Can a single book change the world? In 1859, Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of the Species became an instant bestseller – and swiftly took its place as the lightning rod for controversy it has been ever since. Positing his theory of evolution, Darwin’s book charted the process of natural selection acting upon random mutation, by which a species might adapt to its environment to such an extent that it could become another.
This was not the first time such theories had been rehearsed: Charles Lyell and Richard Owen alike had mooted similar hypotheses, although had done so based rather more squarely in religious theory. Counter-intuitively, it was the scientific community, not the religious one, which first gave Darwin his stiffest challenges, however: On the Origin of the Species did not transform science – and therefore the world – at a single stroke.
These controversies, however – widely publicised at the time and, then as now, stoked in the press – were perhaps responsible for the huge public appetite for Darwin which the publication of On the Origin of the Species occasioned. A relatively dry scientific tome in a period of luridly serialised novels, it sold more than 100,000 copies before 1901; it has powered thinking surrounding everything from nineteenth-century debates about poverty and twentieth-century eugenics theories; even more strikingly, it continues to be the focus of debate today, and central to our culture’s understanding of ourselves.
Can a single book change the world? One thing is for certain: the ideas contained within one can.