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.