Charles Darwin was not the first to come up with the concept of evolution. Many scientists, including Darwin’s grandfather, had accepted that plants and animals on Earth had changed form over time. Already in 1809, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had argued that modern animals, including humans, had descended from other species. Lamarck promoted the idea of “inheritance of acquired characteristics” as the mechanism governing this evolution. For example, Lamarck argued that the neck of a giraffe stretching for food would eventually lengthen slightly, a physical characteristic that would be passed to its offspring.

In On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, better known as On the Origin of Species, Darwin achieves two things that Lamarck does not. He gathers detailed evidence to support evolution and offers a different, and ultimately workable, mechanism to govern it. This mechanism, natural selection, has been supported by later research, whereas Lamarck’s idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics has not. Natural selection is believed to be the major (but not only) force driving species evolution.

Natural selection is a simple concept. Consider animals. First, individuals of any species vary in size, coloration, behavior, and other characteristics. Second, these variations tend to be passed on to an individual’s offspring. Third, more offspring are born than those surviving to reproduce. Fourth, any characteristic (such as coloration) that allows one individual to survive better than others will help that individual reproduce more. Fifth, this characteristic will increase in frequency in the species over time.

Natural selection has been observed in many species. The finches of the Galapagos Islands provide a good example. The Galapagos finches are a group of closely related bird species that helped Darwin discover natural selection. These birds differ primarily in behavior and in beak size and shape. In dry years, heavier-beaked finches survive and reproduce better because they can open bigger seeds. Average beak size can change dramatically over a single breeding season. This illustrates natural selection.

Small changes within a species represent “microevolution,” although Darwin did not use this term in On the Origin of Species. Microevolutionary changes that continue over time can lead to new species, especially if physical barriers (such as isolation on different islands in, for example, the Galapagos) separate subgroups of the original species. This is “macroevolution,” which also has been observed in the laboratory, although with relatively small changes.

On the Origin of Species is a long work, but Darwin, in the book’s introduction, describes it as an “abstract.” He had been working on a longer book, but decided to publish his core thoughts after Alfred Russell Wallace independently discovered natural selection in 1858. Darwin had worked on the concept since 1837 and had written an unpublished 230-page report on it by 1844. Ultimately, he produced six editions, and historians are undecided as to...

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Browne, Janet. Darwin’s “Origin of Species”: Books That Changed the World. New York: Grove Press, 2008. A readable book for students that includes biographical information on Darwin and covers his development of On the Origin of Species, its publication, legacy, and the resulting controversy. A good, but not detailed, overview.

Darwin, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1801-1882. Edited by Nora Barlow. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. Darwin’s autobiography, first published in 1887, was edited by his family to remove some controversial material. That material was restored in a subsequent edition and is included here. An excellent book for understanding On the Origin of Species. Remarkably readable. Edited by Darwin’s granddaughter.

Larson, Edward J. Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. New York: Modern Library, 2004. Provides a history of the concept of evolution. Covers, particularly in chapter 3, Darwin’s development of the ideas that went into On the Origin of Species. Also establishes the historical context for Darwin’s thinking, discusses how his theory has been applied in the modern world, and examines how it has been revised based upon new discoveries.

Reznick, David N. The “Origin” Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the “Origin of Species.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010. A section-by-section guide to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Includes a helpful introduction and a concluding chapter that surveys late scholarship on the state of evolution and evolutionary theory.

Richards, Robert J., and Michael Ruse, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the “Origin of Species.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. A collection of articles that includes Michael Ruse’s “The Origin of the Origin.” Each article reviews an element either of Darwin’s theory or of his legacy. Most sections are quite readable.

Weiner, Jonathan. The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. A readable book discussing Darwin’s thinking in On the Origin of Species, especially regarding his visit to the Galapagos Islands, where he studied the finches. Details modern studies of the finches, but does not require a deep understanding of scientific techniques.