It is hard to talk about Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species without seeming overstated. But to his credit, it remains one of the most influential books ever written.
This Wednesday witnesses the 151st anniversary of Darwin’s seminal classic, whose impact has been felt by scientists worldwide, by Nazi eugenicists, and even by Irish writers. To this day there is only one other book that is so widely known, discussed and debated, yet so rarely read: the Bible.
The Origin of Species sold out on the first day of its publication in 1859. A century and a half later, his influence is felt by natural scientists, theologians, sociologists, political scientists and more. It has inspired a revolution in understanding human nature, but has also been severely misinterpreted.
The Origin of Species has even helped to shape Irish writing. The famous playwright and Trinity College graduate J. M. Synge wrote in 1892, “When I was fourteen I obtained a book of Darwin’s. My studies showed me the force of what I read, and the more I put it from me the more it rushed back with new instances and power.” Born Protestant, Synge later renounced Christianity. “Soon after relinquishing the Kingdom of God”, Synge recalled, “I began to take a real interest in the Kingdom of Ireland.”
It is a lengthy book; at times it is tedious, at times politically incorrect. In spite of its shortcomings, The Origin of Species continues to amaze its readers with 600 pages of pure human observation. J. M. Synge proves it: you certainly don’t need to be a scientist to read the book that changed biology forever.