Darwin’s 200th Spawns a Publishing Boom


It’s been feeling a lot like survival of the fittest out there these days, so perhaps it’s apt that 2009 marks a major jubilee for Charles Darwin. February sees the 200th anniversary of his birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, and publishers are celebrating with a slew of Darwin-related titles. Harvard’s Belknap Press will publish a facsimile of the original 1859 edition of Origin, annotated by biologist James Costa; and for those who’d prefer a less musty sampling of the book, there’s also a forthcoming Vintage Classics edition — complete with a stylish cover design. [Editor’s note: We’re waiting for this one from Penguin, which has a Damien Hirst-designed cover; the artist talks about that here.]

A slew of new nonfiction titles also revisit Darwin’s classic tome. In Darwin’s Island, Steve Jones uses the scientist’s work as a springboard for intriguing musings on natural history, while Sean B. Caroll’s Remarkable Creatures traces the discoveries that preceded and confirmed his theory of evolution. Both Darwin and Abraham Lincoln get the Gopnik treatment in the New Yorker scribe’s Angels and Ages, and Darwin’s Sacred Cause, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, examines the naturalist’s abiding commitment to the abolition of slavery. Finally, those who slept through high-school biology can catch up with Jerry Coyne’s handy refresher, Why Evolution Is True. The revival isn’t even limited to the book world — Swedish avant-pop group the Knife are apparently preparing a Darwin opera for later this year. (Expect masks!)

Pondering Darwin does bring rather cold comfort in this rough economic climate. Who wants to think of themselves as unfit, after all? Yet Origin is worth (re)reading for its evolved prose alone. Writing on natural selection, Darwin muses, “As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so . . . I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.” Darwin’s erudition was itself the product of a life of voracious reading. As a young man, he once wrote up a list of pros and cons for getting married. Among the arguments against: “less money for books.”

In these times, here’s to more money for books, and more time for everything and everyone else.