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The Rhetorical Structure of Darwin’s Origin of Species

Original Article

Darwin faced a steep persuasive challenge in his masterwork the Origin of Species. As his notebooks (1837-1839) amply show, from the earliest stages of his theorizing Darwin thought long and hard about the problem of persuasion. The Origin can usefully be sectioned into five parts: 1) The introduction explains how he came upon his theory and previews its structure; 2) The first four chapters explain the elements of his theory: selection, variation, competition and the resulting differential adaptation; 3) A fifth chapter explains inheritance; 4) chapters 6-13 comprise the bulk of the book and simultaneously rebut objections and confirm Darwin’s case; and 5) chapter fourteen summarizes his argument. With a little leeway for chapter five the Origin roughly follows the five part pattern of a classical oration with an exordiam, to place the judge in a favorable state of mind, a narration, to give the background necessary to the argument; a confirmation/refutation designed respectively to support one’s thesis and rebut one’s opponents’ (the order of these elements being variable and may be intermixed as circumstances require) and a peroration to summarize the argument and drive it home.

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