Saturday, September 24, 2016

Taking Darwin on Vacation, 1950

Ten years ago I wrote appreciatively about Charles Darwin in my study book, What about Religion and Science? (Abingdon Press, 2007), available as an e-book from It's too bad anyone still has to defend Darwin, nearly 160 years after he began to publish his observations and theories. His groundbreaking work revolutionized and is foundational for many areas of science; and yet outside the scientific community, his theories remain controversial. For instance, every few years, some school board makes the news by foolishly attempting to include "other theories" into school curriculum.

I love antique books, and a few months ago I decided to collect a few foundational science books of that era. Over the next several weeks, I plan to write about them on this blog. My first purchase was The Origin of Species. I keep it beside my books about Lincoln, with whom Darwin shares a February 12, 1809 birth date.

By surveying books for sale on eBay and, I learned some of the interesting publication history of Origin. The original British publisher of most of Darwin's books was John Murray of London. The first edition of Origin came out in November 1859 and sold out quickly. Copies are worth tens of thousands of dollars today. Through subsequent editions, Darwin made refinements and clarifications to the text until the 6th edition, so all printings from 1876 are based on this edition. He also changed the title slightly, which had been On the Origin of Species, and he dropped the "on." He first used the expression "survival of the fittest," which had been coined by Herbert Spencer, in the fifth edition. His American publisher was D. Appleton of New York, with the first edition of Origin in 1860. Interesting to think of this revolutionary text appearing in the U.S. when Lincoln was running for president.
"shameless commerce" 

Darwin considered books to be key sources of data for Origin: for instance, his two-volume The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (London, John Murray, 1868). The many facts and demonstrations in that 1000-page text helped support his theory of natural selection. This was also the book where Darwin developed his hypothesis of "pangenesis" that attempted to describe the ways characteristics are inherited among generations. Remember that the science of genetics still lay in the future (Gregor Mendel's experiments and publications were rediscovered and discussed in 1900 and after). Darwin's pangenesis hypothesis was unsustainable but did offer a creative solution for that time.

I also learned that Darwin did not use the word "evolution" until his two-volume work, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London, John Murray, 1871). Not only that, but Darwin was a distinguished botanist, publishing books on plant movements, insectivorous plants, cross and self pollination, and domesticated plants. Early editions of these works are also treasurable antiquarian texts.

I found on eBay an affordable copy of Origin of Species that attracted me because it came out in 1890, the year of my Fayette County, IL grandmothers' births. An interesting thing about this copy, which intrigued me, is that a previous owner had underlined passages, apparently while reading the book on vacation with family. The book seller, gossamer258751, erased all he could without damaging the pages; those few that remained were in hard to erase red pencil.

I thought it would be fun to share the passages that the previous owner found interesting. Here are a few.

1890 printing
"It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life" (pp. 65-66).

"... I have collected so large a body of facts, and made so many experiments showing, in accordance with the almost universal belief of breeders, that with animals and plants a cross between different varieties, or between individuals of the same variety but of another staring, gives vigor and fertility to the offspring; and on the other hand, that close interbreeding diminishes vigor and fertility; that these facts along incline time to believe that it is a general law of nature that no organic being fertilizes itself for a perpetuity of generations; but that a cross with another individual is occasionally---perhaps at long intervals of time---indispensable" (p. 76).

"The mere lapse of time by itself does nothing, either for or against natural selection. I state this because it has been erroneously asserted that the element of time has been assumed by me to play an all-important part in modifying species, as if all the forms of life were necessarily undergoing change through some innate law. Lapse of time is only so far important, and its importance in this respect is great, that it gives a better chance of beneficial variations arising and of their being selected, accumulated, and fixed" (p. 82).

"These domestic instincts, when thus tested by crossing, resemble natural instincts, which in a like manner become curiously blended together, and for a long period exhibit traces of the instincts of either parent: for example, Le Roy describes a dog, who's great-grandfather was a world, and this dog showed a trace of its wild parentage only in one way, by not coming in a straight line to his master, when called" (p. 210).

"Origin" is still in print, but John
Murray published the book
until 1929. This is a copy
of that last, 1929 printing.
"Salt-water fish can with care be slowly accustomed to live in fresh water; and, according to Valenciennes, there is hardly a single group of which all the members are confined to fresh water, so that a marine species belonging to a fresh-water group might travel far along the shores of the sea, and could, it is probable, become adapted without much difficulty to the fresh waters of a distant land" (p. 344).

"[I]f we make due allowance for our ignorance of the full effects of changes of climate and of the level of the land, which have certainly occurred within the recent period and of other changes which have probably occurred,---if we remember how ignorant we are with respect to the many curious means of occasional transport,---if we bear in mind, and this is a very important consideration, how often a species may have ranged continuously over a wide area, and then have become extinct in the intermediate tracts,---the difficulty is not insuperable in believing that all the individuals of the same species, wherever found, are descended from common parents" (p. 359).

"I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one. It is satisfactory, as showing how transient such impressions are, to remember that the greatest discovery ever made by man, namely, the law of the attraction of gravity, was also attacked by Leibnitz [sic], 'as subversive of natural and inferentially of revealed, religion.' A celebrated authority and divine has written to me that 'he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws'" (pp. 421-422).

And…. on page 248, a small brown spot is circled in pencil, and in the margin is written, "Celine's Suntan Lotion, Barranquilla, Colombia, 3-21-50."

Here is the text of Origin available online:


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