by James Morris
Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is frequently cited, often celebrated, sometimes debated, occasionally rejected, but seldom read. I decided to do something about that.
For several years, I taught a first-year seminar at Brandeis focusing on the Origin. It fits perfectly into a 14-week semester, the same number of chapters in the Origin. This allowed us to read the book slowly and deliberately. We were able to take our time with the ideas, language, and historical context, in the same way that Darwin took time to amass his evidence and build his argument.
Darwin’s sea change also struck me as a wonderful personal lesson for students. My students are 17-19 years old, not much younger than Darwin was when he set sail on the HMS Beagle at 22. My students are about to embark on a 4-year voyage (college), just a year shorter than Darwin’s 5-year trip around the globe. Darwin started with fixed ideas that he was taught in school, but learned to question everything, trust his instincts, and observe the world with fresh eyes. I have the same hopes for my students.
Teaching a course on the Origin wasn’t my idea. I modeled it after a course taught by Jim Costa at Western Carolina University. I also used Costa’s The Annotated Origin as a reference. This is a treasure of facts, explanations, and insights written as margin notes in the first edition of Darwin’s work. It’s like having an expert leaning over my shoulder and helping me with references, names, and comments that I otherwise would not fully understand.
After teaching the class for several years, I felt that it wasn’t enough. Only a small number of students got what I felt was the opportunity to read the Origin. So, I decided to incorporate the book into a large introductory biology class.
At first, this didn’t seem like a good idea. I have college-aged children, so I understood that reading a book written with long, convoluted sentences and unfamiliar words might not be popular. But I tried it a few years ago, and haven’t looked back.
There are so many lessons. Of course, there are lessons in evolution. The Origin introduces three important ideas – change over time (evolution), a mechanism for this change (natural selection), and patterns that we see as a result (in the fossil record, the distribution of organisms on Earth, and the traits of living organisms). These are concepts that I want students to take away from an introductory biology class.
In addition to evolution, the Origin introduced the world to new fields of biology. Ecology is an example. Up until the Origin, scientists tended to study organisms one at a time. In Chapter 3, Darwin emphasizes interactions among organisms. He writes, “in several parts of the world insects determine the existence of cattle” and introduces us to the image of an “entangled bank” to describe nature.
Later, in Chapters 11 and 12, Darwin looks at how organisms are distributed on the face of the Earth, paying special attention to the unique and sometimes strange organisms found on islands. This too represented a new area of study – biogeography.
The Origin is not just a book about science. It’s also an argument – “one long argument” as Darwin describes it in Chapter 14. And, like any good argument, it’s carefully organized and framed.
He begins with an extended analogy – how pigeon breeders have modified the rock pigeon over time to all kinds of wildly different breeds. This was something familiar, readily understood, and accepted by Victorian readers.
Then, he notes that there is variation – that’s easily observed. Some of this variation is inherited – after all, like begets like. And there is struggle – only some will survive and reproduce. If you accept these premises, there are two inevitable conclusions – populations will change over time (that’s evolution) and organisms will become fit to their environment (these are adaptations).
But there are counterarguments. Instead of brushing them under the rug, he addresses each in turn. Notably, he doesn’t start off with them, nor end with them, but sandwiches them in the middle. This is part of his rhetorical game plan.
Finally, he can look at the world with his ideas in hand, and he points out that no matter where you look – in the fossil record, at living organisms – you can see the stamp of evolution by natural selection.
College writing, both in science and the humanities, is often about coming up with an argument, bringing up evidence to support it, considering counterarguments, knowing your audience, and organizing all of the pieces in a convincing way – all of which Darwin does in the Origin.
There is at least one more lesson. We are accustomed to turning to Google or Wikipedia for all kinds of information. Both are useful in that they are quick and for the most part reliable. But what’s lost is reading primary literature – hearing Darwin express himself in his own voice. Having everything filtered through another author is limiting. This is perhaps one of the most important lessons that comes from reading the Origin.
Like most things I do in class, there are mixed feelings among my students. But, as the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr wrote, “I hope that many who hitherto have ‘never gotten around to reading the Origin’ will now take the opportunity to become acquainted with Darwin. They will not regret it.”
This blog is adapted from a longer article that appeared as a commentary in the journal Evolution: Morris, Costa, and Berry (2015), Adaptations: Using the Darwin’s Origin to teach biology and writing, Evolution 69(10): 2556-2560, and is used with permission.