Dov Ospovat's book, originally published in 1981, has become generally accepted as one of the most influential books about Darwin published in recent years. Ospovat examines the period of 1838–1859 in detail, and shows that Darwin's views changed quite radically from his initial belief that animals and plants were perfectly adapted to their environments, and that evolution only occurred when the environment changed, to believing that living things were not perfectly adapted, were in constant competition with each other and hence, were continually evolving. By placing Darwin within the other biological developments of the day, Ospovat is able to show that he was not the scientific recluse of popular myth, that there was a theological basis for much of Darwin's original 1838–1844 theory and that his later 'principle of divergence' was influenced by his belief in evolutionary progress. This seminal work should be read by all those interested in the history of modern biology.
List of illustrations
Note on manuscript citations
Introduction: Darwin and his fellow naturalists
1. Darwin and the biology of the 1830s: some parallels
2. Darwin before Malthus
3. Natural selection and perfect adaptation, 1838–1844
4. Part II of Darwin's work on species
5. Natural history after Cuvier: the branching conception of nature
6. Darwin and the branching conception
7. Classification and the 'principle of divergence'
8. The principle of divergence and the transformation of Darwin's theory
9. Natural selection and 'natural improvement'
Conclusion: the development of Darwin's theory as a social progress
"a brilliant, groundbreaking book, the first full-blooded attempt to relate Darwin's science to the biology of his day."
– Adrian Desmond
"It continues to be the best general treatment of the history of British biology of the decades immediately preceding the Origin of Species."
– Nicolaas A. Rupke
"a landmark in Darwinian studies."
– Stephen Jay Gould
"an impressive, erudite and provocative book."
– Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
"The style is clear, the narrative fascinating. It is an original and important contribution to the Darwin literature."
– New Scientist
"[...] remains an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the formation of Darwin's theory in his 20 years of work after returning from the Beagle."
– C. U. M. Smith, Annals of Human Biology