On the Origin of Species

I finished reading Charles Darwin’s 1859 classic On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection and reproduce here the final paragraph, an exquisite summation of his study of life.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so constructed from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.

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, whilst 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.

3 thoughts on “On the Origin of Species

  1. From Richard Gollin, professor emeritus, University of Rochester.

    That “entangled bank”peroration is indeed wonderful, and much celebrated. I have often read it out to classes along with a passage that I think inspired it, one containing views and assumptions he knew he was directly addressing and modifying (meaning, destroying altogether), William Paley’s in his

    Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the
    Deity (1805).

    He knew he was subverting Paley’s beloved book, taught in Cambridge as gospel when he was there, one he himself had studied closely, the main argument for the next hundred years — and still in “intelligent design” arguments — for the existence of a completed, intelligently and rationally organized, and altogether benign creation and therefore creator (providing as well the famous “as the watch, so the watchmaker” analogy). Read this from Paley and then notice how Darwin is doing his damndest to defang and celebrate his own proposed world of blind natural selection and chance survival, red in tooth and claw etc, in the same terms, reassuring people the same way.

    “It is a happy world after all. The air, the earth, the water teem with delighted existence. In a spring noon, or a summer evening, on whichever side I turn my eyes, myriads of happy beings crowd upon my view. “The insect youth are on the wing.” Swarms of new-born flies are trying their pinions in the air. Their sportive motions, their wanton mazes, their gratuitous activity testify their joy and the exultation they feel in their lately discovered faculties … The whole winged insect tribe, it is probable, are equally intent upon their proper employments, and under every variety of constitution, gratified, and perhaps equally gratified, by the offices which the author of their nature has assigned to them.”

    Ain’t that sumthin’? It could be set to music.

  2. My response.
    Anyone who, after reviewing the evidence, could believe insects feel joy, intent, and gratitude for having been created, instead of being locked in a struggle for existence, is tripping on something strong enough to make him believe anything he is told to believe, or wants to believe.

    As George W Bush said, I believe in what I believe in and I believe that what I believe in is right.
    It’s hard to argue with that!

    Or, as Stephen Colbert said, I prefer my opinions to the facts because the facts may change but my opinions never will.

  3. From Richard Gollin:
    I also call attention to the title, how in it Darwin reveals a reluctance to enter his own self-generated world of mere chance imaginatively, instead persisting in the use of teleological words that imply a guiding, hidden hand governing all, when he’s far more radical a teleological nihilist than that, if also too shy to trumpet it. 

    On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

    Notice how many of these words imply a conscious intelligence at work (“selection” implying a selector and not “self-selection” or “derivation.” And “preservation” implying a preserver rather than the later phrase “survival of the fittest,” and “favoured” implying a favourer, etc).  In 1872 he cut the title way back to simply “The Origin of Species.”  But by 1871 “The Descent of Man” was making its own hassles, even though his analogous instances of “natural selection” in it all allude to familiar well-bred domesticated species like pigeons and sheep in order to placate and persuade people already familiar with their own “deliberate selection” processes and not spook them


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