This Day In Writing History
On November 24th, 1859, The Origin Of Species, the famous scientific textbook by Charles Darwin, was published. Its full title was On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection, or The Preservation Of Favoured Races In The Struggle For Life. When the sixth edition of the book was published in 1872, the title was shortened to The Origin Of Species.
Charles Darwin was a brilliant English scientist, a former medical student turned biologist who had previously published textbook studies of subjects such as fossils, volcanic islands, and coral reefs. With The Origin Of Species, he laid down the groundwork for his theories of evolution, which, although accepted by the scientific community, remain controversial to this day.
The main theme of The Origin Of Species is natural selection - the process of evolution whereby organisms acquire heritable traits that make it more likely that the organisms will survive and reproduce - traits that allow organisms to adapt to their environment. This was nothing new to science; theories of natural selection go back to the ancient Greek thinkers and philosophers, from Empedocles to Aristotle.
What made Charles Darwin's study of natural selection revolutionary - and controversial - were his theories of evolution concerning common ancestry of species. In the late 18th century, Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, proposed a similar theory of how, through evolution, one species can become another.
In 1809, French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck took the idea further with his theory of the transmutation of species. But it was Charles Darwin's landmark study that defined this aspect of evolution as we know it today.
In the mid-19th century, when he published The Origin Of Species, the scientific community in Britain was closely tied to the Church of England. Reactions to Darwin's book were sharply mixed.
Liberal clergymen accepted Darwin's theories, declaring evolution to be God's plan of creation. Conservative (fundamentalist) clergymen decried evolution as blasphemous, taking the Bible's book of Genesis to be the literal truth and scientific fact, calling this "science" creationism.
Creationism and evolution would clash most famously in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. John Scopes, a high school science teacher from Tennessee, had been charged with violating that state's Butler Act.
The Butler Act made it unlawful to "teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals" in any state-funded school or university.
Despite a brilliant defense mounted by legendary attorney Clarence Darrow, Scopes was convicted and fined $100, the equivalent of about $1,200 in today's money. The case was appealed to the Tennessee State Supreme Court, which affirmed the conviction, but threw out the fine on a technicality.
The Butler Act would remain on the books in Tennessee until it was voluntarily repealed in 1967. A year later, in the precedent-setting case of Epperson vs. Arkansas, the United States Supreme Court ruled that state's law forbidding the teaching of evolution unconstitutional.
The hotly contested battle between creationism and evolution, which began with the publication of The Origin Of Species 150 years ago, continues to this day.
Quote Of The Day
"The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic." - Charles Darwin
Today's video features a reading from Charles Darwin's The Origin Of Species, performed by British writer Richard Dawkins. Enjoy!