A Question for the Biologists: Origin of The Origin?

I’ve had limited success with this query on Twitter, probably because not that many people were reading late last night when I posted this, but I can give a little more context here, so it’s worth repeating:

As part of something I’m working on but won’t talk about yet, I’m interested in learning something about the context in which Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species…. For that reason, I’m looking for a recommendation of a book about the book, as it were: ideally something fairly concise that talks about the antecedents of Darwin’s work. I’m sort of dimly aware that there were other people whose work fed into his, and how he arrived at his conclusions (which is why I think it would be useful for what I’m working on now), but I’d like to have a clearer picture of the whole thing.

I can and will read the actual book (which is cheaply available in electronic editions, yay for the public domain), but I’d like something about the scientific context in which it was produced. Ideally, as I said, this would be fairly concise, as I have limited time for reading these days, and it would be even better if it were recent enough to have an electronic edition (as I do most of my reading on a Nook or iPad these days). Failing that, I have access to a good academic library system, so obscurity is not a big factor.

Thanks in advance.

12 thoughts on “A Question for the Biologists: Origin of The Origin?

  1. I highly recommend reading James Costa’s Annotated Origin of Species the annotations are extensive and would give you the historical background your looking for as you read the Origin.

  2. There’s a whole industry around the history of the Origin of Species. One book I found interesting was James Secord’s “Victorian sensation: the extraordinary publication, reception, and secret authorship of Vestiges of the natural history of creation”, which sets the scene quite nicely.

    There are some volumes of Darwin’s correspondence.

    I have a volume with Darwin’s sketch of 1842, Darwin’s essay of 1844, and both papers presented by Darwin and Wallace to the Linnean Society in 1858. It’s a volume published in 1958 to celebrate the centenary of the publication of Origin of Species (Ed. Gavin de Beer, Pub. Cambridge) .

    Some autobiographies of Darwin are probably quite helpful.

  3. The book you are looking for is a short volume by Janet Browne, “Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography.”

    If you become interested in learning more about Darwin, Browne’s much longer two-volume biography of Darwin is a masterwork.

  4. I would highly recommend “Darwin and the Barnacle: The story of one tiny creature and history’s most spectacular scientific breakthrough” by Rebecca Stott. Gives some nice insight in Darwin’s road to publishing the origin and is a very nice read as well.

  5. I did reply on twitter, but I will post my recommendations here as well, for posterity. I second Costa’s The Annotated Origin, which is a quite beautiful book and very informative. Not so great on an ereader though.

    David Reznick’s The “Origin” Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the “Origin of Species” is available on Kindle. From that, the Introduction by Michael Ruse is actually quite a good overview of the historical context. You can even read most if not all of that section using Amazon’s search inside the book.

  6. To see the source which lead Darwin on the Beagle, look at Charles Lyell, Principals of Geology. One must remember that Darwin was also a first rate geologist, discovering that things were not always as the are now. In particular he experienced a large earthquake in Chile which raised the land.
    Another factor was a fear of offending his devout wife with evolution, so he delayed writing the book until Wallace came up with a similar theory.

  7. Keep in mind that Darwin’s original main interest was in geology, through reading Lyell. Most of his observations in the Voyage of the Beagle are on geology. It was largely his growing understanding of the age of the earth and the geologic record of fossil life forms that gave him the insight that biological evolution was a very slow and gradual process.

  8. Got a good book on the shelves at home that might help, but I can’t remember the title or authors. Will post them here later today, when I get home.

    Might be a tad long, as it is a longish bio, but it sounds like you only need the earlier part anyway.

  9. The book I described in 9 is Darwin – a life in science, by Michael White and John Gribbin. It has chapters on Evolution before Darwin and also on the relation with geological thinking at the time.

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