Evolution in History: Darwin Publishes the Origin of Species Part 3

About Charles Darwin and how he published the Origin of Species, his biography including his theory about natural selection and the process of evolution, publication and criticism of the theory.


WHEN: 1859

On the 1st day of publication, the entire print run of 1,250 copies sold out at 15 shillings each. The book quickly became a great--if controversial--classic in scientific literature.

Many scientists opposed it. Herschel, the astronomer, called the theory the "law of higgledy-piggledy." Sedgwick, a geologist, wrote to Darwin, "I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I laughed at until my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow."

However, there were many scientists who were for Darwin. One was Thomas Huxley, who said he was "sharpening his claws and beak in readiness" and was "prepared to go to the stake" to defend Darwin. He also called himself "Darwin's bulldog."

The Church was against the book. It contradicted the 1st chapter of Genesis, and, by implication, said that man had an ancestor in common with the ape, which people immediately misinterpreted to mean that man was descended from the monkeys. The theory soon became known as Darwin's "monkey theory."

Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, called Origin of Species an "utterly rotten fabric of guess and speculation." A meeting was held in a library--so crowded with people that some were sitting on the window ledges--where Wilberforce spoke against the theory, using information from Richard Owens, Superintendent of Natural History at the British Museum. Wilberforce, nicknamed "Soapy Sam," made an eloquent speech. Then he turned to Huxley, who had come to the meeting, and said, "Is it on your grandfather's or your grandmother's side that the ape ancestry came in?" People laughed. Then Huxley gave his answer: "I asserted, and I repeat, that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for an ancestor. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would be a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by aimless rhetoric and distract the attention of his hearers from the point at issue by digressions and appeal to religious prejudice." Pandemonium followed, during which there were fistfights and a lady fainted. The furor continued right through the Scopes trial in Tennessee 43 years after Darwin died.

Some used Darwin's theory for their own ends. Language experts said the fittest words survive. In Nazi Germany, it was used to justify the extermination of the Jews.

The man around whom the furor raged was a gentle, sickly, kindly person, with blue eyes, a balding head, and a long, shaggy beard. He was modest to a fault, once saying about himself, "I have no great quickness or apprehension of wit." He had 10 children, whom he loved dearly. He liked to read Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll and said that all novels should have a happy ending.

He listened to the criticisms, evaluated them, and revised his work in light of his evaluations. He said, "If I am wrong, the sooner I am knocked on the head and annihilated, so much the better."

He wrote several other books, including The Descent of Man. On April 15, 1882, he died; he was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Newton.

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