On The Origin of Species, read by Richard Dawkins (2007)

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one, and that while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

These are the closing words of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, read abridged in an audio recording by Richard Dawkins from 2007.

How should we read Darwin’s book today?

Should we read it as history? Is On The Origin of Species a Hopeful Monster of a theory lacking a mechanism and made irrelevant by more recent discoveries?

As politics? Is the book no more than a privileged English gentleman naturalist explaining interesting but unsupportable things to his own social class?

As science? Is it no more than a naturalist’s attempt to synthesise what was known or speculated from biology, geology and paleontology, physics and chemistry as it was known at the time?

Richard Dawkins does an excellent job of letting Darwin, in his own words, show why On the Origin of Species prefigures modern evolutionary theory, and is fundamentally correct.

In On the Origin of Species, Darwin canvasses four main arguments:

– that variation within lineages of organisms occurs universally
– that speciation occurs when varieties of organisms are separated reproductvely
– that we can see the history of modern organisms in their related fossils, their physiology, their embryology. and their biogeographical distribution
– that other, competing explanations for the diversity of life were relying uncritically on unproven assumptions

How modern does that sound?

If, by some warp in the continuum, Darwin were granted the opportunity to see what science has uncovered since his lifetime, what might he want to change in his book?

Perhaps he would abandon his continual emphasis on natural selection as a process for perfecting biological forms. I suspect he would recognise that organisms are fit to the extent that they survive and propagate in their local environments, not by any external, universal criterion of perfection. Perfection just means adequate, here and now.

Imagine that Darwin had recognised the significance of Mendel’s genetic model when it sat on his desk? Perhaps we would have been spared a delay of eighty years before biologists had a numerical basis for heredity. Perhaps some predecessor of Crick and Watson might have had the DNA answer fifty years sooner.

Perhaps, Darwin might, despite being apparently a deeply shy person, have summoned the courage to abandon his deferential references to the creator. But nobody at this distance should demand that of him. Darwin never saw the uses to which religion has been put in his posterity.

This edition runs to six hours of reading time, which is about a quarter of other full-text recordings available. I don’t know how Dawkins chose which parts to delete. Darwin’s characteristic method was to make a claim, state the obvious objections, and then use many examples in sequence to support his arguments. This version contains one or a few examples to illustrate each key point. It may be that Dawkins also discarded some of Darwin’s more intricate Victorian prose.

It is evident from this reading that Darwin was a considerable prose stylist, and Richard Dawkins does him justice. Dawkins hits his marks with an excellent audio recording; his enthusiasm, understanding of the science and evident respect for the text added greatly to my enjoyment.

If you drive a lot and can’t attend to a book while you are doing it, or if you need spoken versions of your preferred reading, or even if you just like to relax with a spoken book, I can thoroughly recommend this version of On the Origin of Species, which is available from Audible.

30 thoughts on “On The Origin of Species, read by Richard Dawkins (2007)

  1. Darwins laws are no more the final word that his comment about gravity’s laws/ There’s more to it Chuch!
    Where would one begin to dissect the great error?
    If evolution is a biological scientific theory then it must have biological scientific evidence to back up it up as a beginning hypothesis.
    Did Darwin do this?
    No I, and YEC, say!!
    Its up to the evolutionists to make the case and not up to creationists to make a case against.
    Its so easy to say the glory of biology came from small steps in changes. Too easy.
    Biology is too glorious upon examination to be so easily explained from small useful chances.

    Darwins ideas were all mere lines of reasoning and the desperate use of geology to supply time and evidence for changes.
    Its largely remained because it supplied a framework for denying the Christian/Protestant idea of origins and ever since help for social etc ideas to chane the world.

  2. Dude, you could have just stopped after identifying yourself as a YEC. That says everything one needs to know about your knowledge of and respect for science. Or reality.

  3. Robert Byers: Its largely remained because it supplied a framework for denying the Christian/Protestant idea of origins and ever since help for social etc ideas to chane the world.

    This just isn’t true, Robert. It’s remained because of its huge, and practically useful, predictive power. I’m no evolutionary biologist, but my field would be very lost without the Darwinian framework in which to understand neuroanatomy.

  4. Robert Byers: Darwins ideas were all mere lines of reasoning and the desperate use of geology to supply time and evidence for changes.

    Mere reasoning, as opposed to the awesome might of the non-reasoning Byers inspiration method.

    How desperate to use geology as evidence!

    So, reasoning and evidence versus…. the method that gave us classics such as the reason polar bears are white. “They are scared of humans to the point of white hair.”

  5. And let’s not forget that people had been applying the principles of selection for thousands of years because it worked. Darwin suggested reasons WHY it worked. The sheep the authors of the bible herded were already far different from native sheep because of the power of selection.

