Collection Highlight: Darwin, On the Origin of Species...


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Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882).
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
 London: John Murray, 1859.


Our Collection Highlight is the first edition of Charles Darwin’s scientific masterpiece, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, perhaps the most important book of biology ever written. While the impact of Darwin’s theory has been thoroughly studied and debated for decades, less attention has been paid to the account of how this revolutionary thesis was originally conceived and, particularly, how it found its way into print. 

Shortly before the Beagle expedition (1831-1836) sailed to South America, the Cambridge professor and botanist John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861) advised Darwin to read the first volume of Charles Lyell’s (1797-1875) Principles of Geology (London: J. Murray, 1830)adding the warning that he should not accept its views. In his memoirs, Darwin writes:

The science of Geology is enormously indebted to Lyell—more so, as I believe than to any other man who ever lived. When I was starting on the voyage of the Beagle, the sagacious Henslow, who, like all other geologists believed at that time in successive cataclysms, advised me to get and study the first volume of the Principles, which had then just been published, but on no account to accept the views therein advocated. How differently would any one now speak of the Principles! (Barlow, 1958: 101).

Through masses of facts derived from close examinations of diverse geological landscapes, Lyell had established that there were natural explanations for all geological phenomena, that the natural changes he himself could observe did not actually differ from those of a remote past, and that the slowness of these geological processes clearly suggested that the earth was very ancient. The second volume of Lyell’s book reached Darwin in Montevideo in 1832, and relevance of this work in shaping Darwin’s thinking would be exemplified by the following passage in a letter from him to the geologist and educationalist Leonard Horner (1783-1864):

           I have been lately reading with care A. d’Orbigny work on S. America, & I cannot say how forcibly impressed I am with the infinite superiority of the Lyellian school of Geology over the Continental. I always feel as if my books came half out of Lyells’s brains & that I never acknowledge this sufficiently, nor do I know how I can, without saying so in so many words—for I have always thought that the great merit of the Principles, was that it altered the whole tone of one’s mind & therefore that when seen a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet saw it partially through his eyes—it would have been in some respects better if I had done this less—but again excuse my long & perhaps you will think presumptuous discussion (29 August [1844], Down, Kent); (Burkhardt & Smith, 1987: 3. 55).

Darwin eventually became convinced that it was possible to carry Lyell’s theory of the uniformity of natural causes over into the organic world. Indeed, his research would materialize in his theory of descent, or of evolution, a term appearing for the first time in the sixth edition, 1872, now called The Origin of Species. Contrary to the traditional belief that species were immutable, Darwin proposed that they constantly evolved according to the principles of natural selection. 

In early June 1858 Darwin received a letter along with the manuscript of a paper entitled “On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type” from Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), who was then in the Malay Archipelago. In a letter to Lyell, Darwin expressed his anxiety about establishing the priority of his views on natural selection:

My dear Lyell

           Some year or so ago, you recommended me to read a paper by Wallace in the Annals, which had interested you & as I was writing to him, I knew this would please him much, so I told him. He has to day sent me the enclosed & ask me to forward it to you. It seems to me well worth reading. Your words have come true with a vengeance that I shd be forestalled. You said this when I explained to you here very briefly my views of “Natural Selection” depending on the Struggle for existence.—I never saw a more striking coincidence. if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters.
           Please return me the M.S. which he does not say he wishes me to publish; but I shall of course at once write & offer to send to any Journal. So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed. Though my Book, if it will ever have any value, will not be deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of the theory.
           I hope you will approve of Wallace’s sketch, that I may tell him what you say. 

           My dear Lyell
           Yours most truly
           C. Darwin (18 [June 1858], Down, Kent); (Burkhardt & Smith, 1991: 7. 107).

