Darwin: Marvels of a Riverbank

Published May 26, 2013-Updated July 15, 2020

At the end of the “Origin of the Species” (1859) Darwin writes about a riverbank:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Darwin, Charles. 2011. On the Origin of Species. Empire Books. End. )

How do we get from these laws of evolution, which seem so simple at first hand, to the complexity and strangeness of life that surrounds us, and also exists within us? Evolution creates a world of mutation and uncertainty, and it transcends the limited, fixated, and self-oriented frameworks that we still use to understand ourselves and our surroundings.

For more about the philosophical problems underlying the concepts and laws of evolution, see my other posts on the topic. Here are some websites for more information on evolution: