Cincinnati NoondayAK Carey45 Comments


Presented at Noonday by A.K. Carey  in 1997

This is a paper about the evolution of evolution as much as it is about Charles Darwin and his experiences on the Beagle. Let me begin by explaining what that means and how I came to be interested in a subject that seems so far from my field of literature.

When I first read Tennyson’s In Memoriam, I was struck by how profoundly Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection had increased Tennyson’s pain at the death of his friend Arthur Hallam. Then I found out that Darwin didn’t publish The Origin of the Species until 1859, almost 30 years after Tennyson wrote In Memoriam.  What, then, was in the air that Tennyson was breathing that caused his agonized description of “nature red in tooth and claw”  that shrieks against the belief in a loving God?  The answer is that in 1830, there was plenty in the air. Notions about evolution had been around for a long time, and the Victorian scientists, especially the geologists, were offering evidence for some very unsettling hypotheses that flew in the face of comfortable orthodoxy, both religious and scientific.

In this paper, I will try to trace the development of the scientific thinking on the subject of evolution, and then explain what Charles Darwin brought to the party. His voyage on the Beagle was of primary importance, but equally important was the learning that he took with him. When he set sail in 1831, his mind was as well packed as his 10’x 11’ cabin.

Charles Darwin was 22 years old in December 1831 when the Beagle set off for what turned out to be a 5 year, zigzag voyage to the new world. Three years earlier he had failed out of the University of Edinburgh. But, though he never fulfilled his father’s ambition that he become a doctor, he did manage a university degree on his second try, this time from Cambridge. At this time in his life, he was prepared to fulfill his father’s wishes and take holy orders, to settle down into the life of a wealthy rural clergyman with ample time to hunt, socialize, and collect beetles. This vision pleased his father and did not displease him.

Then came the opportunity to explore South America and the antipodes. His father objected strenuously. He would be miserably uncomfortable in the tiny Beagle (the ship was only 90 ft long and 24 ft wide). He would be sick. He would be useless. The place must have been offered to others who refused it for good reasons. Such an interlude would, said the elder Darwin, be “disreputable to his character as a clergyman.”   It was time for him to get about the business of his life, to settle down and begin his career.

Charles could not go without his father’s approval. He had to buy his place on the voyage, and equip himself for what was anticipated to be the 3 year sojourn. But fortune intervened in the form of Charles’ Uncle Josiah Wedgewood, who pleaded Charles’ case until Robert Darwin gave his permission. The stage was set for a voyage of discovery far more significant than the collection of trophies he brought back that included 3,907 animal pelts, bird skins, bones and fossils, and a live baby Galapagos tortoise.  For on this voyage would germinate in his mind the answer to the question of the beginning of things with which thinkers had been struggling at least since Aristotle. And though the human mind had come close, no one until Darwin devised a theory that explained both how and why life forms came to be as they are.

But in September of 1831, Darwin’s mind was completely occupied with preparation for his journey.  He, or rather his father, had to pay 500 pounds for his place on The Beagle. He had also to buy books, a telescope, a rifle, measuring apparatus, writing materials, knives and preservatives for skinning and preserving specimens, and all the equipment he would need for 3 arduous years. All of this to be fitted into a cabin measuring  10 x 11 feet which he shared with two other men, a large chart table, 3 chairs and the mizzen mast which passed straight through the middle of the room.

But of more interest than the physical preparations were Darwin’s intellectual preparations. His cabin was certainly stuffed with materials, but his mind equally was stuffed with the latest scientific thinking of the period. Though he had always been an indifferent student, his fascination with science had begun when he was 10. At the Universities he neglected his Greek, Latin and moral philosophy, but he had absorbed the latest scientific, social and economic hypotheses. By the end of his voyage, he was equipped with all that he needed to make one of the great leaps of human thought. He had tested existing hypotheses against observations and evidence, and, within 18 months of his return, would put them all together into a simple, coherent, logical and well supported theory of biological evolution by means of natural selection.

In so doing, Charles Darwin removed the hand of God from the equation of species and geologic development. He also removed man from his throne at the center of all life. The earthquakes and tidal waves, a futile experiment with the aborigines from Tiera del Fuego, the finches of the Galapagos, and the mountains of fossils showing lost worlds, shattered his conventional religious and scientific assumptions.

But not so for the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy.  He started the voyage as an arch conservative, protector of the status quo, and he returned even more rabidly convinced of the rightness of his beliefs. Though he was only 4 years older than Darwin, and they formed an immediate friendship, that friendship dwindled in the course of the 5 year journey due to increasingly different opinions about the place of man and God in the evolution of life, and to FitzRoy’s uncontrollable temper which gave him the nickname of “Hot Coffee,” because he so easily boiled over.

But whether FitzRoy believed them or not, when the Beagle set sail, theories about evolution, the development of new biological forms from earlier ones, were at least 2000 years old. Empedocles tells us that “all things happen as if they were made for some purpose; being aptly united by chance, these were preserved, but such as were not aptly made, they were lost.” (Darwin 29). And Aristotle argued that there has been an evolution from simple to more complex forms. Augustine likened creation to the growth of a tree from a seed which becomes a tree only through a long slow process in accordance with the environment in which it finds itself.

Augustine’s theory suggests the importance of the influence of the environment on forms of life. This dogma dominated RC belief throughout the Middle Ages and most of the Renaissance. But by the beginning of the 17th century, the official line of the church was to repudiate the possibility of any form of evolution of one kind of living thing into another. The official party line was Special Creation.

Special Creation was the notion that each form of life on earth was individually created by God, and had remained unchanged since its creation. Behind this notion of Creationism lay the belief in intelligent, providential design. The very facts of 17th century science seemed to support this belief in deliberate design as scientists recognized that fins, feathers, hearts, and lungs were admirably adapted to the functions they served. These observations suggested that the fitness and efficiency of all parts of living things could not have arisen by chance. Here was a rational argument in favor of God’s existence and in favor of the primacy of mankind. God had obviously designed man to have dominion over all other life. And by extension, for many fundamentalist Christians like FitzRoy, for white men to rule over all other races.

This Argument from Design was the standard teaching of the Christian church from the middle of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th. With this belief, the church was set to rigidly oppose the ideas of evolution and any other movements that would remove man from his throne.

This became the basis of one of the ongoing quarrels between FitzRoy and Darwin. When the Beagle arrived in South America, Darwin, for the first time, had a direct encounter with slavery. He loathed it.  FitzRoy, on the other hand, believed in the natural superiority of white men, and felt that slavery was natural and God-ordained. The two men argued heatedly over the rights and wrongs of the slave trade, and after an especially bitter row, FitzRoy told Darwin to leave the boat and find his own way back to England. Though the Captain sobered up and apologized, the incident indicates how volatile and unstable FitzRoy was, an instability that would end in suicide when he slit his own throat in 1865, at the age of 60. The initial friendship gradually dwindled into civil tolerance and in the end, Darwin said that in FitzRoy there was “always much to love, and I once loved him sincerely; but so bad a temper and so given to offense, that I gradually quite lost my love and wished only to keep out of contact with him.” (Darwin 238).

But though FitzRoy’s emotional defense of the fundamentalist view of creation was extreme, it was, nevertheless, more typical of general belief of his day than were the ideas of the evolutionists. Still, by the early 1800’s, scientists, for nearly a century, had been collecting evidence and asking questions that mortally threatened the belief in Special Creation. Carolus Linnaeus, writing in the early 1700’s does not question the belief in Special Creation or that each living organism was purposefully created to fill a niche. But he struggles to make Special Creation fit the circumstances of the observed world.  He suggests that all living things might have originated from a single mountainous island surrounded by ocean. By placing this island near the equator, and making the mountains tall enough to be home to arctic animals, he created an environment in which conditions might be right for each form of life on earth. But the question that remained unanswered for Linneaus and others was how the different species fanned out from this universal environment to their present day homes.

