My primary reason for reading Origin is its historical significance. It bothers me that humans, until as recently as Darwin, did not seriously ask about the origin of species despite interacting with its members every day. That this revolutionary idea should have occurred to one person as opposed to many in an incremental fashion, is far from obvious – and extremely interesting retrospectively. Are there any other such revolutionary ideas that’ll later be trivial to everyone?

Darwin supported his argument meticulously by observations, made by him and others, and their sheer number is so mind boggling that I fell asleep more times reading this book than any other. It amazes me how he summoned up so much enthusiasm to study and compare the most boring habits of some of the dullest creatures.

There is no reason to read this book to understand natural selection – our knowledge now is a far more superior and complete. I had already read The Selfish Gene, had already experienced the profound “OMFG! That’s Brilliant!” reaction that rapidly morphed into a “Duh! Isn’t that obvious?” . Yet, Origin was an enthralling read for the most part, with many opportunities to pause, wonder, daydream, extrapolate, apply the theory to modern humans and computers, and so on.

This is a fairly long book about a seemingly tautological argument. I highlighted a large number of lines and took down a few notes on my kindle. A short summary of my observations, and a few quotes to give you the taste of what most of the book is like, follows.

1. Variation – Darwin appreciated that variability exists in nature,
but he did not seem to explore the causes or consequences – which is understandable as genetics was ahead of his time.

“It may seem fanciful, but I suspect that a similar parallelism
extends to an allied yet very different class of facts. It is an old
and almost universal belief, founded, I think, on a considerable body
of evidence, that slight changes in the conditions of life are
beneficial to all living things.”

“Again, both with plants and animals, there is abundant evidence, that
a cross between very distinct individuals of the same species, that is
between members of different strains or sub-breeds, gives vigour and
fertility to the offspring.”

“Dominant species belonging to the larger groups tend to give birth to
new and dominant forms; so that each large group tends to become still
larger, and at the same time more divergent in character.”

“Widely ranging species vary most, (…) and varieties are often at
first local,–both causes rendering the discovery of intermediate
links less likely. (…) And if there be any variability under nature,
it would be an unaccountable fact if natural selection had not come
into play.”

2. Cooperation – Darwin appreciated that environment in the form of
sunshine, water, temperature ( non living stuff ), wasn’t the primary
reason for success of life in its complexity, and that inter-species
interaction is a large cause. However, he talks about competition,
much like Dawkins, but not much about cooperation, like Lynn Margulis. I
think cooperation is much less apparent when you just look at the
phenotype. It seems to me that it is more widespread on the smaller
gene level with microbes and viruses exchanging chemicals frequently, and
hence completely understandable why Darwin was unaware of it.

“This long appeared to me a great difficulty: but it arises in chief
part from the deeply-seated error of considering the physical
conditions of a country as the most important for its inhabitants;
whereas it cannot, I think, be disputed that the nature of the other
inhabitants, with which each has to compete, is at least as important,
and generally a far more important element of success.”

“Bearing in mind that the mutual relations of organism to organism are
of the highest importance, we can see why two areas having nearly the
same physical conditions should often be inhabited by very different
forms of life; for according to the length of time which has elapsed
since new inhabitants entered one region; according to the nature of
the communication which allowed certain forms and not others to enter,
either in greater or lesser numbers; according or not, as those which
entered happened to come in more or less direct competition with each
other and with the aborigines; and according as the immigrants were
capable of varying more or less rapidly, there would ensue in
different regions, independently of their physical conditions,
infinitely diversified conditions of life,–there would be an almost
endless amount of organic action and reaction,–and we should find, as
we do find, some groups of beings greatly, and some only slightly
modified,–some developed in great force, some existing in scanty
numbers–in the different great geographical provinces of the world.”

3. Ontology of god – Darwin did not comment much on Man, but he did
make strong rational arguments against creation, and understood the philosophy of science.

“Why should all the parts and organs of many independent beings, each
supposed to have been separately created for its proper place in
nature, be so invariably linked together by graduated steps? Why
should not Nature have taken a leap from structure to structure? On
the theory of natural selection, we can clearly understand why she
should not; for natural selection can act only by taking advantage of
slight successive variations; she can never take a leap, but must
advance by the shortest and slowest steps.”

“But many naturalists think that something more is meant by the
Natural System; they believe that it reveals the plan of the Creator;
but unless it be specified whether order in time or space, or what
else is meant by the plan of the Creator, it seems to me that nothing
is thus added to our knowledge.”

4. Altruism – Darwin identified and seemed to have understood the
conundrum posed by “selfless” individuals of the ant of the bee
communities. Since his argument is at the species level, it was easier
for him to reconcile the selfless acts of a few “slave” members as
beneficial to the species. Dawkins’ must have had a tougher time as
his arguments were at the genetic level, but even that was resolved
when it was shown that slave members had a different gene composition
that made it advantageous for their genes to die in the service of the
queen’s genes.

“Finally, it may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it
is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo
ejecting its foster-brothers,–ants making slaves,–the larvae of
ichneumonidae feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars,–not as
specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of
one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings,
namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”

“for if on the whole the power of stinging be useful to the community,
it will fulfil all the requirements of natural selection, though it
may cause the death of some few members.”

5. Falsification – I think it is important to note that when a
groundbreaking theory is introduced, it should make some substantial claims
that are against common knowledge. Although Darwin did not tackle all
the implications of his theory in this book, he did make remarks
which, at that time, would perhaps have been considered quite bold.

“hence there seems to me to be no great difficulty in believing that
natural selection has actually converted a swimbladder into a lung, or
organ used exclusively for respiration.”