Guest Editorial: Where Is the "Origin" in the Origin of Species?

By McComas, William F. | The American Biology Teacher, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Guest Editorial: Where Is the "Origin" in the Origin of Species?


McComas, William F., The American Biology Teacher


Even as we celebrated both the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species, polls in 2009 showed that only 39% of Americans "believe in the theory of evolution" (Gallup, 2009). It is unlikely that this recent high-profile focus on Darwin and evolution altered this sad situation. Many continue to hold a faulty view of the principle of adaptation, there is widespread misunderstanding of whether evolution has a purpose, and inappropriate assumptions are common about the implications of evolution--along with general confusion regarding the distinction between "change through time" (evolution itself) and the accompanying explanatory mechanism (natural selection). However, here, I will focus on another important element in the misunderstanding of evolution: confusion about the origin of life and the origin of species.

On the Origin of Species is a brilliant argument that proposes a mechanism to account for how one group of organisms might arise from a preexisting one. However, some look to Origin for an answer to the question of how life itself arose. Their failure to find such an answer has caused many to unfairly reject the central premise of Darwin's seminal book (Clough, 2006).

Darwin recognized how useful it would be to have explained both types of origins, but he understood not only the distinction between them but the limitations of science in his day. In a letter to his friend and colleague Joseph Hooker in 1855, he states:

I think and hope that there is nearly as much difference between trying to find out whether species of a genus have had a common ancestor and concerning oneself with the first origin of life, as between making out the laws of chemical attraction and the first origin of matter. (Darwin & Seward, 1903: p. 418)

In the first edition of Origin, we find a hint of Darwin's thinking on the issue of the origin of life when he writes that "probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed" (Darwin, 1859: p. 484). He added "by the Creator" to the end of this sentence in the second edition of Origin, but in the third and later editions he removed the entire phrase, never offering any further comment regarding how this "one primordial form" might have arisen.

Darwin did not escape criticism for his lack of discussion of the origin of life. In an early review of Origin, an anonymous author stated:

Enough has been said to show what a pile of unsupported conjecture has been required to sustain this last and ablest attempt to penetrate the mystery of the origin of species, or, in other words, the Origin of Life. (Anon., 1859: p. 775)

Sadly, even in Darwin's day, some found it reasonable to reject the mechanism of origin of species through natural selection because Darwin failed to discuss the origin of life itself. This misunderstanding continues today.

Darwin knew that some found fault with what he failed to say. In the third edition of Origin, the first major rewrite, we find the following:

I cannot believe that a false theory would explain, as it seems to me that the theory of natural selection does explain, the several large classes of facts above specified. It is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life. Who can explain what is the essence of the attraction of gravity? No one now objects to following.. .the results consequent on this unknown element of attraction.. (Darwin, 1861: p. 514)

In 1863, he takes a reviewer to task for sneering at his use of the expression "of one primordial form into which life was first breathed" and counters that these words "serve to confess that our ignorance is as profound on the origin of life as on the origin of force or matter" (Darwin, 1863: p. …

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