The Frenchman, George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, writing in the mid 1700’s argued against Linneaus’ hypothesis by pointing out that none of the animals of the torrid zone of Africa was the same as those from the similar zone of South America. He concluded that, therefore, these species had not all migrated from one central point, but had risen in the region in which they were found at that time. This clearly implied some form of evolution and suggested that species evolve to fit their environments.

Yet, Buffon was not prepared to dismiss the idea that species had been originally produced by the Creator. He developed an idea of a kind of reverse evolution. He talked about the “degradation” of the original forms into the forms we see today. Bison, he said, were a degenerate form of oxen and apes were a degenerate form of humans.

At the end of the 18th century, Jean Baptist Lamarck and Charles Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, independently came up with a theory of evolution that was predicated on the inheritance of acquired traits.   For Lamarck, nature was a graded series of types arranged in order from the most microscopic and simple to the largest and most complicated (Beginners p. 41). The difference between Lamarck’s ideas and those of earlier periods, however, was that he saw this great chain not as a stairway but as an escalator (Beginners 41). All creatures, he argued, are in a struggle to become as complicated as man. All are constantly moving upward.

In time, this would leave the bottom steps empty. To solve this problem, Lamarck found it necessary to argue for a series of spontaneous creations with inanimate matter constantly reforming itself into animate matter.

Lamarck suggested that this upward progress was directed in part by the shaping power of the environment. According to Lamarck, the natural habits of creatures would lead to modification of their anatomical structures. A wading bird would wade in deeper and deeper water in order to feed itself. In so doing, it would stretch its legs to keep its body dry. Once this change was acquired, it would pass the modification on to the next generation. Conversely, the disuse of an anatomical structure would lead to shrinkage and this too could be inherited by its progeny. (Beginners 42).

Erasmus Darwin, writing much less systematically in England at about the same time as Lamarck was writing in France, puts it into poetry in Zoonomia:

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves

Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;

First, forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,

Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;

These as successive generations bloom,

New powers acquire and larger limbs assume

Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,

And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

(Darwin 43-4)

In later verses, Erasmus Darwin describes the fierce struggle for existence, with animals fighting one another and plants competing for soil, moisture, air and light.  But he missed making the connection between this struggle and changes in life form that his grandson would make a hundred years later.

Though the mechanisms were wrong, the assumptions of Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin that species are not fixed and unchanging and the importance of environmental factors would be the foundation of Charles Darwin’s theories published in 1859 in The Origin of the Species.

Such was the status of the thinking of the biologists in 1831 when Charles Darwin set sail on the Beagle. All of these tentative steps toward a theory of changing life forms were violently opposed by unbending religious belief, and that made sharing knowledge and progress halting and risky.

Darwin saw first-hand on his voyage, however, that life forms did mutate and change. He saw this both in the fossil record and in the living creatures that he found in the Galapagos and the plains of Argentina. Here he found that physical separation allowed different characteristics to arise, though environments were very similar, as in the Galapagos.  This points to the end of notions about special creation. It became impossible to believe that God would have created one shape of tortoise shell or bird beak for the turtles or finches on one island and a different shaped tortoise shell and beak for tortoises and birds on another island 20 miles away.

His voyage also did away with belief in the power of humans to rearrange the world to fit their theories. Darwin saw this in two experiences: first in the debacle with the Fuegians and second in the great Conception earthquake and tidal wave.

The experiment with the aborigines of Tierra del Fuego was designed and carried out by Captain FitzRoy (no human subjects panel to approve this one), and it had a sobering effect on Darwin’s thinking. In 1830, FitzRoy had captained an earlier trip to South America, and in the course of an encounter with some very hostile aborigines in Tierra del Fuego, he had ended up with 3 of the natives whom he took back to England to “civilize.”

The three aborigines were given “Christian” names, York Minister, Jemmy Button and Fuegia Basket, and were taught European ways. FitzRoy’s goal was to return them to their native environment, with an English missionary, so that they could teach their countrymen and Europeanize them.

