Observations, Science.

Darwin’s endless forms most beautiful


Charles Darwin, 1881, by John Collier. PD-US.


The final paragraph of Charles Darwin’s epic Origin of Species is still a viable and beautiful summary of biological evolution.  The last phrase reveals both the scientist and the poet:

. . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Sitting on a river bank immersed in thought about the nature of living things, Darwin described the laws of life he had begun teasing out of his and other’s observations.  Here is the final paragraph in full:

The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin

Darwin had included in his last sentence a small reference to the origin of the origin of species – “There is grandeur in the view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one.” His use of the term “breathed” is not accidental, but the earliest of many subsequent efforts by Christians and deists to suggest that, just as God as was viewed by Newton and Descartes as the Watchmaker, who created the Universe and imbued it with natural physical laws, after which it ticked on without need for divine intervention, evolution of the species could well have been seeded divinely with the first life, from which all other life developed over the eons via the mechanisms of natural selection. The push back from religious figures began immediately and has not slackened for more than the 150 years since he first published The Origin of Species; yet equally true is that many religious figures from the beginning until today have not found evolution to be a threat to their conception of God.

In Darwin’s second edition of The Origin of Species, published the following year of 1860, in the last section he addresses some of the difficulties many were having accepting his radical theory (pp. 481-490). At the beginning of that section, Darwin says that "A celebrated author and divine has written to me that 'he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.'" (page 481) The divine he referred to was Charles Kingsley, a priest and social activist with whom Darwin corresponded.

The Book That Changed America: How Darwin's theory of evolution ignited a nation, by Fuller Randall

A more complete treatment of early American responses to Darwin is found in Fuller Randall’s engaging book entitled The Book that Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation. Randall considers not just religious responses but philosophical and political: To a surprising degree, early American support of Darwin was linked to Northern abolitionist’s interpretation of Darwin as supporting the idea that mankind originated from a single set of ancestors, countering prevailing theories about God’s separate creation of species and, by extension, human races. Many of those abolitionists were transcendentalists, otherwise uncomfortable with the physical/material underpinnings of Darwin’s Theory.

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