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On the origin of species - Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection

Title page of featured workTitle page of The origin of species, 1859The image shown here depicts the title page of a first edition of On the origin of species, Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking work that transformed our understanding of humanity’s place within the natural world. In this text, Darwin proposed some of the most radical ideas of the 19th century – the theory that evolution occurred by a process he called ‘natural selection’, along with the implication that humans are descended from apes.

Darwin initially formed these ideas in the 1830s, but did not publish his theories for 20 years, due to their controversy. His work offered a theory on the development of humankind without the need for a creator, a theory that undermined Victorian Christian beliefs. Aware of the subversive implications of the work, he once stated that writing On the origin of species was ‘like confessing a murder'.

Published in 1859, On the origin of species shocked many readers and the text generated much public debate, including famous public discussions between scientists and theologians. However, the work also attracted a great deal of positive attention, and rapidly became a bestseller. Five updated editions were published within Darwin’s lifetime and the text was translated into a number of different languages. On the origin of species is now considered one of the most important works of biology ever published, with its theories underpinning modern Western thought.

The copy featured here was previously owned by Sir Gavin de Beer (1899-1972), professor of embryology at University College London and director of the Natural History Museum. His former library is now held in the Foyle Special Collections Library, with the collection including a near-complete set of Darwin's publications, all in their original bindings.

In this exhibition

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