The Beagle arrived at Tierra del Fuego on December 17, 1832 and Darwin was amazed at the savagery of the natives and the bleakness of the place.  Darwin says “I could not have imagined how great was the difference between  savage and civilized man. It is greater than between wild and domesticated animals.” (Darwin 61). The Beagle sailed away leaving the three Europeanized natives and the missionary,  with equipment, arms and a few shacks to protect them from the sweeping, frigid wind and vile weather.

Nine days later, FitzRoy sailed back to find the camp in tatters and the missionary desperate to leave. The camp had been repeatedly attacked, and all the equipment and food had been stolen. FitzRoy took the missionary, but left the three Fuegians and promised to return in a year.

The ship returned in December of 1833 to find that the experiment had failed miserably.  The “subjects” of the experiment had reverted to their former “savage” ways and could no longer even communicate with the Europeans. This experience, as much as any other, taught Darwin the power of adaptation and the weakness of human understanding. Behavior that is well adapted to its environment is not so easily changed my human intervention no matter how white the skin of the experimenters.

Geology was another emerging field that profoundly influenced young Darwin’s thinking. Much was being discovered by the geologists, and this branch of science was somewhat less circumscribed by “traditional family values” than was biology.

By the 19th century, the dicta of 17th c Archbishop James Ussher were no longer binding the human intellect to a Biblical calculation of time. Ussher had stated in 1620 that Adam was created at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Oct 23rd, 4004.B.C.

But even when Ussher was stating this final word, Galileo and Descartes were hypothesizing a universe created by natural forces involving matter spread through space. These were the beginnings of attempts to explain the origin of the earth in terms of natural forces (Darwin 84).

The invention of the microscope at the end of the 17th century made clear for the first time that fossils were the remains of once living creatures and were related to life forms still in existence. Then a Danish scientist, Steno, argued that the layers of fossils represented strata laid down at different time periods with the oldest on the bottom and the most recent on the top.  This seems so obvious to us now that we can hardly imagine a time when it wasn’t understood, but the Biblical arguments for the Garden of Eden and for Special Creation of each species, full, complete and eternal, forbade the belief in lost species and worlds.  And even Steno did not posit a contradiction between his hypothesis and the teaching of the Bible.

But by the beginning of the 1700’s, it had become increasingly clear that the Biblical account of creation and the flood did not square with the evidence of the rocks.  The challenge was taken up by our friend Buffon in 1778 when he describes the history of the earth solely in terms of natural processes. In order to do this, however, he had to reject Ussher’s 6000 year, biblical time scale. In Buffon’s schema, earth began as a ball of molten rock which gradually cooled, was covered with water out of which life arose. From his experiments with cooling balls of iron, he argued it had taken the earth 75,000 years to cool to its present temperature.

Buffon’s theories of retreating oceans uncovering successive layers of rock laid down by earlier epochs is called Neptunism. A Frenchman, Jean Guettard argued in the 1750 for an alternative theory of earth formation by means of volcanic activity. This theory has been called {Vulcanism} or Catastrophism, the belief that the earth had been formed by a series of great cataclysms, such as the Biblical flood and that life was created anew after each, a series of Special Creations.

James Hutton working in 1797 first argued that the earth was not formed by great acts of violence like the biblical flood, but by the same processes of wind and weather that we see around us every day.  All that was necessary for these forces to do their work was time, lots and lots of time.  This school of thought was called “Uniformitarianism” and was very influential on young Charles Darwin. But in the early 1800’s, Uniformitarianism was rejected in favor of Catastrophism.

But, it was impossible to keep the fossil record from telling its story. In 1824, the first dinosaur was described, and about that same time, William Smith, a canal builder realized that each layer of rock contained distinctive fossil types. And, further, that the oldest rocks contained only invertebrate species, such as trilobites, and that successively younger rocks contained fossils of fish, then reptiles, then mammals.

It was against this background in 1830 that Charles Lyell produced his Principles of Geology which so profoundly influenced the young Charles Darwin and the young Alfred Tennyson as well. Lyell’s subtitle makes his thesis clear: “An Attempt to Explain the former changes in the Earth’s surface by reference to causes now in operation.”  This is Hutton’s Uniformitarianism, revived and supported by 40 years of new evidence.

