Harvard Classics Volume 11: The Origin of Species

The inclusion of The Origin of Species in a collection like the Harvard Classics is an interesting one. The book was only about 50 years old at the time the collection was put together, and it is one of the most recent things in the whole of the classics. The passage of a century has vidicated its inclusion in the series.

Darwin wrote The Origin of Species as the culmination of decades of work. The theory of natural selection was so radical, and lacking in support from other theories around it, that the work had to be done in the finest of scientific fashions. I note the significance of theories that come later, because knowledge of plate tectonics and genetics would have made Darwin’s job much easier.

The work, as Darwin states, is one long argument. He first lays out the case that domesticated animals very clearly evolve due to the selection of humans. Then, Darwin discusses that the lines between species and varieties within a genus aren’t very well defined, so its not appropriate to think of a species as an immutable definition that doesn’t change based on circumstances. With these two premises asserted, he makes his main argument: that when animals are in a Malthusian state, natural selection will tend to adapt, evolve and create species.

The rest of the work focuses on Darwin’s counter arguments to criticism. Rather than spend the whole book discussing cases where natural selection fits nicely with available evidence, most of the book is spent looking at edge cases where evolution has a more difficult time. A well known instance of this criticism is the eye, and Darwin spends significant time looking at how an eye could have evolved through small, beneficial steps.

Darwin, as I mentioned before, is hindered by the contemporary knowledge of geology and biology. For instance, without plate tectonics, evolution has difficulty explaining how similar dinosaurs show up in America and Europe when the same present-day animals aren’t native to America and Europe. Darwin spends many pages discussing drifting and migration when present day geology answers the question easily.

The Origin of Species ultimately falls into a similar category as The Wealth of Nations. It is a victim of its own success and the revolutionary aspect of the work is lost a bit because the conclusions are so widely accepted today. The interesting parts of both of these works, for the modern reader, is in the meticulous research and examples provided, rather than the revolutionary hypotheses being presented.

With Darwin finished, the Harvard Classics is going to start moving into a long section of narrative works, a welcome change from the majority of volumes so far. The next volume is a selection of Plutarch’s Lives, perhaps my favorite ancient work, and I will be reading the Aeneid for the first time after that.

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