Darwin’s Origin of species, fifth edition (1869)

An introduction by Gordon Chancellor

Darwin began work on this edition on Boxing Day 1868 and finished it in February 1869. It appeared in July or August 1869, after Variation under domestication, the only major part of his ‘big book’ Natural selection that saw the light of day in his lifetime. This edition of 2,000 copies is substantially altered from the fourth. It looks different, with a simpler style of cover which for some reason can be found in at least four slightly different designs. The paper is different (from Dickinson as opposed to Spalding) with less margin at the bottom of the page. It was also differently constructed, the printed sheets being gathered in 8s rather than 12s, and it cost a shilling more than the previous edition! It is the most altered edition, if one doesn’t count the extra chapter in the sixth; it has 29 per cent of all alterations, with 178 sentences dropped, 227 added and 1,770 amended, although the net effect was slightly fewer words in the fifth edition than in the fourth.

Darwin’s spat with Richard Owen, begun in the fourth edition’s ‘Historical Sketch’, is taken further in the fifth. Darwin (on page xx) says rather sarcastically that what he had previously written about Owen had turned out to be a ‘preposterous error’ and draws attention to his own climb down in his ‘additions and corrections’ section. Darwin in the fourth edition reported that Owen had convinced him that he (Owen) had published his acceptance of natural selection’s power to form new species even before the Origin had appeared. Owen, however, in his Anatomy of vertebrates of 1868 now pointed out that Darwin was quite mistaken about this. Darwin seems to take pleasure in apologising but says in his defence that Owen’s phraseology often makes it impossible to be sure exactly what he is saying. Anyway, says Darwin, it doesn’t matter whether Owen preceded him because – as discussed in the ‘Sketch’ - they were both ‘long ago preceded by Dr Wells and Mr Matthew’.

In chapter one Darwin adds many long paragraphs on how the conditions of life can affect variability and he refers to August Weismann who had made a clear distinction between what we would today call genetic factors on the one hand and environmental factors on the other. Darwin refers to his own work on this subject, published the previous year in Variation under domestication and he adds a statement to the effect that anyone who declares that a species has reached the limits of its variability is speaking rashly.

It is in chapter three that Darwin famously first uses Herbert Spencer’s phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ for natural selection in the Origin, although he had used it many times previously in Variation under domestication. It seems to have been Wallace who suggested the phrase to Darwin, but in the long run the phrase was retrograde as it is a tautology and adds nothing heuristic: the fittest are by definition the survivors.

As usual the largest number of changes are to chapter four. Darwin starts to add new material in response to the penetrating review by Fleeming Jenkin in the North British Review in 1867 who among other things criticised Darwin for insufficiently stressing the importance on individual variations. Darwin also responds to an essay by Moritz Wagner who argued that geographical isolation was essential to the process of speciation, a view Darwin rejected. He also has to begin responding to various criticisms made by his first German translator, Heinrich Bronn, many of which boil down to the difficulty of knowing which characters are important to an organism’s fitness and therefore subject to selection. There is an interesting marginal comment on page 162 near the end of the chapter in the copy scanned on Darwin online which was owned by the Jesuit missionary, James Splaine (see below). Splaine was a very well read man who though not a naturalist was certainly very interested in scientific matters. In response to Darwin’s sentence “If each species has been independently created, no explanation can be given of this great fact in the classification of all organic beings…” Splaine writes:
except the will of the Creator, & this is the only explanation we can expect of the first appearance of  a modification of a structure; and until some other explanation is given the real cause of the origin of species must remain a mystery. Granting all that Mr. Darwin lays down about fixing of varieties & development, still the first &, so to speak incidental variation is the real origin of the species; & no explanation has been given of how this variation arises, except creation. It follows that species are created.

There are many relatively small changes in chapters five, six and seven, perhaps most notably on the instincts of the cuckoo. There is a subtle but significant rewording of a paragraph on page 293 making clearer that in social insects selection can act at the level of the community rather than the organism. In chapter eight there are several new paragraphs dealing with relative degrees of fertility in plant varieties and species.

In chapter nine Darwin makes some significant new statements about geological processes. He seems finally to have come to believe that subaerial weathering (e.g. by rainwater) is a major force, whereas previously he had tended to assume that submarine and coastal processes were all important. With knowledge of the potency of subaerial erosion he believes that the age of the Earth must be immense and sufficient for evolution to explain the fossil record. Darwin is unsettled by the views of Fleeming Jenkin, James Croll and William Thomson who had come up with far shorter ages for the Earth. Their views were based on the assumption that the Earth had been too hot for habitation for most of the time since its formation, posing a serious challenge to the theory of evolution. We now know that Darwin’s estimates were closer to reality because the Earth actually started ‘stone cold’ and the heat detected down mineshafts is not residual but is actually generated by radioactivity.

In chapter ten Darwin takes delight in citing recent fossil finds, such as Compsognathus, a dinosaur which seemed to be intermediate between major groups, in this case dinosaurs and birds. There are also many minor but fascinating additions to chapter eleven, such as a note on the power of locusts to disperse seeds over great distances, and an example of the sort of work Darwin carried out in his private research establishment at Down House:

Here is a better case: the leg of a woodcock was sent to me by a friend, with a little cake of dry earth attached to the shank, weighing only nine grains; and this contained a seed of the toad-rush (Juncus bufonius) which germinated and flowered. (p. 440)

The weightiest additions in this chapter relate to Croll’s work on the Ice Ages. These had shown what a huge impact the cold periods had had and continue to have on the distribution of climate-sensitive animals and plants.
There are few changes to chapter twelve but some significant ones to chapter thirteen. There is reference to Ernst Haeckel’s new science of ‘phylogeny’, or the tracing of the genealogies of groups of organisms, and many corrections to the sections on embryology and rudimentary organs. The sentence about the origin of ‘Hottentots’ was dropped. The only change of significance in chapter fourteen concerns whether life began more than once. Darwin says that although he believes the similarities between the great kingdoms of life are so great that a single origin is likely, the issue is largely immaterial to his theory of how it has evolved since then.

The copy of the fifth edition reproduced on Darwin Online has an interesting history. As can be seen from the title page it was originally owned by James Splaine in Jamaica. He was a Liverpudlian Jesuit Missionary and must have bought the book in England before his assignment there from 1869-1872. His marginalia in the first half of the book are, not surprisingly, hostile to Darwin, but they are quite penetrating. An example is his response to a comment in the summary of chapter four, quoted above. Father Splaine was by all accounts a man of wide ranging interests and while in Jamaica he made a diary which is now an important source on the history of the Country (Stewart 1984). By the mid-1870s he was working at the Church on Trenchard Street, Bristol, alongside the Jesuit poet Gerrard Manley Hopkins, and he seems to have donated his copy the Origin to the school there. I acquired it in Oxford in the early 1980s.

1869. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: Murray. 5th ed. Text Image PDF F387

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