Darwin found much support for Lyell’s theories on his voyage. The discovery of fossil fishes and bands of shells and corals far above sea level, petrified forests, and jumbled geologic terrain showed the evidence of the combination of great forces with gentle, persistent, gradual changes over vast periods of time to bring about the geological formations he found all around him.

While sailing up the west coast of South America, Darwin experienced the forces that build mountains and tear away sea coast. In January of 1835, they watched the eruption of Mount Osorno and a few days later he saw  the large and very European city of Conception flattened by the combined forces of an earthquake and the tidal wave it spawned. In Darwin’s words, the coast “looked as if a thousand great ships had been wrecked.” (Darwin 75). The earthquake made him realize, more than any experience up to now, how frail was human effort in the face of natural forces, and how insignificant the works of man compared to the power beneath his feet. This experience, taught him that nature does not operate on a scale to fit man’s convenience or assumptions. Evolutionary change takes time, and nature does not function on the insignificant time reckonings of man.

Lyell had argued much the same thing. But though he argued for the evolution of the earth’s form, he brought up Lamarck’s theories of the evolution of life forms only to refute them. Lyell argued that species were distinct and unchanging units. Though he realized that as environments changed, some species were replaced by others better fitted to the new environment, he still argued that biological evolution had not and could not occur.

But is spite of the often violent rejection of even the possibility of biological evolution, the findings of the geologists were profoundly disturbing to thoughtful people. If whole species had vanished, where was a loving God? Why had He created species only to destroy them? Wasn’t nature God’s handmaiden, the vehicle for carrying out God’s perfect order and love? Was there no plan? Or if this was the plan, what kind of God would devise one so cruel?

Tennyson, in his great poem In Memoriam in 1833, expresses these doubts and fears suggested by Lyell’s notions of a careless and destructive nature.  The scientific theories of the day join with the death of his friend Arthur Hallam to bring him face to face with the possibility of an uncaring and distant God that he is not able to recognize or contemplate. At his nadir of grief and hopelessness he cries out:

Are God and Nature then at strife,

That Nature sends such evil dreams?

So careful of the type she seems,

So careless of the single life.


So careful of the type?” but no.

From scarped cliff and quarried stone

She cries, “A thousand types are gone;

I care for nothing, all shall go.


“Thou makest thine appeal to me:

I bring to life, I bring to death;

The spirit does but mean the breath:

I know no more. And he, shall he,


Man, his last work who seemed so fair,

Such splendid purpose in his eyes,

Who rolled the psalm to wintry skies,

Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,


Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law-

Though Nature red in tooth and claw

With ravine shrieked against the creed-


O life as futile then and frail!

O for thy voice to soothe and bless!

What hope of answer or redress?

Behind the veil, behind the veil.


Tennyson’s cry of agony and doubt was not published until 1850, but it was begun soon after Hallam’s death in 1833. The death of his 22 year old friend makes agonizingly real to him, the implications of an unguided universe where man is only one more species with no special purpose or relationship with the creator.  If man is not made in God’s image, if his soul is not eternal, then what is the meaning of life and what is the meaning of death?

It is likely that Darwin still subscribed to the church view of Special Creation when he set sail on the Beagle. He was, after all, going to take holy orders on his return. But Darwin took with him Lyell’s first volume, and received the 2nd volume while in South America.  The juxtaposition of Lyell’s evolutionary explanation of the earth’s formation with Lamarck’s evolutionary explanation of biological formation (even though rejected by Lyell) must have presented the young Darwin with several of the building blocks of his own theory that forced him to reject the teachings of the church.  He later wrote “I always feel as if my books came half out of Lyell’s brain (Darwin 97). But the other half, came out of the fossils and earthquakes,  tortoises and finches, armadillos and Fuegians that he encountered on his 5 year voyage on the Beagle.

