By JOHN MARTIN
"Charles Darwin's Origin of Species is undeniably one of the most significant books, if not the most significant book, ever published in English … one of the rare books in any language that triggered a genuine revolution in the way we humans see ourselves, our relationship to the world and all other living creatures on the planet."
So said well-known nature and science writer David Quammen, as he delivered the seventh Bradley Lecture to an audience at the Library on May 7. Funded by a grant from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and hosted by the Office of Scholarly Programs, the Bradley Lectures focus on "classic texts that have mattered to Western citizenship, statecraft and public policy." Other books treated earlier include Plato's Republic; The Federalist Papers; Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America; von Clausewitz's On War; and, most recently, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
Educated at Yale University, Mr. Quammen received a Rhodes scholarship to Merton College, Oxford, where he studied English. He has written for Outside Magazine and is a two-time recipient of the National Magazine Award. In 1996 he received an Academy Award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his essays and short fiction. He is the author of The Song of the Dodo (Scribner, 1996), which won the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing and, most recently, a collection of essays, The Boilerplate Rhino: Nature in the Eye of the Beholder (Scribner, 2000).
According to Mr. Quammen, Darwin's signature work, first published in 1859, emerged amid a backdrop of academic competition, personal crisis and public controversy.
Written in a hurry and rushed to press, Origin of Species, which argues that living creatures change over time, evolving from one form to another by a process called "natural selection", was not the work Darwin had initially intended to write. Rather, it was a truncated version of a more encyclopedic effort, his "big book," over which the author had agonized since 1854. The first published edition of Origin of Species, a copy of which is held by the Library, does not contain the "big book's" vast bibliography, tables or footnotes. While much of that data came from the author's own backyard experiments with insects and plants, and would be discounted by modern science, Darwin considered its inclusion critical.
"The Origin of Species that appeared in 1859," said Mr. Quammen, "was only the rough skeleton of a larger work, containing [in Darwin's view] not enough evidence, not enough explanation, not enough intricate, logical argument and no bibliography or proper citation of sources."
In June 1858 Darwin suddenly stopped work on his "big book" after receiving a letter and manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace. A young unknown, without Darwin's social or financial advantages, Wallace had spent years studying species distribution in the Malay archipelago, then one of the most remote and biologically diverse regions on Earth. Observing a strange pattern of species distribution in his travels, Wallace had noticed that similar species were found in proximity to one another, both geographically and, based on the geologic record, in time.
Wallace had published a paper in 1855, noting the geographic and chronological affinity of similar species. "The law it described," said Mr. Quammen, "was just a puzzling pattern of species distribution. Wallace did not assert that the pattern was the result of common ancestry or evolutionary change, but as of that paper, he was just a hop and a skip away from Darwin's theory of evolution."
Charles Lyell, Britain's leading geologist and most influential scientist, found Wallace's 1855 paper disturbing. A disciple of the prevailing theory of species fixity, Lyell did not accept the conclusions implied by Wallace's findings. As Darwin's mentor and friend, however, he urged Darwin to publish his own theory before he was preempted. "I rather hate the idea of writing for priority," Darwin wrote in reply, "yet I certainly should be vexed if anyone were to publish my doctrines before me."
Instead of publishing in brief to hold his place against Wallace, however, Darwin redoubled work on his "big book." Standing at 250,000 words, the big book was only half done when Wallace's letter and manuscript arrived in June 1858. Wallace now attributed the strange pattern of species distribution to evolution, or, as Quammen put it, "to one species descending from another by a process of gradual transformation. The mechanism to account for it was differential survival and reproduction based on accidental adaptive advantage."
"While Wallace didn't dub his theory ‘natural selection,' his conceptual framework," said Mr. Quammen, "was virtually identical to Darwin's." Unaware that Darwin had been gestating his own theory, Wallace asked if Darwin would help him by forwarding his work to Lyell. Darwin now confronted a great dilemma.
"He was being asked to midwife the announcement of a great idea—his own idea—under the authorship of someone else, a young nobody. … He seems to have faced a deep crisis of disappointment, self-pity and taxed integrity, but he did forward Wallace's manuscript to Lyell, with the suggestion that it should be published." In July 1958 Wallace's paper was published in the journal of the Linnaean society and, at Lyell's recommendation, prefaced by Darwin, under a joint title that implied a collaboration between the two. "Wallace," Quammen said, "knew nothing of this high-handed arrangement."
Wallace's encroachment on his life's work finally spurred Darwin to action. Abandoning the fastidious "big book," he began writing a condensed version at a feverish pace. He suffered chronic nausea and headaches, retreating to a "quackish" water spa for relief. He endured the grave illness and death of his son. After only five days of mourning, he returned to work on the book. Finally, on Nov. 3, 1859, the first edition of the now famous On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Species in the Struggle for Life, was published by John Murray of London.
"So much for my abominable volume," Darwin wrote his cousin in the autumn of 1859, "which has cost me so much labour that I almost hate it."
Origin of Species rocked the established scientific, religious and social order of the Victorian world. During this period, theologians and scientists celebrated the happy convergence of their respective fields. Under the orthodox view, variety among living organisms was attributed to specific acts of divine creation. Darwinian evolution contradicted not only traditional religious teaching, but also the predominant scientific view, Essentialism, which held that species were fixed and attributed extinction to catastrophe rather than transformation.
Despite the controversy, the notion of transmutation in living organisms has antecedents dating to classical Greek philosophers. Likewise, a recognition that living things evolve appears in the work of 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot, who speculated about a community of descent and posited the existence of one primeval animal. In Darwin's own century, the French naturalist Lamarck, in his Philosophie zoologique, described a kind of evolution, marked by a tendency in living things to greater complexity, a response to environmental conditions and the inheritance of acquired traits.
"Species transmutation was an oldish idea," said Mr. Quammen, "whereas natural selection was new." New, controversial and, to some, dangerous.
"If a monkey becomes a man, what might not a man become?" thundered a review in The Athenaeum, an intellectual journal of the time. As Mr. Quammen notes, Darwin never stated that monkeys become human. Nor did he at first use the term "survival of the fittest." That phrase, introduced by philosopher Herbert Spencer to explain and justify social and economic disparity, eventually found its way into Darwin's fifth edition.
The continuing debate between Darwinism and creationism is neither real nor winnable, Mr. Quammen suggests, as the one is a byproduct of science, the other an expression of faith.
"Creationism has no place in any science curriculum," Mr. Quammen stated. "Rather, it belongs in an early course, perhaps in junior high, in epistemology and the origins of ideas and thought. … Science is not logic; it is not mathematics. Theories can only be proven more and more likely as evidence accrues and alternative explanations fall short."
"After 142 years," concluded Mr. Quammen, "Darwinian selection is still the default explanation by which every other evolutionary mechanic is measured."
Mr. Martin is an examiner in the Copyright Office.