Beardy biologist's withering takedown of creationism fetches $564,500 at auction

Debut adventure of tween occultist goes for $150,000

A first-edition copy of history's most influential takedown of creationism has sold for $564,500 at auction, the highest amount yet for the tome.

The handsome green leather-bound book – Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, of course – was among the library of American racehorse breeder and philanthropist Paul Mellon, who died aged 91 in 1999.

The winning bid more than doubled the presale estimate of $120,000-$180,000 and Mellon's collection as a whole raked in $1.9m during the auction on 5 November.

Lumbersexual poster boy and biologist Darwin began to shape his evolutionary theory as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, a Royal Navy vessel turned survey ship, from 1831-1836, stopping in at Brazil, the Falklands and, most famously, the Galapagos among many other locations.

He continued to collect data that supported the notion and had "a sketch of the conclusions" written up 20 years before his landmark work turned the Victorian worldview upside down in 1859.

The tl;dr of natural selection – as he called it – is that over a long period of time creatures that are good at surviving survive and creatures bad at surviving die. There's a lot of stuff in Origin about mutation and inheriting characteristics that make surviving easier, but also the struggle Darwin had convincing peers that he was right.

It was a scandalous book in its day because it refuted the creationist doctrine that life in all its diversity was snapped into existence fully formed by God. "Design implies a designer" and all that. Darwin argued it was actually a chaotic and lengthy process, and that made him a very naughty boy in the eyes of the Christian establishment.

Since about 1870, however, the scientific community has held his theory as fact. Like dynamite dealer Alfred Nobel, Darwin also has an award named after him, but instead of recognising scientific advancements, it is given out to those who "significantly improve the gene pool by eliminating themselves from the human race in an obviously stupid way".

So it's easy to see why a first edition would be coveted by collectors.

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Somewhat more surprisingly, a signed first edition of JK Rowling's debut novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, went for $150,000 at the same auction, smashing its presale estimate of $80,000-$120,000 and making it the second highest price for the Brit author's work.

It is understood that the series about the magical adventures of a tween occultist is quite popular, spawning several Hollywood adaptations.

Other notable sales included Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations for $112,500 and Isaac Newton's Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica for $212,500.

Gretchen Hause, director of fine books and manuscripts at auctioneer Hindman, said: "Active bidding across all channels combined to energize the room and the strong prices realized reinforce the strength of the market for fine copies of the most significant works in a variety of collecting fields. We are thrilled with today's exceptional results, setting a record sale total for the department."

You can get both books on Amazon, at £8.99 apiece. ®

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