Darwin’s Origin of species, third edition (1861)

An introduction by Gordon Chancellor

This edition was prepared in early 1861 and 2,000 copies appeared in April. There was to be no further edition for another five years. It is externally identical to the first two, but the text differs considerably from them; 33 sentences are dropped, 266 are added and 617 are altered, making 14 percent of the total of all changes to all editions. The third edition is the first to include a list of additions and corrections since the previous edition, showing that it is no longer possible to refer to the page numbers of the first edition. Darwin has also added a ‘Historical Sketch’ of the development of evolutionary theory and there is also a postscript referring to a favourable review by Asa Gray, although this was dropped from the fourth edition.
The third edition marks the beginning of Darwin’s expansion of the Origin by the addition of whole new paragraphs, most of which are referred to in his list of additions. The net effect of the new material was to increase the text by 35 pages amounting to about 9,000 words, plus the historical sketch, which was in much smaller type.

In chapter one Darwin shows that he is gradually firming up his belief that all domestic dogs, no matter how dramatic their range of sizes and shapes, are descended from the wolf. In chapter four he discusses the problem of the term ‘natural selection’ as a metaphor, which many reviewers had struggled with, thinking that Darwin was implying a deity doing the selecting. He makes the point that no one now says this about gravitational attraction. Darwin adds new material to counter criticisms that evolution implies progress. He points out that divergence of character will often tend to increase complexity but he resists the implication that this is necessarily progression and can sometimes in fact lead to simplification.  He answers Prof. H.G. Bronn’s German translation of the second edition in which he had added various criticisms, both favourable and challenging, in an appendix. Darwin was, however, unhappy that Bronn had, without permission, excised some parts of Darwin’s text that he did not agree with. Not surprisingly Darwin later changed his German translator to J.V. Carus.

In chapter five Darwin develops his discussion of blindness in cave animals and in chapter six he adds more about the woodpecker of La Plata which though obviously like a European woodpecker is not a tree climber. He makes the point that in science, unlike other fields, ‘Vox populi, vox Dei’ (the voice of the people is the voice of God) is not a reliable guide to truth, citing as a precedent the popular denunciation of Copernicus’s demonstration that the Earth circles the Sun. In chapter seven Darwin adds discussion of the honeycomb building instinct of bees and also of how slow changes of habit can be linked to structure.

In chapter nine Darwin omits his calculation of the time it has taken to denude the Weald and of rates of sedimentation, having consulted his old Cambridge maths tutor William Hopkins. In response to the review in the Saturday Review of Christmas Eve 1859 he also deletes several sentences from the earlier editions which had stressed the power of wave action as the main force of erosion of the land. The review was fierce in its dismissal of Darwin’s assumptions in his calculations:

No wonder that behind such a formidable outwork Mr. Darwin thinks himself free to deal, according to his pleasure, with past ages of time, and that, if a million of centuries, more or less, is needed for any part of his argument, he feels no scruple in taking them to suit his purpose.

Darwin was certainly chastened by this and starting to be persuaded that subaerial erosion was more powerful and he would declare his conversion to this view in the fifth edition seven years later. He also adds long paragraphs on various palaeontological issues, much of it inspired by Prof. Jules Pictet’s review of the Origin, such as the tendency of fossil species to show little change over time. He was able to dismiss the argument that the lack of intermediate fossil species disproved evolution:

It has been asserted over and over again, by writers who believe in the immutability of species, that geology has yielded no linking forms. This assertion is entirely erroneous. (p. 323)

In fact what Darwin was doing here was showing that although the broad features of the fossil record are certainly consistent with evolution, the record is so imperfect that it can neither be used to prove nor disprove it, thus rather side-lining the palaeontologists. Instead, Darwin argues throughout the Origin, it is the evidence from living species which so clearly demonstrates common descent. Ironically within a few years the fossil record was to give Darwin strong support for evolution, as mentioned under the fifth edition. Darwin also shows in chapter nine how palaeontologists often have to adjust backwards their views on when groups of organisms first appeared and he also argues against Pictet’s opinion that there is little advantage in modifying the bird’s wing by pointing to the great success of penguins who can use theirs for swimming. Of course all Darwin’s additions bolstered claims he had made in the first edition.

In chapter ten Darwin attacks the assumption of progress by pointing out that sharks are still kings of the sea having appeared vast ages before the so-called more advanced teleost fish. He also asks how we can possibly judge what is the ‘higher’ form, challenging anyone to say whether the cuttlefish or the bee is the more advanced. In chapter thirteen Darwin adds a reference to Karl Ernst von Baer who tells of finding two unlabelled embryos in his spirit collection and not being able to tell to which order of vertebrate they belong, showing beautifully how the characters which define the higher groups appear at late life stages. Darwin fails to mention that in the previous two editions he had incorrectly attributed this story to Agassiz.
Finally, in chapter fourteen when defending the point that natural selection is not a denial of the existence of God, Darwin cites Leibnitz’s attack on Newton’s law of gravitational attraction, ‘the greatest discovery ever made by man’ (p. 515) as “subversive of natural and inferentially of revealed religion”. Two pages on, Darwin contradicts those who have said God could just as easily create a hundred million species as create life once, by citing “Maupertuis’ philosophical axiom of ‘least action’”. Darwin also dropped one of the ‘by the Creator’ phrases that he had inserted in the second edition.

1861. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: Murray. 3d ed. Text Image PDF F381

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