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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 Species was published, Darwin had finally confessed to the whole world. How would they react?
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.
‘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.
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.
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
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