However, Darwin was unable to act. He was at his home at Down, a village fifteen miles southeast of London, with members of his family ill from diphtheria and scarlet fever. Thus, he decided to turn the Wallace affair to Charles Lyell and Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), the botanist. They presented the Wallace-Darwin research to the Linnean Society in a way that acknowledged Wallace’s work but established Darwin’s priority as well. Here is an extract from their letter to the Linnean Society:

           These gentlemen having, independently and unknown to one another, conceived the same very ingenious theory to account for the appearance and perpetuation of varieties and of specific forms on our planet, may both fairly claim the merit of being original thinkers in this important line of inquiry; but neither of them having published his views, though Mr. Darwin has been for many years past been repeatedly urged by us to do so, and both authors having now unreservedly placed their papers in our hands, we think it would be best promote the interests of science that a selection from them should be laid before the Linnean Society.

           Taken in the order of their dates, they consist of:—

           1. Extracts from a MS. work on Species, by Mr. Darwin, which was sketched in 1839, and copied in 1844, when the copy was read by Dr. Hooker, and its contents afterwards communicated to Sir Charles Lyell. The first Part is devoted to “The Variation of Organic Beings under Domestication and in their Natural State:” and the second chapter of that Part, from which we propose to read to the Society the extracts referred to, is headed, “On the Variations of Organic Beings in a State of Nature; on the Natural Means of Selection; on the Comparison of Domestic Races and true Species.” 
           2. An abstract of a private letter addressed to Professor Asa Gray, of Boston, U.S., in October 1857, by Mr. Darwin, in which he repeats his views, and which shows that these remained unaltered from 1839 to 1857.
           3. An Essay by Mr. Wallace, entitled “On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type.” This was written at Ternate in February 1858, for the perusal of his friend and correspondent Mr. Darwin, and sent to him with the expressed wish that it should be forwarded to Sir Charles Lyell, if Mr. Darwin thought it sufficiently novel and interesting (30 June 1858, London); (Burkhardt & Smith, 1991: 7.123).

These scientific communications were read on the first of July of 1858. That year, the Wallace and Darwin papers appeared in print under the following heading:  “On the tendency of species to form varieties, and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection.” Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London (3. No. 9, 1858): 1-62. 

Clearly, Darwin must have felt the pressure to write an expanded version of his theory on the origin of the species. He began work at the end of July of 1858, while on holiday at Sandown in the Isle of Wight (Burkhardt & Smith, 1991: 7. 137) Initially, he expected it would be an abstract of around thirty-five pages to be published in theJournal of the Linnean Society (Burkhardt & Smith, 1991: 7. 138-41)but by the winter of that same year he decided to turn it into a book. In March of 1859, Lyell mentioned Darwin’s project to the publisher John Murray (1808-1892), whose father had published Principles of Geology (Burkhardt & Smith, 1991: 7. 269-70).Murray enthusiastically accepted the manuscript based upon a letter in which Darwin had merely described the contents of the future book. Below is the content of the acceptance letter, which has survived only in draft form:

My dear Sir,

I hasten to thank you for your obliging letter of yesterday & for the interesting details regarding your work on Species contained in it.—On the strength of this information & my knowledge of your former publications, I can have no hesitation in swerving from my usual routine & in stating at once even without seeing the MS. that I shall be most happy to publish it for you on the same terms as those on which I publish for Sir Charles Lyell—viz—I will print an edition fixing the number of copies with your concurrence, according to what shall appear to me (on perusal of a part, at least, of the work) to be adviseable—& before publication, as soon as I can ascertain the cost of its production I will make you an offer amounting as nearly as I can ascertain to 2/3 of the net proceeds of the edition—payable by note of hand at six months from the day of publication xxxxxxx I shall be quite willing to give the author 12 copies for himself & as many more as he may require at the trade price xxxxx.

Yours very faithfully
John Murray (1 April, 1859, Albemarle St.); (Burkhardt & Smith, 1991: 7.275).  

