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Darwin Correspondence Project

Rewriting Origin - the later editions


6 editions of 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin
6 editions of 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin
Wellcome Library, London

If I lived 20 more years, & was able to work, how I shd. have to modify the “Origin”, & how much the views on all points will have to be modified.— Well it is a beginning, & that is something.

For such an iconic work, the text of Origin was far from static. It was a living thing that Darwin continued to shape for the rest of his life, refining his ‘one long argument’ through a further five English editions.  Many of his changes were made in response to comments in correspondence – with friends, strangers, supporters, and critics – and, taken together, letters and publications form a series of overlapping conversations with colleagues, reviewers, and the reading public.

It is hard to remember now that Origin was not the book that Darwin set out to write. He didn’t anticipate any further editions not just because he didn’t expect it to be so popular, but because he saw it as a temporary stop-gap.  He still intended to resume work on his ‘big book’ (never published, but which he had intended to call 'Natural Selection'), and assumed that that would displace Origin, and remove the need for any updates beyond straightforward corrections.  He was determined to keep his resolution of ‘not wasting more time on the origin’, and saw the second English edition and the US edition, both of which came out just weeks later, solely as a chance to make corrections or additions that had arrived too late to be included in the first.

My work will have to stop a bit for I must prepare a new edit. of that everlasting origin, & I am sick of correcting.—

Darwin found revision itself a horrible chore, and resented the interruption to his other work, but with each subsequent edition he not only became reconciled to Origin’s independent existence, but increasingly anxious to keep it up to date with scientific advances.  By Origin’s 10th birthday, he was prepared to threaten his US publisher with taking his business elsewhere if they weren’t willing to produce a new edition:  ‘I feel sure that the continued large sale of this book in England, Germany & France has depended on my keeping up each edition to the existing standard of science’ (to Charles Layton, 24 November [1869]).

From the 3rd edition on, each English edition up to the 6th (the final one published in Darwin’s lifetime) was prefaced by a long list of alterations. Tracing the history of the editions through Darwin’s correspondence reveals the pressures that led to many of these changes.  While some were improvements in style, and a few corrected errors, the bulk responded to criticism, added new facts to hammer home his points, or revised and expanded his thinking. Stung by a reported comment from Richard Owen that 'we do not want to know what Darwin believes & is convinced of, but what he can prove'  Darwin moved noticeably away in later editions from using the first person (see Barbara Bordalejo, Introduction to the Online Variorum of Darwin's Origin of Species). Not all the changes were linear: wording might be introduced in one edition only to be dropped later, and some changes appeared first, or only, in the foreign editions, especially the US editions and the French and German translations, where Darwin was often closely involved in the texts. In the end, Darwin oversaw five French translations and four German translations, and there were also translations during his lifetime into Danish, Dutch, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. 

Each edition had its own preoccupations and its own particular cast of correspondents, but some conversations wove in and out through several editions: a long-running disagreement about the age of the earth; just what he meant by the word ‘creator’; how organisms had become geographically dispersed, whether white blue-eyed cats really were invariably deaf, and a widely misunderstood reference to whales and bears. Even the term 'natural selection' came under fire, and Darwin supplemented it by using Herbert Spencer's 'survival of the fittest' in the fifth and sixth editions. His ‘historical sketch’, first added to the US edition to counter criticism that he had overlooked the work of others, had to be enlarged for the third edition to acknowledge an anticipation of his theory by Patrick Matthew in an 1831 treatise on naval timber, and in later re-writings itself became a place for skirmishes over priority with Richard Owen

In contrast to the text, the physical appearance of the first four editions remained almost identical, with no changes in the typeface, size or binding. The fifth had a different cover, and smaller margins to accommodate a mass of new material, but the sixth was very different: a cheaper, consciously ‘popular’ edition. Darwin knew that this was the last one he would publish, and his letters show how determined he was to make the most of this final shot at converting the world.


Key dates:


1st to 2nd editions

I have heard from Murray today that he sold whole Edition of my Book on first day, & he wants another instantly…

Darwin heard that a new edition was already needed on 24 November 1859, the same day that the first edition was published.  Although he modestly described the second edition as ‘merely a reprint of the first with a few verbal corrections & some omissions’, he pulled out all the stops to cram in the changes that mattered to him most.

