In 2007, a few friends and I formed a graduate student group with the goal of reading and discussing Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Throughout our readings and scientific discussions of Darwin and his work, one quality of the manuscript stood out to us: it’s humanness. Scientific ideas were communicated clearly, and with linear thought, but also through examples of human experience, and in such a conversational tone that it was difficult not to try to imagine the man behind the words. The students in our group had purchased various editions of his book, later editions having more chapters than earlier editions. Some added chapters elaborated beautifully on scientific ideas, and some were composed of entirely the conflict between the idea of evolution by natural selection and the religious ideals of his time. It was a unique and fascinating documentation of his progression of scientific thought, and of the intense inner turmoil he felt over the debate his book inspired among his religious and scientific contemporaries. The experience led me to think about the communication of evolutionary biology in the context of “human experience” instead of a purely academic one. Darwin himself demonstrated that complex evolutionary ideas can be communicated effectively using common human observation and experience. In fact, for students (and non-students) who aren’t biologists, his book is an accessible guide to evolutionary theory from the everyday person’s perspective, and is fascinating from both scientific and social perspectives.
If you are interested in a sort of “reader’s guide” here are some websites and actual, real paper books that have excerpts and commentary.