure had the chance to fix his in following editions. The first prints of ‘On the Origin of the Species’ sold out within a day.

Origin front

Darwin’s 1831 journey on the HMS Beagle provided him with copious notes and observations that developed into his theories on evolution, but he didn’t publish ‘On the Origin of the Species’ until 1859 after studying his records for twenty years. Darwin had expected his work to be a short entry of around thirty pages in the Linnean Society journal. His thesis quickly turned into something much longer. Just over a thousand were printed, all of which were sold to interested individuals on waiting lists within the first day of its release.

It is difficult to tell first editions by date because the second was printed within the same year as the first. However, a misspelling of the word ‘speceies’ on page 20 is used as a giveaway.

Darwin’s study of animals went into even more eccentric detail . He was a member of the Gourmet Club, famed for dining on unusual creatures. Darwin described the taste of brown owl as being indescribable.

Darwin was engaged as a naturalist on the Beagle’s second survey expedition across the Atlantic Ocean. It was his task to catalogue geology, flora and fauna on the voyage. However, Darwin was almost rejected by the ship’s captain on a judgement of genetics.

“I hear that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected, on account of the shape of my nose! [Captain Fitz-Roy] was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features” – Charles Darwin, 1902.

Despite the nose, Darwin was chosen as the man for the job. He collected around 15 species of mockingbirds from the Galapagos Islands on the journey and noticed that they were similar to one another, but with different beaks. He realised they differed between islands and according to the type of food that was available. With this information, Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection. Those with the genetic characteristics making it easiest to survive are more likely to pass on their traits.

A good example of this is the Peppered Moth. Light coloured moths are harder for birds to see and hunt in trees, meaning they usually dominate. During the industrial revolution, around Darwin’s time, it was noticed that the black moth populations grew in London. As the city’s factories spewed out soot, black moths became harder to see and therefore more likely to survive in the grime covered trees. Evolution usually occurs over a long period of time, but the lifespan of these moths made their selective evolution visible.

Origin main

Science requires a critical approach, so it is worth noting that Darwin was not the first to suggest theories of evolution. Darwin’s ability to provide evidence of this and explain the theory set him apart. Similarly, it should be acknowledged that Darwin’s theory of evolution also has an ugly history of racism. This is particularly important to recognise for the part it played in Australia’s colonial history. Like I said, it’s good to be critical. As in science, deconstructing mistakes is a way to improve.

Origin spine (2)

You can have a look at the copy yourself if you like. Follow the prompts to order it at the Reading Room here.

And if you want to have a more scientific and critical look at Darwin, check out this book: Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2010).


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