Written more than 150 years ago, it was a book that upended the way human beings think about where they came from, challenged millennia of religious dogma and left people wondering whether there really was a god. And sometime Republican presidential primary front-runner Ben Carson once felt compelled to point out that it was encouraged by Satan.
Now, Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” has been voted the academic book that changed the world the most by a British academic publishing trade group.
“It’s not in the least surprising, and completely right, that On the Origin of Species won,” Alan Staton, head of marketing at the Booksellers Association, which came up with the list, said in a statement. “No work has so fundamentally changed the way we think about our very being and the world around us.”
Ahead of this month’s Academic Book Week, a project of Britain’s government-affiliated Academic Book of the Future project, 200 publishers submitted candidates. That list was then winnowed down to 20 titles by a committee of experts. Here are the finalists:
“A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking
“A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” by Mary Wollstonecraft
“Critique of Pure Reason” by Immanuel Kant
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell
“On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin
“Orientalism” by Edward Said
“Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson
“The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare”
“The Female Eunuch” by Germaine Greer
“The Making of the English Working Class” by EP Thompson
“The Meaning of Relativity” by Albert Einstein
“The Naked Ape” by Desmond Morris
“The Prince” by Niccolò Machiavelli
“The Republic” by Plato
“The Rights of Man” by Thomas Paine
“The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir
“The Uses of Literacy” by Richard Hoggart
“The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith
“Ways of Seeing” by John Berger
“Origin of Species” turned out to be the best of the best after the public was invited to weigh in, garnering 26 percent of the vote. Darwin even left “The Communist Manifesto” — Marx and Engels’s critique of capitalism that sparked 19th-century revolutions and shaped the course of two world wars and the Cold War — in the dust. Shakespeare, Plato and Kant rounded out the top five.
“Darwin used meticulous observation of the world around us, combined with protracted and profound reflection, to create a book which has changed the way we think about everything – not only the natural world, but religion, history and society,” Andrew Prescott of the University of Glasgow said in a statement, calling the work “the supreme demonstration of why academic books matter.” He added: “Every researcher, no matter whether they are writing books, creating digital products or producing artworks, aspires to produce something as significant in the history of thought as ‘Origin of Species.'”
Darwin himself was so scared by the implications of his theory — and the challenge it offered to people of faith — that he delayed publishing it in full for two decades. He “had no intention to write atheistically,” he wrote in 1860. But: “I cannot see as plainly as others do … evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to be too much misery in the world.”
“Darwin conducted years of meticulous research and he refused to rush into print,” Tom Mole, director of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh, said. “But he insisted on publishing his conclusions even when he knew they would be unpalatable to many at the time. The result was a book that made an immediate impact, and yet one that we are still coming to terms with. The fact that this book was written by a man who never held a university position, and that it was not published by a university press, should remind us of the importance of sustaining academic books in all their forms.”
Indeed, the Academic Book Week list seemed to endorse quite the flexible definition of books that are “academic.” Shakespeare, of course, wrote plays and poems; “1984” is a novel; and “The Prince” is a book of cynical — and perhaps even satirical — advice Machiavelli offered to impress the powerful Medicis of Italy in the 16th century.
“This list reminds us of the part evolution, reason, politics and creativity have always played in these discussions,” Samantha Rayner, head of the Academic Book of the Future project, said. “Academic books are ideas captured in text that connect people to each other — and this campaign proves, by the responses it has had, that though definitions of ‘academic’ may vary wildly, the right of these shortlisted titles to be considered as books that have changed the world is easier to agree with.”