We have sold many first editions of Charles Darwin’s works over the years and we were delighted to be able to offer a first edition of “the most important biological work ever written”, On The Origin of Species, in the original cloth binding, in our Rare Books, Manuscripts & Maps auction on 28 January 2015. The volume, from the library of the late author Lady Mary Stewart, sold for £32,500.
It was only after Charles Darwin had received a letter from the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace in June 1858 that put forward ideas on evolution very close to his own – and their joint paper of 1 July 1858 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 - that he sat down to write what is now considered to be the most important biological book ever written.
He started work on the book on July 20th 1858, corrected the proofs in September 1859 and received a copy early in November, a remarkable achievement. 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. There is only one issue of the first edition, the text being identical in all copies. There are, however, very small differences in the bindings and in the inserted advertisements which appear at the end. The first edition, when in the cloth, has, almost invariably, thirty-two pages of inserted advertisements of Murray's general list dated June 1859 and with the edges uncut.
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 his 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.