Darwin’s Magnum Opus

Darwin’s Magnum Opus

On The Origin of Species

Known as “the most important biological work ever written", we were delighted to offer a copy of the first edition of Charles Darwin’s ground breaking book On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in our Rare Books, Manuscripts, Maps & Photographs auction on Wednesday 09 October which realised an exceptional price of £162,500 incl premium.

Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection is known as “the most important biological work ever written”, a magnum opus of scientific thought still relevant an influential today.

In June 1858, Darwin received a letter from fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace containing his draft theory on species variation and distribution. Darwin had been investigating similar phenomena: his work on-board HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 had led the naturalist to investigate the reasons behind the geographic distribution of wildlife and fossils. Darwin noted the similarities between his work and Wallace’s, in a letter to the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell: “if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract!” On 1st July 1858, Darwin and Wallace presented a joint paper to the Linnean Society: On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection. Following this, Darwin commenced his Origin of Species.


London: John Murray, 1859. | First edition, 8vo in twelves | £162,500 incl premium


He started work on the book on 20 July 1858, corrected the proofs in September 1859 and received a copy early in November. This was a remarkably quick turnaround from conception to publication. 1,250 copies were printed, of which 1,192 were available for sale, with twelve reserved for the author, forty-one for review and five for Stationers' Hall copyright. All 1,192 available copies were subscribed for by booksellers on the day of publication, 24th November 1859, and Darwin was immediately asked by John Murray to prepare a revised text for a second printing.

Darwin’s work was successful in the sense that it aroused huge interest and subsequent controversy. Peter Bowler, in his work Evolution: the History of an Idea, points out that the work did not draw clear lines between the scientific, religious and sociological issues raised in the text, sparking debate. At the time of publication, as is often the case now, many reviewers struggled to completely understand Darwin’s theory. Darwin was satirised in contemporary magazines as “a Venerable Orang-outang” and cartoonishly depicted as an ape with a bearded human head.

Today On The Origin of Species, as it is more familiarly known, ranks among the most important books ever published, and perhaps alone among scientific works, it remains scientifically relevant 150 years after its debut. It also survives as a model of logical thought, and a vibrant and engaging work of literature. Darwin himself recognised this work as just the beginning, a work that would open up many different fields of research. “Since then, even the most unanticipated discoveries in the life sciences have supported or extended Darwin's central ideas—all life is related, species change over time in response to natural selection, and new forms replace those that came before. 'Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution', the pioneering geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky titled a famous essay in 1973. He could not have been more right—evolution is quite simply the way biology works, the central organizing principle of life on earth.” (Hayden, T. What Darwin Didn’t Know. Smithsonian.com).

Discussion of most topics within Evolutionary Biology begins with Darwin. Indeed, On The Origin of Species continues to influence much of modern Evolutionary Biology. Darwin viewed evolution by natural selection as a very gradual mechanism of change within populations, and postulated that new species could be the product of this very same process, but over even longer periods of time. Darwin indicated that species could form by the evolution of one species splitting into two, or via a population diverging from its extant ancestor to the point it was a new species. Darwin's insights into evolution were brilliant, especially in light of their being made in the absence of genetics. Indeed, ideas about heredity and the introduction of new genetic material via mutation were to come long after Darwin's founding theories of evolution.

Our Rare Books, Manuscripts, Maps & Photographs auction on 09 October gave the winning bidder the opportunity to own a copy of the first edition of this ground-breaking book. In its original green cloth binding, it is one of only 1,250 copies of the first edition published.




Auction Information


AUCTION | Rare Books, Manuscripts, Maps & Photography | Wednesday, 9th October at 11:00am 



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