The Reading Room

Darwin’s The Descent of Man and The Origin of Species: From the Liberty Fund Rare Book Room

Liberty Fund's founder had an abiding interest in the history of science. His library contains works by Boyle and Newton, and he listed Galileo, Avicenna, Ptolemy, and other scientific thinkers on the wall in the Goodrich Seminar Room. When I noticed that a lot of visitors to the OLL had been arriving by way of our online text of Darwin's Origin of Species, I thought it might be fun to see what Goodrich's copies of Darwin looked like.
As ever, I was in for a treat. Pierre Goodrich has two copies of Darwin in his library. The first is the classic Modern Library single volume omnibus edition of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.
Inside, as we've all come to expect by now, is a clipping Goodrich took from a 1955 issue of Time Magazine of a review of a new book about Darwin. You can read that full review here. The book, written by Willian Irvine, is titled Apes, Angels, and Victorians, and the review that caught Goodrich's eye is charmingly titled "Barnacles for All."

But it's the edition of Darwin's Descent of Man that appears at the head of this post that really delighted me. Because that's a mint condition, two volume first edition of Descent of Man, in a lavishly bound, gilt trimmed and gilt edged edition that's so pristine it looks like it came from the bookseller yesterday instead of in 1871.The marbled endpapers (you know I have a soft spot for them) are gorgeous. To me they have the look of a natural substance that reflects the book's scientific content. That the bookbinder has wrapped the cover's gilded edges all the way around to the reverse of the cover signals the prestige of the book and its binding.

And take a minute to appreciate the precision of the engraved plates that accompany Darwin's text. This book must have been a prized highlight of its original owner's library. 

The content of Darwin's works changed our understanding of the natural world and humanity's place in it. But, for those who haven't explored his work, it is worth recalling that it is not just ground-breaking scientific work. It is also important philosophically. He writes, in Descent of Man:
“The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable—namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man. For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.”
The beauty of the binding, in other words, seeks to do justice to the wisdom within. 


Todd Myers

Great quote and thoughtful aesthetic insight.