The other thread in the skein of Darwin’s mental clothing was from a far less elevated source, the barnyard. Farmers had long been aware that livestock of the same species exhibit an extraordinary variety of forms which are inherited by their offspring. They also realized that selective breeding could alter species and give rise to new strains with desirable characteristics. No matter how passionately the church preached the immutability of life forms, farmers had been proving its fallacy for centuries.

Even though the pieces of Darwin’s theory were in place in December 1831 when he set sail, it was the experiences of the voyage, recollected in tranquillity, that brought them all together:  From Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin, the notion of biological evolution from simple to complex forms; from Hutton and Lyell, the notion of incremental changes over vast periods of time; and from the animal breeders, Lamarck, and later from Thomas Malthus the shaping power of the environment and the survival of the fittest.

And from the journey, he gained much that provided flesh and glue to support and connect the ideas that were in the air the Victorians were breathing.

  1. He saw the succession of types: not the disappearance of species in great catastrophes, but their ongoingness, the similarity between the fossils of extinct mammals (armadillos, specifically) and the skeletons of the still living species. He said that “admittedly the extinct forms were larger, but their formal resemblance is too striking to be accidental (Beginners 75). Darwin would later see this vertical succession as evidence of continuation with modification.
  2. He saw representative types: In other words, in adjoining geographical areas there were types of ostriches that were distinct but very similar. Darwin saw this not as evidence of special creations, but as evidence of change due to geographical separation.
  3. He had the evidence of Ocean Islands. The church argument that God designed each species for its geographical conditions would lead you to expect that all species in the same geography would be similar. But this isn’t what Darwin found. He found that Cape Verde, off the coast of Chile, and the Galapagos 1000 miles away, had very similar environments and very dissimilar species. The species on each of island were more similar to those on the nearest mainland than they were to each other. This was especially evident in the Galapagos where environmental conditions were more or less identical, but where each island had its own distinct population of birds and animals. Darwin would later see that oceanic separation, even small distances, left populations to vary independently.

But this did not all gel in his mind while he was on the voyage. These experiences and observations had to be recollected in the serenity of a quite traditional marriage and family life, in the deep seclusion of Down House, his life-long home outside London. Here his notebooks show that by the end of 1837, 18 months after his return, he had rejected the notions of Special Creation and had come to the conclusion that living things must alter in order to remain adapted to their environments. Darwin came to the conclusion that nature was an open-ended process of “becoming.” (Beginners 92). If this were not so, over time, the changing earth would have become depopulated as creatures were no longer adapted to the changing environment. He further concluded that new species “evolved from their outdated predecessors.” (Beginners 94); This was belief in “descent with modification.”

Before long he realized that evolution was not a single line of ascent. Simple organisms could give rise to more complex ones without necessarily vanishing in the process. The image he used was not Buffon’s escalator, but a tree with new shoots springing out from the parent tree. Thus the similarities among living species are the result of their having inherited a basic plan from a common ancestor which is now extinct.

But this theory, while it explained Darwin’s observations from his journey,  did not guarantee the appropriateness of these adaptations. In other words, he had the evolution part, but not the survival of the fittest (also called “natural selection”) part. One part of the puzzle was put into place when he read Thomas Malthus On Population . In this work, Malthus argues for the survival of the fittest in the struggle for insufficient resources. Malthus’ mathematical calculations led Darwin to identify the principle that the struggle for existence provided the directive principle that allowed profitable variation to endure and be passed on and maladapted variation to disappear.

By 1839, at the age of 30, Darwin had a workable theory that explained the development of design in terms of chance. By bringing together the principles of random variation and blind competition, he successfully eliminated the need for providential action. (Beginners. 114). But fear of ridicule and condemnation forced Darwin to keep this work secret. He was publishing his other findings: on coral reefs, on “Volcanic Phenomena and the Elevation of Mountain Chains”, several books on the geology and natural history of the countries visited on the voyage, and a monumental 3 volume work on barnacles. But no mention in any of these important works of his ideas on evolution. Not only could he not write about his theories, there was no one with whom he felt free to discuss them.  And it made him sick, persistently, debilitating sick for the rest of his life.

