Great Ideas Collection: Charles Darwin

In the third of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews various essays of  Charles Darwin. This book contains only a few select chapters from Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking Origin of Species – his ideas of evolution originally published in 1859, to much debate and opposition.

Darwin’s first chapter Struggle for Existence discusses the idea of the survival of the fittest – where “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply”. He uses examples of plant and animal life to support the notion that the presence of a species are directly affected by availability of food, their climate, the quantity of similar species, and number of possible prey. One example talks of flowers –these are a species frequented by bees, who are then caught by mice, who in turn are hunted by cats – suggesting “it is quite credible the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district”.

For some, reading Darwin’s ideas and examples of animal life, it may bring to mind examples of notable endangered species, such as pandas. Driven out of the lowland areas where they once lived because of farming and deforestation, the panda is now entirely reliant on conservation sites as man intervenes to save them from complete extinction. Fact is, Darwin’s notions remain topical issues.

In Natural Selection he discusses the way biological traits become more or less predominate in a particular population. In the example of sexual selection, he notes how the stronger, better-looking males of the species attract females – thereby creating the strongest, most attractive offspring. This naturally slowly phases out the weaker species, “a hornless stag or spurless cock would have a poor chance of leaving offspring”.

He also discusses extinction; a process intimately connected with natural selection. Through natural selection – which preserves advantageous features – some species can become rare, and “rarity… is the precursor to extinction” – the end of an organism or species.

Other chapters from the Origin of Species reproduced in this book include Difficulties on Theory and Conclusions where Darwin comes across as impartial, only mildly addressing some of the big questions his theories create: “why, if species have descended from other species by insensibly fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms?” To this he argues, “New varieties are very slowly formed, for variation is a slow process”.However, this fails to answer the question he initially posed. Even if evolution is slow, we should still see species in transition; it seems impossible a species could gain or lose a feature and nobody notice its progression, however slight.

Darwin happily admits his theories may appear absurd and does note, “natural selection will not produce perfection”. But however ‘imperfect’, he displays an incredible level of hindsight in the concluding chapter when he declares “(I) look with confidence to the future, to the young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality”.

Though right to think his theories too avant-garde for his time, over 150 years later Darwin’s Origin of Species is now seen as the cornerstone of modern biology.


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