Charles Darwin & Evolution

How did the victorian world respond to Darwin?

When Darwin first wrote to his friend and confidant Joseph Hooker detailing what he modestly called his ‘presumptuous’ and ‘foolish’ work on evolution and admitting that he had come to the conclusion that species are mutable, he said ‘it is like confessing a murder’. When On The Origin of Specieswas published, Darwin had finally confessed to the whole world. How would they react?

Confessing a murder

Darwin’s book immediately sparked debates across the world; huge numbers of book reviews, critiques and negative responses were published in the press. Many names of historical significance alive at the time had something to say on it; William Herschel, who introduced fingerprinting, called it ‘the law of higgledy-piggelty’; Marx and Engels, the founders of communism, referred to it as a ‘bitter satire’ on man. Much of the public response was occupied with the idea that Darwin was encouraging a ‘might is right’ approach to life and echoed Thomas Hobbes’ famous phrase “the war of all against all”. Amongst Darwin’s friends and those who shared similar views on life, it was received very differently; with interest and excitement.

Darwin was more worried about how it went down with his fellow scientists than with the public. Initially some big names came out against him, including Darwin’s old geology teacher Adam Sedgwick who wrote to Darwin ‘I have read your book with more pain than pleasure… you have deserted the true inductive path’; and Darwin’s old colleague and scientific giant Richard Owen was equally critical. However many of the new up and coming scientists such as Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley, Henry Bates, Ernst Haekel, Darwin’s protégé John Lubbock and of course Alfred Russel Wallace leapt to Darwin’s defence. Huxley in particular was very outspoken in his support of Darwin’s theory, even attacking the credibility of some of his detractors, which often enticed strong counter-attack. So strong was Huxley’s approach he earned the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog”. Owen and Huxley in particular had few kind feelings for each other and exchanged insults in the press. Through all this, Darwin largely kept his nose out of things, safely hidden in the comfort of Down House, trying to tease out what reviewers thought of his science amidst all the politics and rhetoric.

Clash of the titans

Clash of the titans

Early ideas of evolution, long before Darwin, had angered the church. With Darwin’s new ideas, complete with a theory that explained how and why evolution happens, many of the old guard of ‘Natural theologians’ (religious people who worked in science with the aim of unravelling the workings of the creator) as well as religious bodies responded very negatively to Darwin’s book.

One of the most famous clashes between the young guns of science and the old establishment of religious scientists and bishops came in Oxford, at the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford. Darwin didn’t attend the meeting; he was, as he usually was, sick. The big debate was between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, coached by Richard Owen, and Thomas Huxley. It was a full house; in front of an estimated 1000 people Wilberforce laid into Darwin’s theory for about half an hour. According to Hooker’s report to Darwin he spoke with “ugliness & emptiness & unfairness”. Legend has it Wilberforce decided to finish his speech with a joke, asking Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his grandmother’s or grandfather’s side. Huxley responded with this:

‘If… the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means & influence & yet who employs these faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape’

Ouch! After Huxley, both Lubbock and Hooker spoke in defence of Darwin’s theory. Hooker also reported to Darwin that ‘a grey haired Roman nosed elderly gentleman’ spoke against Darwin raising a bible above his head and demanding the audience to believe God’s word. This was Darwin’s old friend Captain Fitzroy from the H.M.S. Beagle. After a heated debate both sides claimed victory.

A partial victory

A partial victory

Darwin kept plodding on with his work, publishing accounts of evolution in plants and animals, including humans, all the while adding to the bulk of evidence he had accumulated. As the scientific world came to terms with Darwin’s collection of theories more and more evidence mounted in favour of evolution being true. Travelling naturalists, such as Henry Walter Bates in Brazil, sent reports back from around the world of cases where they were applying Natural Selection theory to understand their observations. Bates studied mimicry in butterflies and described what is now known as Batesian mimicry. When an organism, in this case a butterfly, protects itself from being eaten by tasting horrible or being poisonous they advertise to predators that they aren’t worth eating by being brightly coloured. Bates found that many different species of butterflies which share this distasteful defence mechanism have converged on the same colour patterns; they mimic each other; this is Batesian mimicry, which Bates concluded could only be explained by evolution.

Examples like this added to the support for Darwin’s theory. Increasingly evolution was being applied to different fields, with the same positive result; it worked. By the 1870s Darwin was already seen as a revolutionary scientist and his theory was largely accepted. Even Darwin’s hero, Charles Lyell, who had previously dismissed evolution in favour of creationism, after much soul searching, came to the conclusion that Darwin was right. Lyell’s ability to accept the evidence for evolution, in spite of his strong religious beliefs testify to his brilliance as a scientist.

However not all of Darwin’s ideas were accepted so readily. Almost all scientists came to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution through common descent within his lifetime. However his theories of the multiplication of species, gradualism, and his greatest theories of natural and sexual selection were much less widely accepted. It wasn’t until the modern synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s that natural selection became the centrepiece of evolutionary biology, and sexual selection received little attention before 1970! The fact that Darwin’s ideas took so long to be accepted shows us two things: how far ahead of the game Darwin really was, and how science rigorously tests evidence and considers different ideas before firmly accepting a theory.

A hero’s farewell

Darwin died on April 19th 1882 at about 4pm. It was Darwin’s wish to be buried in the local churchyard in Downe; at St. Mary’s church along side his brother and the children he had buried. However, such was the esteem that Darwin was held in, key figures in British science and society insisted upon a burial at Westminster Abbey, an honour reserved for the nation’s finest. Darwin was laid to rest on 26th April 1882, with a state funeral, in front of the heads of many great institutions and MPs.

His death was widely reported across the world, in many places making front page news. His obituaries, even by those who didn’t necessarily agree with his views, were glowing. Alfred Russel Wallace perhaps captured the moment best, describing Darwin as:

'the philosopher who has wrought a greater revolution in human thought within a quarter of a century than any man of our time – or perhaps any time. He has given us a new conception of the world of life, and a theory which is itself a powerful instrument of research; has shown us how to combine into one consistent whole the facts accumulated by all the separate classes of workers, and has thereby revolutionised the whole study of nature'

Written by Stephen Montgomery

References & Further Reading

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin
by Charles Darwin (Edited by Francis Darwin), The Thinker's Library: 1929

by John van Wyhe, Andre Deutsch: 2009

by Adrian Desmond & James Moore, Penguin: 1991

Evolution: The History of an Idea
by Peter Bowler, University of California Press: 1983

The Evolution of Darwinism
by Timothy Shanahan, CUP: 2004