    So long as it worked by magic without human understanding, I suppose it didn’t threaten anyone’s precious theology.

  6. Robert Byers:
    If evolution is a biological scientific theory then it must have biological scientific evidence to back up it up as a beginning hypothesis.

    Well actually, Robert, that is the point. Darwin’s book is a compendium of evidence for his proposal. Which is part of the reason why I recommend you read it.

  7. An anecdote: I was given my change by the lady behind the bar last night. She noticed it included a two-pound coin with Darwin and an ape on the reverse. “Darwin was a liar!” she hissed. “He stole evolution!”. I was curious to learn more, but she had other customers.

    Did she think that evolution was correct but not original? (D. spends some time in later editions giving credit for the – um – genesis of the idea). Or both incorrect and associated with someone of dubious character? (Contemporary accounts are unanimous in their positive assessment).

    There does seem to be a mood of demonisation of poor old Mr D.

  8. Allan Miller:
    An anecdote: I was given my change by the lady behind the bar last night. She noticed it included a two-pound coin with Darwin and an ape on the reverse. “Darwin was a liar!” she hissed. “He stole evolution!”. I was curious to learn more, but she had other customers.

    Did she think that evolution was correct but not original? (D. spends some time in later editions giving credit for the– um – genesis of the idea). Or both incorrect and associated with someone of dubious character? (Contemporary accounts are unanimous in their positive assessment).

    There does seem to be a mood of demonisation of poor old Mr D.

    Because he gazumped Wallace, perhaps? Or that Scottish naval engineer? Or did the controversy reduce the street value of her Mitsubishi Evo 2?

    We asks ourselves, and we answers that we doesn’t know. We waits with bated breath.

    Back to the bar in pursuit of knowledge Mr Miller! Be bloody, bold and resolute! Begone and return with pearls for us to clutch.

  9. I fear to learn more. Sometimes one turns a rock and finds something unpleasant lurking beneath!

    A musical acquaintance discovered that I had an interest in evolution – we go to the same open mike sessions. He attempted to ‘discuss’ – his text will be familiar – and I tried to explain the basis of my interest – fundamentally, a sound education in biology. His attitude to me changed abruptly. Now, every time I see him I can see the mental wheels turning while he comes up with some attempted quip regarding evolution, and the fools who ‘believe’ it. He recently declared that he’s glad his son (who likes my music) no longer goes because “I might turn him into an evolutionist”. Good job I’m not gay as well.

  10. Lizzie,
    I don’t know anything about neuroanatomy but i’m certain there is not predictive power from Darwin’s evolution.
    Anyways predictions are secondary to solid evidence in the hand.
    I’m sure any prediction made by evolution could be copied as a prediction creationism would make.

  11. davehooke,

    To use geology as evidence for biology and have to embrace is a desperate tactic if the subject about biology can’t use just or largely biology.
    without geology evolutionary biology has nothing as far as i have noticed.

  12. timothya,

    Read it and have it.
    I insist he provides NO biological scientific evidence for his conclusions.
    Just lines of reasoning and geology to help out.
    He makes the famous comment about the reader putting down his book if the reader does not already accept the long ages of geology assertion.
    AMEN. A book on biology should not need geology or be worthless as a scientific investigation.

  13. AMEN, Robert. Every science should stand on its own.

    Let’s see the astronomers explain orbits without invoking the physics of gravity. They can’t! Orbital mechanics, like evolution, is not a science.

    And don’t get me started on meteorology. Latent heat of vaporization should never be mentioned in a meteorology class. Air is stable, or not, depending on God’s will, and that’s all you need to know.

  14. He makes predictions that were later confirmed. One of which wasn’t “I shall return in your lifetimes”.

  15. keiths,

    Come on! Thats not the same thing. orbits are all about gravity.
    Geology is unrelated to biological processes. They simply find data points of biology, fossils, and then using the story of geology draw connections between the data points.
    Without the geology there is NO evidence for connections betweeen the biological data points.
    Its a cheat.

  16. It’s one of those lucky things that Darwin’s conjecture required many tens of millions of years, and the physics of the time didn’t allow that much time, due to the cooling of the sun.

    Lucky that radioactivity came along to rescue Darwin.

    Lucky that genetics and mutation cam along to provide just what Darwin needed to supply heritable variation.

  17. Do you think climate / atmospheric changes that shaped life might also be captured in and a function of geology?

  18. Robert Byers:
    Geology is unrelated to biological processes.

    Robert, do you know anything about the origin of limestone deposits? Or banded iron formations?

  19. Richardthughes:
    Do you think climate / atmospheric changes that shaped life might also be captured in and a function of geology?

