On the Origin of A Combination Legacy: Why Darwin is Forever

Jackie Marano's picture

Nearly 150 years after the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” Charles Darwin’s masterwork continues to exhibit an essential, inherent, and extraordinary peculiarity: timelessness. It is this character that distinguishes Darwin’s work from others in the realms of both scientific and literary form. “On the Origin of Species” can most effortlessly be characterized as scientific in nature; it is an abundant collection of observations and hypotheses, experiments and results, thoughts and ideas, speculations, and conclusions. However, it is the element of timelessness in this work, a quality that most often corresponds to stand-alone literary works, which challenges the absoluteness of such a notion. It is noteworthy that, unlike most typical scientific publications, literary works can retain their fundamental value much more effectively over time, and thus are more likely to achieve the ‘timeless’ quality. For a conventional scientific work to attain timelessness, it must continuously resist the substantial potential for alteration and/or replacement as a consequence of new findings. Thus, although Darwin’s work is not a literary masterpiece by most standards, the notion that “On the Origin of Species” is ‘typically scientific’ does not adequately account for its true hybrid character. And if we do not account for this combination character, we cannot fully understand why Darwin’s work is peculiarly, but remarkably, timeless.

       Before considering the scientific component of Darwin’s work, it is important to note that Darwin’s theory on evolution represents just one way, among many, to justify how life as we know it has come to be; there exist numerous widely-accepted versions of the origins and/or the advancement of life, but all are inherently speculative (Darwin’s included). Darwin’s story, however, is particularly prominent and distinct because of key features typically associated with the more scientific foundation of this work. For example, repetition is critical in scientific endeavors; we necessarily note, then, that nearly all of Darwin’s experiments are reproducible to some extent. This has enabled future generations of scientists to conceptualize and to experience firsthand exactly what Darwin did, and how he came to his conclusions. Not only has reproducibility provided Darwin with increased credibility in his assessments, but it has also enabled “On the Origin of Species” to serve as a springboard for new questions and new discoveries, many of which have further increased the value of Darwin’s story (discovery of genes, DNA, modes of inheritance, etc). The tendency of scientific discoveries and observations to promote further inquiry is an essential part of the scientific process, and it has undoubtedly enhanced the value of Darwin’s story, its plausibility, and the public’s interest. Additionally, Darwin’s story, because it is based on scientific empirical evidence, is more readily tangible than most; fossil finds, competition for resources, and variation of organisms (including humans) represent just a few ways in which Darwin’s observations, ideas, and predictions are visibly manifested today. Lastly, Darwin’s story, because it is founded upon question-promoting scientific logic, remains open to improvement or modification at any point in time, and thus has greater potential to become a ‘better’ story. It is, however, quite unlikely to ever be entirely overhauled for the above-mentioned reasons. Thus, we note that in the realm of science and empirical evidence, “On the Origin of Species” will continue to be referenced or contemplated in the future. Nonetheless, it is critical to recognize that although empirical science alone contributes to the perpetual nature of Darwin’s work, it is together with literary undertones that the implications of such empirical finds could be said to last, perhaps, until humanity ceases to exist.

       Although most acknowledge Darwin’s work as primarily a descriptive scientific account, it is critical to recognize that some of the most profound and meaningful messages are embedded in his less-material references. That is, Darwin is not emotionally or psychologically detached from his work; “On the Origin of Species” is, without a doubt, a first-person narrative account in which Darwin’s specific example choices and his inclusion of personal comments are not to be overlooked. For instance, when attempting to explain part of his theory on the ‘struggle for existence,’ Darwin provides an example of how man’s interference with a natural setting greatly changes how natural selection acts on future generations of plants and organisms: “Here we see how potent has been the effect of the introduction of a single tree, nothing whatever else having been done, with the exception that the land had been enclosed [by man], so that cattle could not enter. But how important an element enclosure is, I plainly saw…” (1). Similarly, it is not without purpose and intense personal investment that Darwin later includes, “How fleeting are the wishes of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature…” (1). Phrases such as these are beyond the realm of strict empirical science, as their implications are not directly qualified by the surrounding text. Despite the common notion that Darwin neglects the role of humans in his theory, the tree example is just one means by which Darwin reflects on the ‘big picture’ and subtly alerts man to beware his destructive potential. Likewise, Darwin’s statements regarding the limited and diminishing capacities of mankind most likely, and most remarkably, refer to the deleterious potential of what is known as biocultural evolution. Biocultural evolution, a phenomenon widely accepted and studied by modern anthropologists, is “an evolutionary process that is the result of a culture’s interaction with biology throughout human evolutionary history” (3). In both of these excerpts, Darwin does hint at such a phenomenon, suggesting that human culture and practices, many of which greatly alter the current and future state of nature and organisms, may affect the way in which natural selection acts upon a species, communities, and humans to yield new ‘products.’ So how, then, do these more personal and strategic literary undertones contribute to the perpetual nature of this work? Darwin’s hints at the gradual materialization of the effects of biocultural phenomena are becoming increasingly relevant to human activity today and will be of even greater concern in the future. Such concerns will likely not expire before humankind ceases to exist.

