This week in history: 24 November 1859, Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of the Species

Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection on 24 November 1859. This book is considered the cornerstone of the study of evolutionary biology. It questioned the origins of humans, daring to claim that we weren’t the product of religious archetypes as a result of seven biblical days. It changed the world, and was met with both adoration and fury.

Darwin was the privileged son of high society, whose father was an English doctor. He had been interested in botany and natural sciences since childhood, despite teachers attempting to dissuade him from the subject.

It was later, through a university education at Cambridge, that he received much needed encouragement from professors. With their help he was sent on scientific voyages. He traveled around South America for five years as an unpaid botanist on the HMS Beagle and built a great reputation as a field researcher and scientific writer upon returning to Britain. It was through these voyages that Darwin would gain much of his inspiration for his immortal academic piece.

Origins was a bestseller upon its first release. The publisher John Murray, whose publishing house was founded in 1768 and still continues to publish books under a different name, pre-sold 1,500 copies. A month later it produced another 3,000. John Murray also published novels from the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen.

Before the copyright to Origins expired in 1901, the publishers had printed more than 56,000 copies in the original format, and another 48,000 in a second, cheaper, edition.

In 2015, Darwin’s book was voted as the most influential academic literary piece ever written. Professor Andrew Prescott of the University of Glasgow called Darwin’s 1859 study “the supreme demonstration of why academic books matter”, and praised how “Darwin used meticulous observation of the world around us, combined with protracted and profound reflection, to create a book which has changed the way we think about everything – not only the natural world, but religion, history and society”.

 

Image: Wellcome Images

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