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Guest editorial: where is the "origin" in the Origin of Species?

Even as we celebrated both the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species, polls in 2009 showed that only 39% of Americans "believe in the theory of evolution" (Gallup, 2009). It is unlikely that this recent high-profile focus on Darwin and evolution altered this sad situation. Many continue to hold a faulty view of the principle of adaptation, there is widespread misunderstanding of whether evolution has a purpose, and inappropriate assumptions are common about the implications of evolution--along with general confusion regarding the distinction between "change through time" (evolution itself) and the accompanying explanatory mechanism (natural selection). However, here, I will focus on another important element in the misunderstanding of evolution: confusion about the origin of life and the origin of species.

On the Origin of Species is a brilliant argument that proposes a mechanism to account for how one group of organisms might arise from a preexisting one. However, some look to Origin for an answer to the question of how life itself arose. Their failure to find such an answer has caused many to unfairly reject the central premise of Darwin's seminal book (Clough, 2006).

Darwin recognized how useful it would be to have explained both types of origins, but he understood not only the distinction between them but the limitations of science in his day. In a letter to his friend and colleague Joseph Hooker in 1855, he states:

I think and hope that there is nearly as much difference between trying to find out whether species of a genus have had a common ancestor and concerning oneself with the first origin of life, as between making out the laws of chemical attraction and the first origin of matter. (Darwin & Seward, 1903: p. 418)

In the first edition of Origin, we find a hint of Darwin's thinking on the issue of the origin of life when he writes that "probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed" (Darwin, 1859: p. 484). He added "by the Creator" to the end of this sentence in the second edition of Origin, but in the third and later editions he removed the entire phrase, never offering any further comment regarding how this "one primordial form" might have arisen.

Darwin did not escape criticism for his lack of discussion of the origin of life. In an early review of Origin, an anonymous author stated:

Enough has been said to show what a pile of unsupported conjecture has been required to sustain this last and ablest attempt to penetrate the mystery of the origin of species, or, in other words, the Origin of Life. (Anon., 1859: p. 775)

Sadly, even in Darwin's day, some found it reasonable to reject the mechanism of origin of species through natural selection because Darwin failed to discuss the origin of life itself. This misunderstanding continues today.

Darwin knew that some found fault with what he failed to say. In the third edition of Origin, the first major rewrite, we find the following:

I cannot believe that a false theory would explain, as it seems to me that the theory of natural selection does explain, the several large classes of facts above specified. It is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life. Who can explain what is the essence of the attraction of gravity? No one now objects to following.. .the results consequent on this unknown element of attraction.. (Darwin, 1861: p. 514)

In 1863, he takes a reviewer to task for sneering at his use of the expression "of one primordial form into which life was first breathed" and counters that these words "serve to confess that our ignorance is as profound on the origin of life as on the origin of force or matter" (Darwin, 1863: p. 554). In a letter to a critical colleague in 1860, Darwin writes:

Lastly, permit me to add that I cannot see the force of your objection, that nothing is effected until the origin of life is explained: surely it is worth while to attempt to follow out the action of electricity, though we know not what electricity is. (Darwin & Seward, 1903: p. 173)

This last response to his critics is particularly interesting, because here Darwin makes the all-important distinction between laws and theories in setting out the difference between the recognition of a natural principle and the explanation for it. He says that we can understand much about electricity (a law) without understanding what causes it (i.e., the underlying theoretical explanation). In all subsequent editions of Origin, including the sixth and final edition, Darwin (1872) repeated his claim that the omission of any explanation for the origin of life should not be used to criticize the main focus of a book written to explain how species arose from other species.

In The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, Darwin states:

As the first origin of life on this earth, as well as the continued life of each individual, is at present quite beyond the scope of science, I do not wish to lay much stress on the greater simplicity of the view of a few forms, or of only one form, having been originally created.... (1868: p. 12)

In 1863, in a letter to Hooker, Darwin offers his most complete statement on the origin of life:

... if (and oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, &c., present, that a proteine [sic] compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed. (Darwin, 1887: p. 19)

This statement reveals a clear, naturalistic personal view on the origin of life, but we are left to speculate about why he failed to express such a view in print. Perhaps it was because of the absence of evidence, but it may have been because he had achieved an almost perfect poetic conclusion to Origin in saying

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Darwin, 1859: p. 491)

The lack of a final scientific verdict on the origin of life does nothing to reduce the immense importance of On the Origin of Species in providing a mechanism for evolution. However, for those who are curious about life's origin, we may turn to science for an explanation with insights not available to Darwin. What we know now about the origin of life (for a recent discussion, see Ricardo & Szostak, 2009) would undoubtedly amaze the sage of Down House but would not surprise him. He understood that science has the power to address questions regarding the natural world even as he reveled in the "grandeur" of life itself, a decidedly nonscientific reaction to nature. This understanding would serve all of us well today.

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2010.72.2.2


Anon. (1859). [Review of] on the origin of Species, p. 775-776. Saturday Review (London), 24 December.

Clough, M.R. (2006). The essential role of the nature of science in learning about evolutionary biology: strategies for enhancing the acceptance of evolution. In W.F. McComas, Investigating Evolutionary Biology in the Laboratory (p. 69-81). Dubuque, IA: Kendal/Hunt.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray.

Darwin, C. (1861). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 3rd Ed. London: John Murray.

Darwin, C. (1863). The doctrine of heterogeny and modification of species. Athenaeum, no. 1852 (25 April), 554-555.

Darwin, C. (1868). The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, Vol. 1 (1st ed., 2nd issue). London: John Murray.

Darwin, C. (1872). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 6th Ed. London: John Murray.

Darwin, F. (Editor). (1887). The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter, Vol. 3. London: John Murray.

Darwin, F. & Seward, A.C. (1903). More Letters of Charles Darwin: A Record of His Work in a Series of Hitherto Unpublished Letters, Vol. 1. London: John Murray. Available online at ?itemID=F1548.1&viewtype=text&pageseq=1.

Gallup. (2009). On Darwin's birthday, only 4 in 10 believe in evolution. [Online.] Available at

Ricardo, A. & Szostak, J.W. (2009). Life on earth. Scientific American, 301 (3), 54-61.

William F McComas

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Author:McComas, William F.
Publication:The American Biology Teacher
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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