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Darwin's "On the Origin of Species"--Tedious but Impactful

  • Jun 17, 2010


  Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, first published and introduced in 1859, is probably best classified as creative or narrative nonfiction, a study familiarly – albeit  thoroughly and carefully – presented. While it explains an extremely significant technical idea, it is appropriate in style for both the academics and the laity, the scientist and the other. It articulates this idea naturally and convincingly, drawing from hundreds of case studies that are arranged in a narrative account. Darwin’s conceptualization of the idea of Natural Selection is both common-sensical and technical; Darwin is personally engaged in his prosaic explanation, and yet remains founded on research and data. This is clearly seen in his organization of evidence, his style, and his use of personal narrative.

      Darwin’s presentation of evidence is carefully – and therefore likely purposefully – organized. His purpose is obviously one of persuasion; he wishes to convince his audience that his theories are reasonable. His method in organization, then, reflects this purpose. 

      Not only is Darwin’s overall organization natural and effective, but his style of writing is as well. Instead of using technical language, Darwin adopts a very informal tone. It almost seems as if he is quietly and thoroughly expounding on his ideas at some sort of table conversation. This seems to be unconventional for a scientific treatise of the time. Darwin’s style is much more accessible (this doesn’t mean, however, that it’s always scintillating). It seems that he chose to shy away from the normative style of scientific writing in favor of his casual tone. This is probably for the same reason that he introduces his evidence with such common examples—he wanted his ideas to be approached by the layperson.

      One important component of both his style and organization is his use of personal experience—he demonstrates to the reader that his ideas have been mostly inspired by his own experiences. He presents these experiences most often as either the first refutation of an established idea or as simply the introduction to a new topic. Throughout the Origin of Species, Darwin gives personal accounts of phenomena he encountered – usually on his travels as a ship’s naturalist – to establish the groundwork of his idea. This is his first attempt to support his idea. He then presents much more evidence, along with much exposition, and finally concludes his discussion on that particular idea (for a time). 

  Reading Darwin’s The Origin of Species was, for me, admittedly tedious. However, I appreciate the conscientiousness with which the author composed the piece. I interpret this attention to his passion for his life’s work; he did not want it to be misunderstood—indeed he wanted it to be universally understood and taken seriously. I think he succeeded. The Origin of Species remains personal yet serious, naturally organized, and above all, effectively communicates Darwin’s ideas to biologist and non-biologist alike.

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A book about a THEORY
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