“Why should you read a 19th-century book on the already familiar concept of evolution? The most obvious reason is banal: it is one the most important books ever written, which changed the way we see the world and our place in it. But that aside, why is this a useful book for someone who works in the humanities?
The book is a monumental example of epistemic humility. Darwin valued facts and cared deeply about the truth. He appreciated that revolutionary ideas require strong evidence, which is why he worked on his manuscript for 20 long years, testing, discussing, and fact-checking his ideas and amassing a mountain of evidence from a variety of disciplines in his systematic quest for the truth.
It is also a magnificent story of intellectual courage and integrity. Darwin knew that many would be offended or disappointed by his findings, including the powerful religious establishment and his beloved wife. He regretted that his ideas would make them feel uncomfortable, but he knew that as a scholar, his paramount duty was to tell the truth as he perceived it.
In addition to its scientific value, the book has great literary merit. Darwin was an excellent communicator of ideas, and his elegant style makes his grand narrative vigorous as well as inspiring. This is why the last sentences of the volume are so often quoted:
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. 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 planet 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.”
Department of Anthropology & Cognitive Science Program
Former UCHI Fellow