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Now in Paperback: The Annotated Origin

The Annotated Origin: A Facsimile of the First Edition of On the Origin of Species

Written by Charles Darwin, Annotated by James T. Costa

Harvard Belknap, paperback 2011

There have been innumerable reprints of Charles Darwin’s paradigm-changing work On the Origin of Species since it was first published in 1859, and the best of these, published by Harvard Belknap in 2009 and now issued in paperback, is James T. Costa’s magnificently annotated facsimile version, previously praised here.

Those of you who might have missed this volume back in 2009, no doubt overwhelmed by the Darwiniana unleashed on the reading world by any anniversary hoopla publishers (bless their black little hearts) perhaps eager to make a little money, should take advantage of this paperback release of The Annotated Origin to savor one of the finest examples of passionate engagement with a text that I’ve ever read.

The secret to Costa’s success isn’t just he’s steeped himself in every quote and comma of every separate edition of Darwin’s work and the works connected to it, although he’s clearly done that (the sheer breadth of reading in his annotations is astonishing). Rather, what makes his edition shine is its passionate appreciation of that original text. Despite his humble pronouncements on the import of his book, Darwin was well aware its revolutionary potential. Costa writes from the top of that mountain, aware of legacies Darwin could scarcely have conceived. The result is a dialogue that’s never less than fascinating.

At several points in On the Origin, Darwin draws near to the logical conclusions of his concept of natural selection only to hesitate, to blunt menace by subverting it into mechanism:

Finally, it may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brothers – ants making slaves – the larvae of ichneumonidae feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars, – not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.

Costa is quick to seize on the ambiguities here:

To me, this chapter ends on a poignant note. Putting aside the reason and logic inherent in his foregoing arguments, here Darwin seems to be offering his emotional response to many of the instincts of animals. His letters and notebooks suggest that he is repulsed at the cruel and macabre behaviors out there, and prefers to think that a benign and benevolent deity would not create such horrors.

And because Harvard Belknap has given this volume ample room for its annotations, Costa can elaborate a bit further:

… It was one thing to create beings that had to kill to survive, but quite another to create beings that made their living by inflicting unending pain and malady, or that killed in what seemed an unnecessarily horrific manner. Darwin preferred to think of the biological world as governed by laws, these being far more preferable to a creator with a penchant for cruelty or indifference to suffering. The final part of this remarkable paragraph proclaims his vision: the general law of natural selection leads to the “advancement of all organic beings”; through the grand sweep of time they vary, multiply, and survive or not as best they can.

“The Origin” Costa tells us, “has its dense passages, but in places the book is nothing short of lyrical.” Readers who’ve plowed through the text without benefit of a guide as skilled and sensitive as Costa might have missed the lyricism. Those readers – and everybody else who’s ever wanted to read Darwin’s monumental book or give themselves an excuse to re-read it – are urged to add this volume to their libraries.