Top positive review
44 people found this helpful
on 6 February 2009
The Origin of Species is, of course, one of the most famous and influential books ever written, but why would anybody read it today other than as a Victorian curiosity?
What struck me most was not only how much Darwin didn't know, but also the very different ways in which knowledge was acquired 150 years ago. Although the Victorians knew enough practical genetics to breed pigeons or improve livestock, the science of genetics as we understand it did not exist and it would take another century to discover DNA.
Modern laboratories are equipped with a bewildering array of sophisticated technologies that enable scientists to do everything from mapping the human genome to measuring the age of ancient micro-organisms.
And this is where the real difference lies: Darwin had a garden, notebooks, a microscope and (as Prof. Steve Jones recently pointed out) access to a breathtakingly efficient postal service, which brought information from the furthest reaches of Empire and beyond. Crucially, though, Darwin had gifts of observation, clear thinking and a knack for asking the right questions. The real value of this book to a modern reader is to observe these gifts at work in a context that any keen gardener or birdwatcher can understand.
This book is well written by the standards of the Victorian gentleman-scholars who were its first audience, but if you can cope with the average Victorian novel and don't mind looking up the occasional unfamiliar term, then The Origin of Species is probably worth the effort.
The World's Classics edition is well presented, has a useful introduction, a good index and a guide to the other writers mentioned in the text. There is a single diagram, as in the original, but no pictures, which may be a consideration for some readers. My only criticism is that the glossary of terms is Darwin's, from one of the early editions: it would have been useful to have a slightly more comprehensive list for the benefit of modern readers.
The Origin of Species deserves to be read not merely as a cultural artefact or the foundation document of the modern life sciences, but as a timeless work of natural philosophy in the very best sense of that phrase.