Darwin, Charles | The "most important single work in science"

Lot Closed

December 9, 08:22 PM GMT


300,000 - 400,000 USD

Lot Details


Darwin, Charles

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray, 1859

In 12s (199 x 126 mm, uncut). Half-title verso with quotations by Whewell and Bacon only, folding lithographed diagram by W. West, 32-page publisher's catalogue dated June 1859 bound at end (Freeman's form 3; no priority); faint crease to half-title, contemporary annotation in sepia ink to page 12 (offering evidence against one of Darwin's claims related to cats), three leaves with marginal small closed tear, another with marginal paper flaw, a few stray spots with some to fore-edge. Publisher's blind-paneled green, grained cloth, spine gilt, brown coated endpapers, ownership inscription to front free endpaper dated "Dec. 1859"; endpapers cracked at joints as usual, except for fading to top and bottom rules on spine, the gilt title is bright and the cloth bright and clean, with sound corners. In custom box.

First edition of "certainly the greatest biological book ever written" (Freeman), and "the most important single work in science" (Dibner).

An unusually bright, attractive copy — with a rare and enigmatic gift inscription from the year of publication, and a remarkable contemporary annotation, adding to this copy's uniqueness and appeal.

Darwin’s theory of the origin of species by means of natural selection arose out of his studies in the 1830s during and after the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. From 1831 to 1836 Darwin sailed around the world on the Beagle. During this five-year voyage, Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands, Brazil, Argentina, Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Peru, Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand, and other islands and countries, finally returning to England by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. Darwin observed, “It appears to me that nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist than a journey in distant countries.”

The voyage of the Beagle was “the most important event in Darwin’s intellectual life and in the history of biological science. Darwin sailed with no formal scientific training. He returned a hard-headed man of science, knowing the importance of evidence, almost convinced that species had not always been as they were since creation but had undergone change. ... The experiences of his five years ... and what they led to, built up into a process of epoch-making importance in the history of thought” (DSB).

Darwin had assimilated the research and observations from his five years as naturalist aboard the survey ship H.M.S. Beagle into the essential formulation of his theory of natural selection more than two decades before Origin of Species appeared, but he may not have published his revolutionary theory during his lifetime had not Alfred R. Wallace independently come to a nearly identical conclusion about the transmutation of species. After the Linnean Society read and published jointly Darwin and Wallace's preliminary expositions of the theory of evolution (see preceding lot), Darwin rushed to prepare for publication an epitome of the "big species book" that he had been working on since 1856. (Darwin’s first suggestion for a title, An Abstract of an Essay on the Origin of Species and Varieties, was rejected by his publisher as too tentative).

Originally conceived as a work that might be printed on four or five sheets of paper, On the Origin of Species evolved during the eight months of its writing into a volume of nearly 500 pages. The final scope of Origin of Species prompted Darwin to abandon plans for his "big book," although he salvaged much of the first part of the manuscript for The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, published in 1868.

Darwin concluded Origin, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this plan has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” The conclusion of Origin would evolve by the publication of the the third edition, with Darwin only having grown more confident in his convictions (see lot 1025).

The entire text is essentially an introduction to, and amplification of, the iconoclastic thesis that Darwin abstracts at the beginning of chapter 4: "many more individuals are born than can possibly survive … [I]ndividuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and procreating their kind … [A]ny variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection." On the Origin of Species caused an immediate sensation. Of the first edition of 1,250 copies, fifty-eight were distributed by Murray for review, promotion, and presentation, and Darwin reported that the balance was sold out on the first day of publication.

Darwin’s ideas about evolution and natural selection are the underpinnings of modern biological science. Moreover, they have given us a new way of viewing and talking about the world. “Darwin not only not only drew an entirely new picture of the workings of organic nature; he revolutionized our methods of thinking and our outlook on the order of natural things. The recognition that constant change is the order of the universe had finally been established” (PMM 344b).

The present copy bears a remarkable contemporary inscription, reading: "R. A(?). Bouch | from an | unknown friend | Dec. 1859 | F.H.M." In a second hand (presumably the recipient's), there is an intriguing bit of marginalia refuting Darwin's claim that "cats with blue eyes are invariably deaf." The reader observes that this is "a very whimsical correlation but is altogether a mistake—a friend of mine having written to inform me that he has one of his own [cats] who is in full possession of all her faculties & moreover he has ascertained from a neighbour of his that he has no less that five white cats with blue eyes and not one of them deaf—Steadwich(?) however having known 3 wh: are deaf—but here are 6 out of 9 against the invariable rule!" This contemporary commentary provides an incredible and amusing insight into how Darwin's work was received in 1859. The average reader was ready to test his theories—here complete with a small statistical sample. Undoubtedly, this is the sort of inquiry Darwin himself would have approved of. Given that Darwin is now revered as one of the giants of scientific thought, it is perhaps easy to forget that when he was enrolled at Christ's College, Cambridge, it was to study theology, as his father believed he should be a country cleric. This marginalia certainly speaks to the public's engagement with Darwin's treatise, but also underscores society's fascination with science more broadly. Suddenly, anyone could engage with these theories, implementing them to reinterpret everyday life.    

An attractive and unrestored copy of "the most influential scientific work of the nineteenth century" (Horblit).


Dibner 199; Freeman 373; Grolier, Science 23b; Grolier, Medicine 70b; Norman 593; Printing and the Mind of Man 344b


Contemporary gift inscription to front free endpaper ("R. A(?). Bouch(?) | from an | (???) friend | Dec. 1859 | F.H.M.")