    Nothing is captured in geology by a snapshot.
    Changes are guesses in connecting segregated snapshots.
    No way around it. Geology is the modern foundation for a biological theory.
    Without the geology the biology not only can’t work but has no claims of evidence it did work.
    So I conclude this is a intellectual cheat. Biology can’t be proven using geology.

  20. timothya: Robert, do you know anything about the origin of limestone deposits? Or banded iron formations?

    I know all that.
    Biological evolution largely makes its case on connecting fossils, life in a moment, to draw conclusions on descent and process.
    They can’t draw these conclusions by using biological evidence. Its not there.
    They persuade themselves of biological evolution truth by using lines of reasoning from geological , unproven, presumptions.
    No bilogical evidence is ever used when making their great claims for evidence iof evolution on biological evidence.

  21. Robert Byers: Nothing is captured in geology by a snapshot.
    Changes are guesses in connecting segregated snapshots.
    No way around it. Geology is the modern foundation for a biological theory.
    Without the geology the biology not only can’t work but has no claims of evidence it did work.
    So I conclude this is a intellectual cheat. Biology can’t be proven using geology.

    Geology provides the historical snapshots of life on earth as it was throughout each successive period.

    Whatever happened in a moment of time at any place where sedimentation was possible got captured in the stratigraphic column. Sometimes in the form of fossils, sometimes in the form of the by-products of biological activity (limestone, for example).

    Unfortunately for we modern humans, most of that stratigraphy got destroyed by subsequent erosional or tectonic events. But even so, what we are able to find in the sedimentary remnants is completely consistent with the biological history we can construct from other, independent sources of knowledge. Embryology, physiology, genetics, systematics, fossil morphology, fossil dating . . .

    All of the scientific evidence fits together and points to evolution being the best available explanation for the history and current diversity of life.

    Your argument amounts to “none of this can be true because my book says so”.

  22. Neil Rickert:
    Darwin developed some of his ideas while on the HMS Beagle.I don’t think he was doing much geology on that expedition.

    Actually, geological observations were important to the expedition. Darwin made critical observations concerning how land changes its relation to the sea, such as the formation of atolls from receding islands. His findings were eventually published in three papers, The structure and distribution of coral reefs (1842), Geological observations on the volcanic islands visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle (1844), and Geological observations on South America (1846).

    Darwin was a very careful observer, and scientist of the first rank, long before the publication of On the Origin of Species.

  23. Barry Arrington: Given their premises, materialists must believe the brain is a sort of organic computer, in principle very much like the computer on which I am writing this post.

    Barry Arrington is confusing the analogy with the thing itself. It used to be gears and levers, a clockwork universe. Now it’s computers.

  24. timothya,

    You make my case.
    They find fossils in layers.
    These layers, using geology presumptions, are said to indicated very segregated periods of history.
    Then they connect the fossils in these periods of time and make a story of biological evolution.
    Yet without the presumption of geology’s time by layers there would be NO biological evidence to connect these fossils and so no evidence for descent or process.
    No evidence at all.
    Therefore I say there is no biological evidence of evolution using fossils.
    its entirely a line of reasoning that uses biological data points(fossils/snapshots of life).
    Evolutionists have illogically perceived that these biological data points are in fact biologica evidence for deswcent and process.
    Whoops. A big flaw.

  25. You have no case, Byers, since you conveniently ignore all the lines of consilient evidence regarding the ages of the rocks and sediments in which the fossils are found.

  26. What’s illogical about it? Older sediments would be expected to underlie younger. If the bottom layers are older by just a few minutes or days, you have some explaining to do regarding the sorting process that places, worldwide, simpler, apparently ancestral forms below the more complex and diverged, and places in the topmost layers the organisms most like those alive today.

    What is illogical is in sticking to your ridiculous story come hell or high water.

  27. Allan Miller,

    Its illogical to say that its biological evidence for descent or process using geological evidence. even if the geology was right and even if it told the true story of descent and so process by evolution it still would not be scientific biological evidence.!
    Thats my case here.
    First things first.
    It has been a logical flaw for evcolutionism to say it has biological evidence in the fossil record when all it has is a interpretation of data points of biology and then presumes a geological tale and concludes this counts as biological evidence.
    Its a whoops and that one must strive to make this point shows the logic illusion going on here.

  28. damitall2:
    You have no case, Byers, since you conveniently ignore all the lines of consilient evidence regarding the ages of the rocks and sediments in which the fossils are found.

    i’m making a case about evidence. Is the biological evidence for evolution that evolutionists present actually biological evidence.
    I say it ain’t and this is why evolutionism sticks around too long and why its not persuasive to so many people.
    Evolutionists show me they misunderstand what scientific evidence is!
    they confuse eviudence with secondary circumstantial evidence.

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