Darwin’s friends were still sending comments on the proofs of the first edition as it was rushed to press. ‘I am incessantly receiving letters with references’ he told Murray, with friends suggesting expansion ‘in many places’. Chief among these was Charles Lyell, instrumental in shaping both the first and second editions.  As he read the proof sheets from September to November 1859, Lyell buried Darwin under a blizzard of letters (see especially letter to Charles Lyell, 11 October [1859] and letter from Charles Lyell, 4 October 1859).  Despite having finished corrections to the proofs by 11 September Darwin was still trying to incorporate Lyell’s corrections as late as 20 September.

I have heard of only one blunder & that not my fault.—

Lyell was responsible for several second edition changes including on the origin of domestic dogs, but the change that went to Darwin’s heart was the deletion of a reference to supposed fossil evidence for what he fondly called his ‘Secondary whales’ - whales from the Mesozoic (‘Secondary’) period.       

Of the long list of changes he had ready to send to the publisher, Darwin highlighted the addition of an acknowledgement to Alfred Russel Wallace in the concluding summary (Origin 2d ed., p. 484), a revised estimate of the age of the earth, new passages on ‘fossil birds’, ‘nascent organs in contradistinction with rudimentary organs', and ‘the theological bearing of the views advocated’.   

This last one was a welcome endorsement from the religious author Charles Kingsley, a chaplain to the queen, which Darwin seized on eagerly, getting permission to quote prominently from Kingsley’s letter in the revised summary: A celebrated author and divine has written to me that “he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.” (Origin 2d ed, p. 481).


2nd to 3rd editions; US edition

By June 1860 Darwin was at least open to the possibility of a third edition, asking his publisher if one would be needed ‘soon, ever, or never’.  By November 1860 he had heard that it was, and it was already on the shelves by April 1861.

I mean to leave all future Editions of the “Origin” (as far as I can tell) in its present state with the additions now sent.—

In the meantime, in July 1860, a ‘revised and augmented’ American edition of Origin had come on the market. It incorporated many of the changes Darwin had made to the second English edition, but still contained some material which he had removed; it also included a number of significant alterations and additions that were only later incorporated, in a somewhat modified form, to the third English edition, so for a short while the American audience had the most advanced version of the text available.  (Read more on Darwin's additions to the US edition of Origin here.)

Principal among those additions was Darwin’s ‘historical sketch’, the backstory of evolutionary thinking putting his own work in context. The first version was apparently written in response to criticism from Baden Powell, among others, that he hadn’t sufficiently acknowledged earlier work.  According to a letter to Asa Gray he had yet to start it on 28 January, but on 2 February 1860 he told Herbert Spencer that it was already written.  It seems he was able to base it on text already drafted for the 'big book'

your story of the Black Pigs in the Everglades delights me

If Lyell was Darwin’s key correspondent for the first set of revisions to Origin, Asa Gray, who masterminded the US edition, was key to this second set.  Gray passed on an account by Jeffries Wyman, a professor of anatomy, of correlation between an animal’s colour and its immunity to poison (see letter from Jeffries Wyman, [c. 15] September 1860). Among pigs in a particular locality (originally said to be Florida but later identified as Virginia), only the black varieties could eat a particular plant, the paint-root, without their hooves falling off. Darwin added the account to Origin 3d ed., p. 12.  Its significance, as he explained to Wyman was in suggesting how natural selection could operate on colour, a seemingly otherwise unimportant characteristic. Wyman, like so many other correspondents introduced to Darwin in this way, was applied to repeatedly for information. He duly obliged, sending detailed observations on everything from rattlesnakes to bees’ cells.  Urgent questions on the thickness of the walls of bees’ cells were also directed to an old contact, the Cambridge professor William Hallowes Miller, and resulted in a correction.  


Less delightful were a three-way exchange with Joseph Hooker and Hewett Cottrell Watson, and a series of letters with the Irish botanist William Henry Harvey.   Darwin remained unconvinced by Watson’s assertion that accumulated minute variations could result in convergence in form and not just divergence, but nevertheless referred to Watson’s ideas in the US edition.  More fundamentally, Darwin was frustrated that Harvey, who had clearly spent a lot of time on the book, seemed so utterly to misunderstand its central argument. '[I]t seems to me' he complained 'that you do not understand what I mean by Natural Selection': whether the term was well chosen was to be a recurring theme.

