In the spotlight: Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species

Written by Erika Delbecque, UMASCS Librarian

Today is Darwin Day, an annual event that marks the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin on 12 February 1809. It aims to highlight Darwin’s contribution to science and celebrate science in general.

Darwin first published his groundbreaking theory of evolution through natural selection in his famous work On the Origin of the Species, which was published on 24 November in 1859. The 1250 copies of the first impression of the first edition sold out on the first day, and the book would go through six further editions during Darwin’s lifetime.

The title page of On the Origin of the Species

The title page of On the Origin of the Species

University of Reading Special Collections holds a copy of this first impression of the first edition. It can be distinguished from later impressions of the work through the presence of the misprint “speceies” on one page, which was corrected in the second impression.

The page containing the misprint "speceis"

The page containing the misprint “speceies”

The Reading copy is bound in the publishers’ original green cloth. It came to Reading as part of the library of professor F.J. Cole, which was purchased in 1959. Cole was Professor of Zoology at the University of Reading from 1907 to 1939.

The first edition of On the Origin of the Species, in the publisher’s original green cloth binding

When On the Origin of the Species was published 159 years ago, it met with shock, admiration, and astonishment. In the first review, published in the Athenaeum of 19 November 1859, J.R. Leifchild derides the idea that “man descends from the monkeys”, and he concludes that the influence sphere of the book will be limited to the confines of universities and churches:

The work deserves attention, and will, we have no doubt, meet with it. Scientific naturalists will take up the author upon his own peculiar ground; and there will we imagine be a severe struggle for at least theoretical existence. [….] Having introduced the author and his work, we must leave them to the mercies of the Divinity Hall, the College, the Lecture Room, and the Museum.

He could not have been more wrong. From the day of its publication, the interest in On the Origin of the Species went far beyond the scientific community, and the impact of Darwin’s theory on society was profound. Indeed, Darwin’s book has justly earned its place as one of the treasures of the Special Collections here at the University of Reading.

Sources

Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the origin of the species. London : John Murray.

[Leifchild, J. R.] 1859. [Review of] On the origin of species. Athenaeum no. 1673 (19 November): 659-660.

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