 By September 11 all was ready in corrected proof except for the index and further revisions (Burkhardt & Smith, 1991: 7. 332), and Darwin received a copy of the book early in November (Burkhardt & Smith, 1991: 7. 364-5). A total of 1,250 copies were printed, of which 1,190 were sold to the trade on the 22nd of November (5 were sent to the Stationers’ Hall for copyrights purposes, 12 to Darwin, and 49 to reviewers) (Peckham, 1959: 17; Freeman, 1977: 75). The book was printed by W. Clowes and Sons, one of the four largest printers in London, and the binding was done by Edmonds and Remnants. Although this first edition sold extremely well, Darwin’s claim that the books were purchased in just one day is certainly an exaggeration. See, for instance, his letter to his friend the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895):

My dear Huxley

            I have heard from Murray today that he sold whole Edition of my Book on first day, & he wants another instantly, which confounds me, as I can make hardly any corrections. But a friend writes to me that it ought to be Geoffroy DE St. Hilaire: my memory says no. Will you turn to a title-page & tell me soon & forgive me asking this trouble.
           Remember how deeply I wish to know your general impression of the truth of the theory of Natural Selection.—only a short one—at some future time if you have any lengthy criticisms, I shd be infinitely grateful for them. You must know well how highly I value your opinion.—
                      In Haste, for I am bothered to death by this new Edition.

           Ever yours
           C. Darwin (24 [November 1859] Ilkley Wells House, Otley, Yorkshire); (Burkhardt & Smith, 1991: 7. 393-4).   

title page

It is interesting to note that this edition cannot be automatically identified as being the first by looking at the wording of the title page exclusively. For instance, the second edition is not so-called in the title page, and its first issue is dated 1859, keeping the form “Linnaean,” which will be changed into “Linnean” from the second issue of the second edition onwards.  Nevertheless, there are two features that identify a first edition without going through the minor corrections Darwin hastily included for the second edition: the misprint “speceies” on page 20, line 11, and the fantastic whale-bear episode printed in full on page 184. Whereas a full account of this tale was kept in the four American printings of 1860, it was not found again in any other editions (Freeman, 1977: 75-8).

page 20

page 184

The book includes one large illustration in the form of a folded lithograph, engraved by W. West Lithographers. The plate describes the possible sequences of evolution and would be included in successive editions. 

lithograph facing page 117

After the main text, this first edition includes thirty-two pages of the publisher’s advertisements. Dated June 1859, it offers us a unique opportunity to examine Murray’s commercial expectations and those of the nineteenth-century readership.

Our copy of this first edition is part of a comprehensive collection of books by and about Charles Darwin. The core of this collection was donated to the Rush Rhees Library in 1931 by Charles Wright Dodge (1863-1934), a professor of biology at the University of Rochester from 1891 to 1930. Apart from complementing our other historical landmarks in the history of science, such as the second edition of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, the Darwin collection itself represents an extraordinary bibliographical trove as it allows scholars to examine how a particular work can be heavily modified through subsequent editions.  For example, bibliographical variants are particularly relevant for the study of the first six editions of On the Origin of Species, as Morse Peckham eloquently put it in the opening paragraph of his variorum edition:

            “Much the greatest event that ever happened and much the best,” Charles James Fox said of the French Revolution—to me, a remark even more pertinent to the publication of On the Origin of Species. Its greatness would justify the preparation of a variorum text, but there are sounder reasons. The scale of which Darwin carried out five revisions makes it impossible, without such a text, to comprehend the development of his book. Of the 3,878 sentences in the first edition, nearly 3,000, about 75 per cent, were rewritten from one to five times each. Over 1,500 sentences were added, and of the original sentences plus these, nearly 325 were dropped. Of the original and added sentences there are nearly 7,500 variants of all kinds. In terms of net added sentences, the sixth edition is nearly as long again as the first (Peckham, 1959: 9).


Selected Bibliography 

Barlow, Nora. Ed. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882: with original omissions restored. Edited with Appendix and Notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. London: Collins, 1958.

Burkhardt, Frederick and Sydney Smith. Ed. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. 15 vols. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985-.

Darwin, Francis. Ed. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. 3 vols. London: John Murray, 1887.

Freeman, R. B. The Works of Charles Darwin: An Annotated Bibliographical Handlist. Folkestone, Eng.: Dawson ; Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1977.

________. Charles Darwin: A Companion. Folkestone, Eng.: Dawson; Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978.

Huxley, Leonard. Life and Letters of Henry Thomas Huxley. 2 vols. New York : D. Appleton and Co., 1900.

Peckham, Morse. The Origin of Species: A Variorum Text. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959.

Pablo Alvarez