A German translation by Heinrich Georg Bronn, to which Bronn added a critique of his own, was in preparation at much the same time as the US edition and Darwin built up another list of changes in response to Bronn’s comments.  (Like the US edition, Bronn’s second German translation, published in 1862, contained revisions not made in the English editions until the fourth, and some not made at all - for a reconstruction of the list see 'Origin: the lost changes for the second German edition')   Exasperated at his ‘many rather stupid reviewers’, Darwin declared that Bronn was the only one he meant to ‘treat with the respect of giving his objections with his name’, but his hope that he would never again have to make so many changes, was doomed to disappointment.


3rd to 4th editions

This reminds me that I am, as it were, reading the “Origin” for the first time, for I am correcting for a 2nd. French Edition; & upon my life, my dear fellow, it is a very good book, but oh my gracious it is tough reading & I wish it were done.—

By the time Darwin was told in February 1866 that a fourth English edition would be needed, he had already revised Origin for a second French edition.  ‘Natural Hist. progresses so quickly’, he complained to Murray, ‘that I must make a good many corrections.’

As with the other editions, the first criticisms of the third edition had arrived as soon as it was published.  Philip Lutley Sclater wrote a brief note correcting Darwin’s assertion that Madeira had no unique birds, clearly having missed the reference in the first two editions.

Everything which I have read during last 4 years I find is quite washy in my mind.

Once again Darwin had assumed no further editions would be needed, and struggled to pull all the changes together.  Many of these were made in response to discussions with Henry Walter Bates, friend and travelling companion of Alfred Russel Wallace, who only began corresponding with Darwin in November 1860, too late for the third edition.  

I rejoice that I passed over whole subject in the Origin, for I shd. have made a precious mess of it.

A specialist in tropical butterflies, Bates responded to requests for detailed information about colouration and mate choice, details that Darwin squirreled away for the 4th edition, and his use of natural selection to explain mimicry in butterflies delighted Darwin, who exclaimed that he had ‘most clearly stated & solved a wonderful problem’.Bates also provided a mass of new observations on geographical distribution, forcing Darwin to rethink his ideas about changes in plant populations during the glacial period.  Darwin was mortified though to realise too late that he had forgotten to include Bates’ work on variation along with a paper by Joseph Hooker on the Arctic.


4th to 5th edition

I have, also, had to correct a new Edit. of my “Origin”, & this has taken me six week, for science progresses at Rail-road speed.

(‘Rail-road speed’ in the late 19th century meant fast!)

Darwin worked on the fifth edition from Boxing Day 1868 until February 1869.  Among the changes were stories about locust dung and diseased partridge feet, and a sly dig at his old foe and former friend, Richard Owen (see the 'historical sketch' written first for the US edition). Readers from all over the world, such as a Dr Merrell, a homeopathic doctor from Iowa, continued to send him tidbits of additional information that were slotted in. In one unlisted change,  Darwin clarified his language about modification of use (from thorns for defence to hooks for climbing) when he realised a reference to ‘unknown laws of organic growth’ had been misinterpreted by the science-writer, and partner to George Eliot, George Henry Lewes. And he took the opportunity to include at least one change only previously made in the 3rd German edition.

I find old notes about this difficulty, but I have hitherto slurred it over.

In his Christmas Day letter to his old friend Joseph Hooker, Darwin asked for help responding to a serious criticism from the Swiss botanist, Carl Wilhelm von Nägeli, resulting in a substantial addition (Origin 5th ed, pp 151–3).   Nägeli had argued for an innate tendency to perfectibility in nature based on his view that plant species were chiefly distinguished from one another by features that offered no practical benefit. Hooker’s reply has been lost but can be partially inferred from the changes Darwin went on to make. ‘You have given me heart’ Darwin wrote back, ‘and I will fight my battle better than I shd otherwise have done’.

Perhaps the most significant changes though were on the old chestnuts of geographical distribution, and the age of the earth, with the Scottish geologist James Croll entering the roll-call of significant correspondents.


5th to 6th edition

Proposed Advertisement

Sixth & Cheap Edition of the Origin of Species (...... thousandth?)

With answers to the various objections recently raised against the theory of Natural Selection. (With a glossary of scientific terms??)

by Charles Darwin F.R.S.


