The Evolution of Revision

Either this post should be titled “The Evolution of Revision” or “The Revision of Evolution.” Both fit.

It was inspired by a website, On the Origin of Species: The Preservation of Favoured Traces, by Ben Fry.

I am a Darwin fan, but, like most people, I think of his theory of evolution as a fixed notion – something finished. But the site shows how the theory and Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, “evolved” over the course of the editions he wrote, edited, and updated during his lifetime.

His first English edition was approximately 150,000 words and the sixth was 190,000 words.

Some of the changes are just minor refinements, but some are real shifts in the ideas.

Darwin brooded over publishing the book for a long time, so there was plenty of time for changes. He had his basic theory of “natural selection”in 1838, but twenty years later he was still not ready to publish his theory. Why?

Reasons usually given include his fear of religious persecution or social disgrace. He knew what his clergymen naturalist friends and his very religious wife, Emma, would think about it. He was also ill. He had published a paper (on Glen Roy) that was embarrassingly wrong, and that may have made him skittish. But it’s not that he didn’t publish during those years – he did, just not The Theory.

The second edition of Origin has the addition of “by the Creator” to the closing paragraph. Fry notes on his site that the phrase “survival of the fittest” which is so well-known and connected to Darwin and his theory of evolution, actually came from British philosopher Herbert Spencer and didn’t appear until the fifth edition of the book was published.

I discovered Ben Fry by way of his book, Visualizing Data, which is about computational information design. It was one I suggest to my students of visual design as a good hands-on guide about how to build a data visualization. With all the data swirling around us these days, being able to help people visualize it is important. His website on Darwin’s book is a good example of doing just that.

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation

Data Flow 2: Visualizing Information in Graphic Design