Darwin had been amazingly healthy on the voyage, one bout with food poisoning was all that has been reported. But from 1837, a year after his return, for the rest of his life, and he lived to be 71, his periods of feeling well rarely lasted more than a few months. The first symptoms were stomach cramps and headaches, but in the years that followed he endured violent skin disorders, eczema, rheumatoid pains, insomnia, body swellings, and heart palpitations.  All kinds of theories have been offered for the source of these illnesses, but many have suggested that these health problems arose from the internal conflict over his work developing the theory of evolution and natural selection , work that he carried on in secret throughout the 1830’s, 40’s and 50’s

Darwin wrote a sketch of his theory in 1842 and a fully supported essay which he circulated among a few of his friends in 1844.  Yet Darwin waited 20 years to publish his theory. Put simply, he was afraid.

His theory flew in the face of traditional values and beliefs. Evolution and natural selection challenged belief in Biblical infallibility and in the world view that placed human beings at the center of the universal scheme of things. Even though, Darwin trusted science more than he trusted religion, his conclusions were hard to come to terms with. Further, he knew that in revealing his theory, he would be attacked by his critics and that his ideas would be corrupted by the press for political or circulation purposes. Best to keep it to himself and his inner circle.

So imagine Darwin’s horror when he read an essay that he received in the mail from Alfred Russel Wallace, an obscure young scientist who was working in Malaysian.  Wallace outlined a theory suggesting natural selection as an essential part in the development of living things. So similar were the two men’s ideas that the terms Wallace used had stood as heads of Darwin’s chapters in his 1844 essay.

Darwin was devastated. He felt that he would have to support Wallace’s hypothesis and renounce his own primacy. He said “I would rather burn my whole book than he or any other man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit.” (Beginners 124).

But his friends who had read his earlier essay in 1844 insisted that he publish it. Darwin finally agreed that he and Wallace would publish the essay jointly. And that is what they did. They published an article in the Journal of the Linnean SocietyOn the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties: and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.”

Far from bringing rejection and mockery, the theory was welcomed at the time by much of the scientific and intellectual community.  “As with other scientific revolutions, it had been preceded by a long period of conflict and doubt, during which the inconsistencies of the traditional dogma had been widely recognized. When the new theory arrived on the scene, it was welcomed for bringing coherence and intelligibility” (Beginners 125). Huxley, Hooker, and, of course, Wallace were among Darwin’s most fervent supporters. It was, in fact, T.X Huxley who, when he read The Origin in 1859 said “How stupid not to have thought of it before.”

But others objected strenuously. Most churchmen attacked the work as a heresy. Several clergymen labeled Darwin an antichrist and called him the “most dangerous man in Europe.”  Many reputable scientists dreaded the moral implications of extending such a theory to mankind and others said they had found logical fallacies in Darwin’s argument. For popular consumption, the popular press lampooned and distorted Darwin’s beliefs, misleading the public as to what the theories of evolution and natural selection are really about. Such misconceptions are with us still. And legitimate scientific questions remain, as evidenced by the letter to the NYT op-ed page Oct 29 of this year.  But Darwin’s great work stands today, especially in light of our continuing knowledge of genetics, (and remember, Mendel’s work was completely unknown to Darwin), on stronger scientific ground than it ever has.

But whether feared or praised, misunderstood or grasped, Darwin’s hypothesis was absorbed into the consciousness of his age, bringing with it doubt, sorrow, amusement, and challenge. As few others have done, this retiring and sickly country gentleman and biologist changed forever the way human beings think of themselves and their relationship to their world.


Darwin, Charles. Voyage of the Beagle. Ed Janet Brown.      London:Penguin Books, 1989.


Eisley, Loren. Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It. New York: Doubleday, 1961.


Miller, Jonathan. Darwin for Beginners. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.


Tennyson, Alfred. In Memoriam. New York: Norton, 1973.


White, Michael. Darwin: a Life in Science. New York: Dutton, 1995.

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