On the Origin of Species 150 years

On November 24th 2009, it was 150 years ago that Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Darwin studied life on earth and he understood its fundamental mechanisms. However, the book went far beyond the world of science and still causes debate to this day.

Unity in science, unity in nature

Darwin proved that a natural explanation is sufficient. In 2009, he was celebrated and remembered the world over. The best way in which to celebrate him is by presenting the current face of research and all that we have learned in the 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species. And here we often overlook Darwin’s most important legacy: the strength of interdisciplinary evolutionary research.

Darwin was not a scientific specialist but moved freely between the biological and geological disciplines. It gave him the freedom and the energy to observe connections in both science and nature. That provided us with the modern scientific understanding of life: that all life on earth has evolved through gradual changes over a very long period of time and has resulted in the myriad of life we see around us today.

Darwin’s observations were correct. We know that today. All of our biological research shows the same pattern and confirms his general theory. That is the reason why we celebrate the publication of On the Origin of Species today. 150 years ago, Darwin was able to move forward because he was not restricted by the narrow constraints of specific fields or traditions – because he did not bury his head in a scientific trench. We can learn a lot from Darwin. Presently, seeing that the sciences have become more specialized than ever before and dialog between fields has become increasingly more difficult, his eye for interdisciplinary connections is of paramount importance. And it is necessary if we want to make the great scientific advances that Darwin made when he published On the Origin of Species.

The Publication 150 years ago

Every copy of Darwin’s book was sold to bookstores on the day of publication, and it immediately became the centre of both scientific and public interest. In Darwin’s lifetime, no less than six editions were published. Printed in 3000 copies, the second edition was ready for publication already on January 6th 1860. Darwin himself called the book “one long argument”. The central point was the break with the reigning idea that species were unalterable and that they were all created simultaneously. In beautiful and rich style, Darwin presented an overwhelming amount of material. Darwin had gathered a large part of the material himself in the course of more than 25 years on his voyage on the HMS Beagle, from conversations with people working with the breeding of animals as well as from the surroundings of his own house located in a village just outside London. But Darwin also gathered relevant scientific literature and received help from colleagues and correspondents from all over the world who answered specific questions.

Regardless of how one felt about Darwin’s ideas, one could not ignore On the Origin of Species. It was translated into a number of languages and discussed by all kinds of people all over the world. Those who did not read the book themselves still knew about its content as well as its author. The topic was potent. Because it gave people an opportunity to talk about everyone’s favourite subject: ourselves. People celebrated, doubted, and scolded. Everyone was front and centre with their ideas on the big questions about who we are and where we come from. At the centre of the discussion was On the Origin of Species. No matter how much you disagreed with Darwin, you could not avoid him and his book. This is also the case today.

On the Origin of Species changed our view of nature and ourselves. The world changed after Darwin.

Peter C. Kjærgaard

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