The Origin of Species

Structure and style

Nature and structure of Darwin's argument

Darwin's aims were twofold: to show that species had not been separately created, and to show that natural selection had been the chief agent of change.[150] He knew that his readers were already familiar with the concept of transmutation of species from Vestiges, and his introduction ridicules that work as failing to provide a viable mechanism.[151] Therefore the first four chapters lay out his case that selection in nature, caused by the struggle for existence, is analogous to the selection of variations under domestication, and that the accumulation of adaptive variations provides a scientifically testable mechanism for evolutionary speciation.[152][153]

Later chapters provide evidence that evolution has occurred, supporting the idea of branching, adaptive evolution without directly proving that selection is the mechanism. Darwin presents supporting facts drawn from many disciplines, showing that his theory could explain a myriad of observations from many fields of natural history that were inexplicable under the alternate concept that species had been individually created.[153][154][155] The structure of Darwin's argument showed the influence of John Herschel, whose philosophy of science maintained that a mechanism could be called a vera causa (true cause) if three things could be demonstrated: its existence in nature, its ability to produce the effects of interest, and its ability to explain a wide range of observations.[156]

Literary style

The Examiner review of 3 December 1859 commented, "Much of Mr. Darwin's volume is what ordinary readers would call 'tough reading;' that is, writing which to comprehend requires concentrated attention and some preparation for the task. All, however, is by no means of this description, and many parts of the book abound in information, easy to comprehend and both instructive and entertaining."[151][157]

While the book was readable enough to sell, its dryness ensured that it was seen as aimed at specialist scientists and could not be dismissed as mere journalism or imaginative fiction. Unlike the still-popular Vestiges, it avoided the narrative style of the historical novel and cosmological speculation, though the closing sentence clearly hinted at cosmic progression. Darwin had long been immersed in the literary forms and practices of specialist science, and made effective use of his skills in structuring arguments.[151] David Quammen has described the book as written in everyday language for a wide audience, but noted that Darwin's literary style was uneven: in some places he used convoluted sentences that are difficult to read, while in other places his writing was beautiful. Quammen advised that later editions were weakened by Darwin making concessions and adding details to address his critics, and recommended the first edition.[158] James T. Costa said that because the book was an abstract produced in haste in response to Wallace's essay, it was more approachable than the big book on natural selection Darwin had been working on, which would have been encumbered by scholarly footnotes and much more technical detail. He added that some parts of Origin are dense, but other parts are almost lyrical, and the case studies and observations are presented in a narrative style unusual in serious scientific books, which broadened its audience.[159]


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