Have you read The Origin of the Species?

As biologists we all acknowledge the influence that Charles Darwin has had on our professional lives but how many of us have actually read On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in its entirety?  The importance of The Origin has long been recognised by universities, even we agricultural zoology students at Leeds University back in 1973 had The Origin on our first year recommended reading list.  How many of my classmates bought it, let alone actually read it, is anyone’s guess.  I suspect not many.  I was somewhat odd, in that I had already read it, as far as I can remember when I was about 16 and just starting in the Lower 6th  (Year 12 in today’s parlance).  I was helped by the fact that both my parents were biologists and my Dad’s copy of The Origin was readily available. I was, and still am, a prodigious reader, although I must confess that I now find it much more difficult to read ‘hard’ books than I did then.

Finally, here is my question.  If as a professional biologist, of whatever ilk, does not having read The Origin make you any less of a biologist?  Should you be outed and castigated as an incomplete biologist?  Probably not.  What do you think?  I asked how many people had read  The Origin using a Twitter survey last week as a simple yes/no question.  The survey generated 53 responses, of  which 57% said yes.  The survey below is slightly more nuanced, taking into account the one respondent who tweeted “partially?”  🙂 Just realised that I managed to miss out the less than 18 category, my apologies.  If you are such a prodigy please feel free to tick the 18-25 box but add a note in the comments section so that I can adjust later.


Many thanks for your participation and rest assured, if you have not read The Origin I am not judging you in any way  🙂


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9 responses to “Have you read The Origin of the Species?

  1. Holly Root-Gutteridge

    I always enjoy reading your blogs, and I’ll be fascinated to see the results of this one.

    I read it as an undergraduate, partly because Prof. Steve Jones of UCL was my first year lecturer and announced he’d never met an undergrad that could say they’d finished it. He’d written “Almost like a Whale” at that point to try to remedy the issue of 21st century undergrads reading 19th century English. As I relaxed with Dickens as bedtime reading, the language was less of a problem than some of the chicken chapters covering heredity-without-knowledge-of-genetics.

    I still think it’s important to read it and understand just why meticulous data made the thesis so world-conquering. Aside from anything else, it’s a good example of solid science resisting counter-argument.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gwen

      I read it just before uni so 16/17 but it may have been 18. I haven’t picked it up since & I remember it being a rather heavy read! Glad I read it & I would recommend anyone interested in biology to give it a go as if nothing else it’s a glimpse into that period of scientific history with things we pretty much take for granted needing a lot of explanation.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Max Tercel

    I answered “all biologists should read On the Origin of Species” in the most literal sense possible. They /should/, but they don’t /need/ to 🙂


  3. I haven’t read “on the Origin of Species”. I think I probably should have a go at reading it, not least to test my complacent feeling that I think I understand what its most important ideas are about. I believed I have got a good second hand grasp from my university education where ideas about competition and niche partitioning were taught to us, and by reading “The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins which I found very compelling and have assumed to be a powerful exposition of Darwin’s idea, as well as a good source of arguments against alternative explanations of how evolution proceeds. Parts of “the Origin” are widely citied too so one can be exposed to it that way. I have read the “Voyage of the Beagle” which seems very good in exposing some of Darwin’s observational power and perhaps was instrumental in the formation of the ideas in “Origin”, – “Voyage” is extremely readable (plus v good BBC TV episodes!) . But I suppose for completeness and simplicity I really should read some of “Origin” to test my assumption that I know (roughly) what it says! . Finally I have read Wallace’s “The Malay Archipelago” which is excellent and inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ive also read A Narrative of the Voyage of the HMS Beagle, Capn Robert Fitzroy: almost a companion volume, with much detail of the field work and collecting undertaken by Darwin, Fitzroy and other members of the crew. Highly recommend if you can find it. Lx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jim kirby

    I have read it and I can hardly tell a ladybird from an aphid. I try to imagine Darwin if he knew about cell structure ,DNA etc. I know but it passes the time!

    Liked by 1 person

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