“The most important single book in science”—Bern Dibner, Heralds of Science
One hundred fifty years ago, in November 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species was published.
The 1,250 copies of that first edition sold out in a single day. Oddly, the exact date is not entirely clear: Darwin’s diary says the book went on sale on November 24, but the publisher’s records say that it was November 22. (A second edition of 3,000 copies came out just a month and a half later on January 7, 1860.)
Whatever its birth date, the book took both the scientific and popular worlds by storm. The theory of evolution was not new even in Darwin’s time, but he identified the natural forces acting on species of plants and animals (for example, geographical isolation and sexual selection) that resulted, over enormous spans of geological time, in new species.
The idea was immensely controversial, considered by many to challenge Biblical teachings about the creation of the world and even the existence of God. Though rejected to this day by Christian literalists, the scientific evidence for natural selection is irrefutable and indeed growing through modern genetic and other biological studies.
On the origin of species has been published in more than 250 editions in English and translated into at least 29 other languages—from Armenian to Chinese, Greek, Hindi, and Turkish.
the Libraries holds over 30 different editions of the book, including the first two London editions, which will take turns on display in our exhibition Darwin’s Legacy, in the National Museum of Natural History until Sept.12, 2010. Additional photos of the exhibit case can be viewed on the Libraries flickr page.—Leslie Overstreet, photos by Liz O'Brien