By the time he had finished the corrections for the sixth edition Darwin was pretty clear it would be his last.  He agreed to have it stereotyped, with casts made of the printing plates so that further copies could be more easily and cheaply printed off: ‘I can see one great advantage,’ he wrote to his publisher, ‘that it wd stop me ever trying again to improve the style & to make additions’. (It didn’t quite work: there was one further corrected version of the sixth edition in 1876.)

I have been told on authority which I can trust that in Lancashire, workmen club together to buy the Origin.

Darwin had been pushing hard to make this final edition cheap enough for ordinary people to buy: the page size and typeface were altered in an attempt to keep costs low, and he was disappointed when the cover price was fixed at 7s/6d.  Even his proposal of 6s he thought rather high for a general public ‘accustomed to novels for 1s’. 

Other concessions to a larger target audience were also made.  Darwin persuaded John Murray to include a glossary of scientific terms which eventually ran to twelve pages.  Even the title changed, from On the Origin of Species, to the snappier The Origin of Species.

It was a final chance to answer criticisms and incorporate new facts, and Darwin went back to many of his old friends and former correspondents, including Lyell (now approached through his assistant, Arabella Buckley), Thomas Henry Huxley, Osbert Salvin, Abraham Dee Bartlett, George Busk, and William Henry Flower, asking for additional information or, in the case of Busk and Flower, requesting that they read through new text.  Joseph Hooker’s wife, Frances, dredged through her childhood memory for Darwin’s half-remembered stories of a pet mouse kept by her father.

But a major impetus for a new edition was to fight back against the dangerously damaging criticisms published by the Catholic zoologist St George Jackson Mivart.  Responding cost Darwin a great deal of time and energy and resulted in the addition of a substantially new chapter. ‘It is delicious the calm way you jaw up the imposter M.’ wrote Darwin’s son, William, who was following in the family tradition of helping his father with the proofs.  William’s appetite for vengeance had already been whetted by Thomas Henry Huxley’s review of Mivart: ‘I have read Huxley and enjoyed him awfully, it is delicious feeling Mivart’s bones crunching in one’s mouth’. Read more on Darwin’s relationship with Mivart here.

At the other end of the scale, Darwin took the opportunity to clarify a calculation of population increase in elephants in response to a letter published in the Athenaeum by a writer using the pseudonym ‘Ponderer’, and to reword another tiny point in response to comments from his family.

So many and such drastic changes, coupled with his own illness, delayed completion of the text, and caused all sorts of problems for the new French edition which had already begun using the text of the 5th English edition but had fallen behind during the disruptions of the Franco-Prussian war, and which Darwin was keen should be brought up to date.  Immediately on sending off the final page proof, Darwin was anxious for the book to appear as soon as possible, rather unfairly blaming the slowness of the printers.


I venture to prophesy that whatever clouds of dust the ‘powers of Doom’ (who is stupidity) may raise about the ‘Origin of Species’—it will remain fresh & helpful to all true students; and two thousand years hence—when my name is known only because it occurs in the ‘origin’ and learned scholars have decided that ‘Darwin’ was not a real person, but the assumed name of a society of distinguished naturalists who, being afraid of the Church, wrote under a pseudonym which is an obvious play upon the old English word ‘Daring’—earnest students will be drawing new ideas from your inspiration—and consoling themselves with the reflection that after all, Truth doesn’t die. 

Thomas Henry Huxley, 28 September 1871


Geographical distribution

One difficulty for Darwin in arguing for common ancestry, was to explain the existence of similar species in both the northern and southern temperate zones. In the first edition of Origin (pp. 377–8) he argued that, during glacial periods, temperate plants could have migrated through the tropical regions near the equator along mountain ranges – these would have become cool, while lower areas remained warm enough to preserve tropical plants.  

Joseph Hooker, with whom Darwin had been arguing on this head since long before Origin was written, had questioned whether tropical plants really would have survived in ‘so very cool a greenhouse’ and proposed instead that the distribution of plants and animals could be better explained by land-bridges and continental extension. Darwin finally admitted the difficulty in the fourth edition of Origin (pp. 450–1), but for the fifth edition was able to use James Croll’s theory of ice ages to explain the survival of tropical plants.  Croll postulated that ice ages alternated between hemispheres, with temperatures in the non-glaciated hemisphere rising (Origin 5th ed., pp. 450–61). Despite continuing scepticism from Charles Lyell, who was staying with the Darwins when Croll’s lengthy explanation arrived, Darwin seized on Croll’s theory ‘joyfully’.