Tamsin Constable

The Origin of Species in plain English

My toes are tingling, and for once it’s not because of the bitter cold, even though it’s just started snowing again. I’m all abuzz because it is 200 years today since Charles Darwin was born, on February 12th, 1809.

David Attenborough said recently that one of the reasons for the sell-out success of the first print runs of Darwin’s famous publication On the Origin of Species By Means Of Natural Selection was not just because of the ground-breaking ideas it held, but because it explained them in a way that its Victorian audience found easy to understand.

Here is the first paragraph of Chapter 1, ‘Variation under Domestication’, from the 2003 unabridged edition edited by the Darwin scholar Joseph Carroll.

“When we look to the individuals of the same variety or sub-variety of our older cultivated plants and animals, one of the first points which strikes us, is, that they generally differ much more from each other than do the individuals of any one species or variety in the state of nature. When we reflect on the vast diversity of the plants and animals which have been cultivated, and which have varied during all the ages under the most different climates and treatment, I think we are driven to conclude that this greater variability is simply due to our domestic productions having been raised under conditions of life not so uniform as, and somewhat different from, those to which the parent-species have been exposed under nature.”

And here’s R W Sheldon’s version of the same paragraph, from Darwin’s Origin of Species: A condensed version of the first edition of 1859, published in 2008.

“If we look closely at domesticated animals and plants we notice that they are much more variable than wild species. This is because they have been raised for many generations under conditions that have been deliberately varied.”

Sheldon aim was simply to communicate Darwin’s ideas, arguments and key examples to a broader modern audience. In his introduction, Sheldon says that Darwin’s original text is, “not easy to read. This is not because it is not it is not clearly written. It is very clearly written, but the clarity is obscured by what one can only describe as Victorian verbiage. These extra words were necessary in 1859; people thought and read differently in those days, and Darwin had to put much effort into defending a position that we would now consider obvious.”

I have mixed feelings about this. Sheldon’s version necessarily pays little heed to the original tone, style and sheer grace of Darwin’s original masterpiece. But is the original text really so difficult to read, once you ‘tune in’ to the style? To me, it reads beautifully, capturing the context, social moment and inner thoughts of a genius. Few modern academics write so clearly.

If, though, a plain English version of Origins means that more people read Darwin’s work, and if then more people understand evolution, particularly in the face of creeping creationism, then so be it. Plain English, in this case, might just be a necessary evil.

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