       Darwin could not have possibly pinpointed exactly what would be the greater evolutionary consequences of biocultural evolution on life as we know it, but the open-ended nature of his allusions communicates a powerful message that remains practical for modern and future times. In fact, the literary undertones of Darwin’s work seem to become increasingly applicable and to human culture, society, and action every day. For example, the global culture of operating heavy machinery and driving gas-propelled cars has contributed to the thinning of the ozone layer, which protects us from the sun. The result has been a noticeable increase in the incidence of skin cancer worldwide (2). How will our actions affect or modify our biological future and that of other organisms? This represents a human-induced environmental change that has also contributed to global warming, another phenomenon with innumerable consequences for human lifestyles, and life on earth. We must also consider the consequences of other current practices that have yet to manifest a detectable outcome. For example, consider fertility drugs, which are more prevalent than ever in Western culture; women are now able to give birth to much more than two children at once, something extremely rare in nature. Could the corresponding changes in human lifestyle influence the direction of natural selection for the future? Also consider war, a form of confrontation that is long embedded in human history. To what extent does the decimation of so many individuals (humans or not) in a given geographic area influence population dynamics and the path of natural selection? To what extent does the availability of off-season and foreign foods in supermarkets affect our body habits, disease prevalence, population growth, and reproductive success? Are there evolutionary implications for the human lifestyle changes associated with overfishing the oceans, obesity, telecommunications and the internet, and protecting and prolonging human life in every way possible? That is, are our wishes truly ‘fleeting’ and only beneficial for the short-run?

       It is not practical or even worthwhile for the modern human to worry about the direction of human evolution by natural selection (according to Darwin); evolutionary modifications are too gradual, too distant into the future, and, most importantly, too inevitable for us to be realistically concerned. Instead, and in the context of the above-mentioned questions, it is quite practical for us to be concerned about how our rapidly evolving lifestyle and everyday practices could alter the delicate balance of life on earth, as established by natural selection. Darwin followers might ask, “Will or must humans and other organisms adequately adapt to the rapid changes associated with human impact on the earth?” They might also ponder whether it is humans that direct the way in which natural selection acts on the balance of life on earth, or whether humans are living proof that natural selection intended for the hyper-influence of humans on their surroundings. Darwin followers and non-followers alike might ask, “Is human progress too quick to sustain our existence or that of other life forms on earth?” This is perhaps the most general, practical, forward-thinking, and enduring human-life-concerning question. And whether you believe in Darwin’s story or not, there is something to be said about the how far into the future this question will still matter, and how elements of Darwin’s story (both his findings and inklings) can already be deemed relevant.



1.    Darwin, Charles. "On the Origin of Species" Ed. Joseph Carroll. Canada: Broadview Texts, 2003. Pgs.139, 146

2.    Petro, Barbara. “Biocultural Evolution Still Affecting Humanity” Associated Content. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/21288/biocultural_evolution_still_affecting.html  (9 February 2009)

3.    Wikipedia. “Biocultural Evolution” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biocultural_evolution (8 February 2009)


Paul Grobstein's picture

Darwin: timeless in the near term?

Interesting idea, timelessness. In its strictest sense, it implies foundationalism, no? In human terms, it means lasting longer than other things are observed to? So it is indeed worth noting that the Origin seems particularly long-lasting (or to have proven reproductively successful?). And certainly part of that is that it does indeed seem to have anticipated some of what proved to be the next questions: the relation between biological and cultural change. Yes, our biological evolution may be too far in the future to worry about, but we are certainly impacting biological evolution now and need to think about that. Perhaps we also need to think about ourselves as, at least in part, products of biological evolution and how we deal with that?
MAM's picture

Darwin article

I enjoyed the article on 'Why Darwin is Forever', especially timely on February 12, 2009, Darwin's 200th birthday. As a scientist and clinician, I have loong been impressed with the eternal relevance of Darwin's theories. I believe you have raised some interesting questions and examined several worthwhile perspectives on his work. Thanks for the brain stimulation.

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