Saturday, 30 November 2013

(On the) origin of (the) species

Recently I went to the Hancock Museum in Newcastle. I had a look round their shop and saw this iPad cover designed to look like the jacket of Charles Darwin's book On the origin of species.

The trouble is, as you can see, it says Origin of the species. This is a reasonably common mistake: the content words are present and the 'little words' get mixed up or left out. Doesn't matter? Well, maybe not, but maybe it does.

The way Darwin wrote it, it's clear that it refers to the process by which there are lots of different species (natural selection). The way it's written on this cover, it might do, because the plural of species is species. But it easily might not, and I suspect that it doesn't in the minds of the people who make this mistake. After all, one of the major ideas in this book is the idea that humans are descended from apes, so it's natural for people (self-centred as we are) to think of it as being about the origins of the human species.

Does it matter? Well, I think so, because humans are not the most important thing in the world, no matter what we may think. To us, though, we are. It would just be nice if people designing (quite expensive) products to sell could take two minutes to make them accurate.


  1. Ooh, you can't say 'humans are descended from apes'. Well, you can, but that's not what Darwin wrote. Humans and apes have common ancestry. It would be more accurate to say 'humans evolved from an earlier, ape-like species'.

    But you're quite right about the title - people are always getting it wrong. If only he'd come up with something snappier, like IT'S ONLY NATURAL! Which could then have become a long-running sitcom.

  2. Well, OK, construing 'ape' quite broadly so as to include ape-like creatures. I'm sure we'd call these common ancestor creatures apes, wouldn't we? (No, you are right, of course, and point taken!)