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Darwin’s Tangled Bank in Verse

Editor’s note: PLOS Biology is delighted to post this ode to nature on behalf of PLOS cofounder Mike Eisen.

The title page of the 1859 edition of Darwin’s Origin.

My daughter has to memorize a poem for a school performance, and asked me if I knew a good poem about nature. There are, of course, many good ones, but I really wanted her to have the most poetic thing ever written about nature – the last paragraph of Darwin’s Origin of Species – rendered in verse. So I gave it a try.

The Tangled Bank

Contemplate a tangled bank
Clothed with many kinds of plant
Insects and birds flitting about
Worms crawling through the damp

Reflect that these elaborate
And differently constructed forms
Have been produced by such a simple set
Of ever acting norms

Growth, reproduction and inheritance
Variation to transmit
Natural selection then leading to
Extinction of the less fit

From the war of nature
From famine and from death
Follow the most exalted species
To have ever drawn a breath

There is grandeur in this view of life
And its powers not yet gone
Having been originally breathed
Into a few forms or just one

From as simple a beginning
As could ever be resolved
Endless forms most beautiful
Are continuously evolved.

Here’s the original:

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin, age 7, by Ellen Sharples.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

  1. […] Recent advances in sequencing technology have brought us the complexity of microbial metagenomes from oceans, soils and guts. These massive datasets of the combined genome sequences of hundreds or thousands of cohabiting bugs are presumably capturing a mere snapshot from an incredibly dynamic interplay between mutating, competing and adapting populations. How can we hope to tease apart these tangled banks? […]

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