The Great (R)evolution: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

From “Voyage of the Beagle”; illustrated by John Gould

Few books have so profoundly changed the way we see the world as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The book’s 1859 publication, along with the appearance of The Descent of Man a dozen years later, sparked an intellectual revolution that radically altered thinking about the nature of human beings and our place in the natural world. Darwin’s ideas have subsequently rippled through our scientific, social, religious and moral thought.

Though now almost universally accepted in the scientific world, Darwin’s ideas continue to rouse opposition from a substantial portion of the public in North America and elsewhere a century and a half after their introduction. The turbulent history of the Origin’s composition, publication and public reception illuminates important questions about the role of science in public affairs and the relevance of science as a way of knowing the natural world.

Darwin’s two major works are eminently readable and non-technical. On the Origin of Species lays out his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. In The Descent of Man, Darwin applies his theory to humans and argues for the continuity of human faculties of intelligence, emotion and morality with those found in other species in the animal world. Carefully argued, abundantly supported by evidence, and anticipating almost every counterargument, Darwin’s elegant treatises are a model of scientific reasoning displaying a brilliant mind at work. Through discussion of extensive portions of both books, we will follow and evaluate the case that Darwin makes for his theories and consider how they have changed our world.

“Thus we have given to man a pedigree of prodigious length, but not, it may be said, of noble quality.”

– from The Descent of Man



Mark Cwik is the education manager for Classical Pursuits. He is a longtime Toronto Pursuits and trip leader and has been an organizer of adult great books discussion groups for 25 years. He lives in London, England, where he leads seminars with the London Literary Salon.

The Annotated Origin: A Facsimile of the First Edition of On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, annotated by James T. Costa
(Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0674060173

The Descent of Man, by Charles Darwin
(Penguin Classics, 2004)
ISBN-13: 978-0140436310

Participants are required to obtain the specified edition to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion. Details will be provided at registration.

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