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Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection"

The title page of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

The title page of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

On November 24, 1859 Charles Darwin issued through the London publisher, John Murray, his book entitled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. From its original publication, through the early years of the twenty-first century, this work remained one of the most widely appreciated, or disputed, classics in the history of science.

The idea of species evolution can be traced as far back as the ancient Greek belief in the "great chain of being". Darwin's great achievement was to make this centuries-old "underground" concept acceptable to the scientific community and educated readers by cogently arguing for the existence of a viable mechanism— natural selection— by which new species evolve over vast periods of time.  Darwin's work contained only a single illustration- a branching evolutionary tree, the first known presketch of which appears in Darwin's notebooks in 1839.

Though Darwin stated his case for evolution by natural selection persuasively and in the most diplomatic of tones, the work evoked a storm of controversy, causing Darwin to revise it through six editions during his lifetime. Since its publication the scientific evidence supporting evolution by natural selection has reached a massive—even overwhelming— preponderance, yet the controversy over evolution has never abated.

There is only one issue of the first edition of On the Origin of Species, and although three cloth binding and advertisement variants have been identified, no priority has been established. 1250 copies were printed, of which about 1,170 were available for sale; the remainder consisted of 12 author's copies, 41 review copies, 5 copyright copies, and "Darwin required ninety copies to be sent as presentations to friends, family, and scientists [Correspondence, 8: 554-6]" (Kohler & Kohler, see below, 333). Following Darwin's instructions, these presentation copies were sent out by the publisher, usually inscribed "From the Author" by the publisher's clerk.  The book was offered to booksellers two days earlier on November 22, and oversubscribed by 250 copies causing John Murray to propose a new edition immediately.

On the Origin of Species is undoubtedly the most famous book in the history of the life sciences, and one of the world's most famous books on any subject. It is also perhaps the most published book in the history of science and the most translated book originally published in English. As a result of this fame, a great deal of historical research has been concentrated on this work. Early in 2009 Cambridge University Press published The Cambridge Companion to the "Origin of Species," edited by Michael Ruse and Robert J. Richards. Most pertinent to book collecting and book history is the excellent chapter on "The Origin of Species as a Book" by Michèle Kohler and Chris Kohler.

Among the many very informative details the Kohlers include, of particular interest to the history of collecting rare books in the history of science is their observation that the first edition may have first been offered as collectable "rare book" by Bernard Quaritch Ltd in 1903 for £2-10-0, "a premium on the price of a new copy, not a discount." (p. 345). They also observe that the price of the first edition remained essentially static in the rare book trade until it began to rise in the 1920s, after which it very gradually moved upward. When I first opened my shop at the beginning of 1971 the price of a fine copy of the first edition in the original cloth was $1000. At this time the work was relatively common, and there were usually several copies of the first edition on the market at one time. In 2014 a fine copy of the first edition was worth approximately $150,000. This represented an appreciation rate far higher than most other science classics.

♦ In 2014 made available Darwin's complete publications, his private papers and manuscripts, and so-called "supplementary works." When I visited the site its index page advertised,"over 400 million hits since 2006."  Another site, the Darwin Manuscripts Project at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, provided DARBASE, a union catalogue of Darwin manuscripts in institutions and private collections.  An intriguing brief manuscript in Darwin's hand reproduced there showed that Darwin apparently considered writing a chapter "On the Geological Antiquity of Man And on the Descent (origin) of Species by variation." This was a topic of interest to me in 2014 as we prepared our book on The Discovery of Human Origins. My research till 2014 indicated that Darwin avoided publishing on the topic of human origins, leaving it to Huxley, Lyell and others. 

According to their children's accounts, Charles and Emma Darwin and their children had a happy family life, and Darwin was known not to be protective of his manuscripts after they were published. As a result, the Darwin children were allowed to doodle on the versos of some of his manuscripts, including the original manuscript of On the Origin of Species. In February 2014 reproductions of some of the more elaborate of those doodles were reproduced at this link.

Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine (1991) No. 593.

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