Paper No. 10
Presentation Time: 10:15 AM


ALLMON, Warren, Paleontological Research Institute, 1259 Trumansburg Road, Ithaca, NY 14850,

On the Origin of Species is almost always included in lists of “great books”, but the definition of this term, and even its legitimacy, have varied and been highly controversial over the past century. Mortimer Adler, who drew up one of the most recent lists for Encyclopaedia Britannica (including the Origin), gave three criteria for including a book: 1) it has contemporary significance; i.e., relevance to the problems and issues of our times; 2) it is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit; and 3) it is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.

How does the Origin measure up using these three criteria, especially as it relates to geology? It surely has contemporary significance, not only in speaking to the history of life but also to the history of the Earth, in whole and in parts. The Origin is also surely inexhaustible. Between its soaring view of life and its catalog of particulars, there is much to (re)discover with every reading. And it is absolutely relevant to the “great ideas”, for the Origin does not so much tell us what the history of the Earth and its life was, as it articulates and perfects the principles, first broached by Lyell, for how those histories can be reconstructed. The power and beauty of this technique never go out of style.