Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 40, Issue 3, pp 529–556 | Cite as

The Preface to Darwin’s Origin of Species: The Curious History of the “Historical Sketch” *

  • Curtis N. Johnson


Almost any modern reader’s first encounter with Darwin’s writing is likely to be the “Historical Sketch,” inserted by Darwin as a preface to an early edition of the Origin of Species, and having since then appeared as the preface to every edition after the second English edition. The Sketch was intended by him to serve as a short “history of opinion” on the species question before he presented his own theory in the Origin proper. But the provenance of the “Historical Sketch” is somewhat obscure. Some things are known about its production, such as when it first appeared and what changes were made to it between its first appearance in 1860 and its final form, for the fourth English edition, in 1866. But how it evolved in Darwin’s mind, why he wrote it at all, and what he thought he was accomplishing by prefacing it to the Origin remain questions that have not been carefully addressed in the scholarly literature on Darwin. I attempt to show that Darwin’s various statements about the “Historical Sketch,” made primarily to several of his correspondents between 1856 and 1860, are somewhat in conflict with one another, thus making problematic a satisfactory interpretation of how, when, and why the Sketch came to be. I also suggest some probable resolutions to the several difficulties.


abstract Baden Powell “big species book” Charles Lyell Darwin’s priority Historical Sketch J.D. Hooker plagiarism T.H. Huxley 


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© Springer Science+Business Media, B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lewis and Clark CollegePortlandUSA

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