The Origin of Species Summary, Review PDF

The publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 sparked an ongoing debate. Even among those who disagree with the work’s ideas, its influence is undeniable. This is a groundbreaking text in multiple disciplines, including science, philosophy, and theology.

The Origin of Species is an impressively accessible text in addition to being the catalyst for a revolutionary shift in scientific thinking.

You may be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

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The Origin of Species Book Summary

Early on in Darwin’s first five-year voyage on the Beagle, he observed that, despite the distances between the remote areas he visited, the varieties of flora and fauna he found were similar in structure and function. This led him to develop his idea that species were not immutable, but were forced to adapt to their ever-changing environments. 

In his introduction to the first edition of The Origin of Species, Darwin noted: “I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the [plant and animal] inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to throw some light on the origin of the species – that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.” After over twenty years of further research, Darwin published his findings.

Like all scientists, Darwin built his theory upon those of his predecessors. However, scientific opinion was always – and remains – somewhat divided as to what contribution the theory makes to the biological sciences. Throughout the book Darwin openly admits to the possibility of error and the need for further investigation; he is careful to point out that the idea of evolution by natural selection is “one of long argument.”

To comprehend the vast amount of information contained in the work, one must examine it in its entirety. Still, this sampling of chapter headings and brief content summaries may provide some general information.

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Chapter II: Variation Under Nature

Variations within a species are indistinguishable at first, but gradually may develop into differences that can restrict one group’s range or ability to obtain food or escape predators… Thus, “varieties tend to become converted into new and distinct species … and throughout nature the forms of life which are now dominant tend to become still more dominant by leaving many modified and dominant descendants.”

Chapter III: Struggle for Existence

“… When a plant or animal is placed in a new country amongst new competitors, the conditions of its life will generally be changed in an essential manner…If its average numbers are to increase…we should have to give it some advantage over a different set of competitors or enemies.” Each organic being is striving to multiply – to be vigorous, healthy, and to survive – often at the expense of members of its own species or those of a competing species.

Chapter IV: Natural Selection; or the Survival of the Fittest

The “fitness” of a species is modified by several different processes. For example, sexual selection may occur when males of a population must compete with other males to possess mates. Those possessing some advantage – better weapons, greater energy, or more beautiful song or plumage – are more apt to survive or attract a mate, likely to leave the most progeny. 

Over time, such gradual adaptation, along with changing conditions and outside competition, can cause “an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, advantageous to one set of offspring over another, or to one variety within a species over another. This principle of preservation, or the survival of the fittest, I have called Natural Selection…”

As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.

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Chapter V: Laws of Variation

Reproductive “chance” creates variations. When the conditions of a species alter, those individuals that survive to reproduce may have beneficial modifications – organs or limbs that either become stronger or more useful, or else, when not needed for survival, weakened and diminished. This is not to say, however, that the formation of organs serving little purpose does not occur; it most certainly does. The human appendix may exemplify just such a process phenomenon. But any variation within a species is, inevitably, a long, slow process.

Chapter VIII: Instinct

Habitual instincts are inherited within each species. Ants and bees build their nests and hives with no previous experience. Birds migrate and build homes according to their unique inner senses. But instincts too may change over time as “consequences of one general law leading to the advancement of all organic beings…multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”

Other chapters deal with related topics: hybridism; living species compared to those of ancient geological periods; extinction; geographical distribution of organisms; relationships between species; and the classification of organisms. Objections to the general theory of evolution are presented in both Darwin’s conclusion and glossary of terms.

Darwin’s observations led him to believe that species did adapt to their changing surroundings. Furthermore, he was led to defend as a logical, observable – and even religious – corollary of this conclusion, a theory advancing the probability of common descent for all living creatures.

Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind, it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of an individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as lineal descendants of some few beings which have lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.

The Origin of Species represents Darwin’s many years of personal and intellectual struggle. It is candidly argued and presented in a flowing, orderly manner, then left for each reader to weigh the evidence. As a copious text on natural history, its ideas are refreshingly comprehensible and insightful.

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The Origin of Species Book Review

Charles Robert Darwin, the grandson of the English scientist Erasmus Darwin, studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and prepared for the ministry at Cambridge. Following his abiding interest in natural history, however, he became a naturalist and sailed in this capacity on the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1838. The Beagle’s expedition took Darwin to various Southern Pacific islands and to the coasts of South America and Australia.

Returning to England, Darwin became the secretary of the Geological Society and, in 1840, published a treatise, “Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle.” At this time he met Sir Charles Lyell, who encouraged him to write about his inbreeding experiments and to expound on his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Later, in 1844, Darwin received from a fellow naturalist, Alfred Wallace, notes outlining a theory – parallel to, but independent of, his own – on natural selection. Darwin carried on his research and, in 1858, published an essay delineating his own evolutionary theory along with Wallace’s findings. The following year, The Origin of Species appeared. The book’s first edition sold out in one day, stirring an immediate clamor of controversy. It is still recognized as one of the most disputed yet important works of biological study.

Darwin went on to publish The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (1865), The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), The Descent of Man (1871), and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).

The Origin of Species has powerfully influenced nearly every contemporary field of scientific and philosophical study: biology, literature, law, psychology, sociology, theology, and other fields of intellectual pursuit. Despite the length and weighty content of the work, the text is remarkably easy reading. Unfortunately, through all the tempest and fanfare that have followed it for almost one and a half centuries, few have actually studied its pages.

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