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April 2022

The evolution of Charles Darwin

In the late summer of 1859, Whitwell Elwin, editor of the respected British journal the Quarterly Review, was sent an advance copy of a new book by the naturalist Charles Darwin.  Elwin read the book with interest and agreed that it had merit, but feared that the subject matter was too narrow to attract a wide audience.  He urged Darwin to write a book about pigeons instead.  "Everyone is interested in pigeons," he observed helpfully.
Elwin's sage advice was ignored, and "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" was published in late November 1859.  The first edition of 1,250 copies sold out on the first day.  It has never been out of print, and scarcely out of controversy, in all the time since -- not bad going for a man whose principal other interest was earthworms and who, but for a single impetuous decision to sail around the world, would very probably have passed his life as an anonymous country parson known for his interest in earthworms.
After several fits and starts as a young man, Darwin acquired a degree in diviinity and seemed destined to live a life of a rural vicar when lured away by a more tempting offer:  He was invited to sail on the naval survey ship HMS Beagle essentially as dinner company for the captain, Robert FitzRoy, who chose Darwin in part because he liked the shape of Darwin's nose.  Fitzroy's assignment was to chart coastal waters, but his passion was to seek out evidence for a literal, biblical interpretation of creation.  Because Darwin trained for the ministry, he seemed a natural to invite along.  That Darwin subsequently proved to be not only liberal of view but less wholeheartedly devoted to Christian fundamentals became a source of lasting friction between them.  
One thing Darwin didn't do on the voyage was propound the theory of evolution.  It wasn't until he got back to England that the idea began to percolate through his mind that life is a perpetual struggle and that natural selection was the means by which some species prospered while others failed.  It seems a simple idea but it explained a great deal.  
Interestingly, Darwin didn't use the phrase "survival of the fittest" in any of his work, and he didn't use the word "evolution" until the sixth edition of "Origin."  He kept his theory to himself because he well knew the storm it would cause.  He locked his notes away for years before putting them in manuscript form and sending them to the editor who suggested something on pigeons.
Darwin spent his later years on other projects, including playing the piano to worms to study the effects of sound and vibration.  He died in 1882. His theory didn't gain widespread acceptance until the 1930s and 1940s.
He is buried in Westminster Abbey next to Isaac Newton.
Oh, and if you want to buy a first edition of "Origin," one can be had for around $7,500.  It seems prices have evolved, too.

Sources:  "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson.

This Month's Puzzler
On April 22, 1707, this man was born into a noble English family in
Sharpham, Somerset, England. By age 30, he had written 25 plays, most of
them well regarded in their time but not remembered today. In his early

30s, he became a lawyer, and eventually a magistrate. He continued to
write on the side, however, and ultimately became one of England's great
writers (Sir Walter Scott called him "the father of the English novel").
His best-known work was the 1849 picaresque novel "The History of Tom
Jones, a Foundling." He is widely quoted as saying:

"If you make money your god, it will plague you like the devil."

Who is this man? (Answer below)
If it's Thursday, book jacket covers must be free
Don't forget that we will put archival dust jacket covers on any three of your books free on Thursdays.  We're a little obsessive about those covers  -- OK, abnormally obsessive -- and most of the hardbacks in Printed Page have them.  The covers protect book dust jackets from tears and soiling and can give books a bright, fresh appearance.  Our dust jacket technicians are expert at installing the covers, often holding onlookers in rapt attention as they demonstrate their technique.  See you Thursday! 

Puzzler answer

Henry Fielding. If you like our Puzzler, find more on our Facebook page.  
Thanks to Dr. Mardy Grothe for the use of his puzzler.  Visit him at

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