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Reaction to Darwin's theory

This article deals with Darwin's life during the period from 1859 to 1861, including immediate reactions to his publication of The Origin of Species. For the modern controversy see Creation-evolution controversy.

The reaction to Darwin's theory came quickly after the publication of Darwin's theory which had followed twenty years of development of Darwin's theory of evolution.

Charles Darwin's work led to the publication of his controversial book On the Origin of Species.

This article includes the context of his life, work and outside influences at the time.

See inception of Darwin's theory, development of Darwin's theory and publication of Darwin's theory for events leading up to this article, and Darwin from Orchids to Variation for the following period.




Darwin's ideas developed rapidly from the return in 1836 of the Voyage of the Beagle. By December 1838 he had developed the principles of his theory. At that time similar ideas brought others disgrace and association with the revolutionary mob. He was conscious of the need to answer all likely objections before publishing. While he continued with research, he had an immense amount of work in hand analysing and publishing findings from the Beagle expedition, and was repeatedly delayed by illness.

Natural history at that time was dominated by clerical naturalists who saw their science as revealing God's plan, and whose income came from the Established Church of England. Darwin found three close allies. The eminent geologist Charles Lyell, whose books had influenced the young Darwin during the Voyage of the Beagle, befriended Darwin who he saw as a supporter of his ideas of gradual geological processes with continuing divine Creation of species. By the 1840s Darwin became friends with the young botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker who had followed his father into the science, and after going on a survey voyage used his contacts to eventually find a position. In the 1850s Darwin met Thomas Huxley, an ambitious naturalist who had returned from a long survey trip but lacked the family wealth or contacts to find a career and who joined the progressive group around Herbert Spencer looking to make science a profession, freed from the clerics.

This was also a time of intense conflict over religious morality in England, where evangelicalism led to increasing professionalism of clerics who had previously been expected to act as country gentlemen with wide interests, but now were seriously focussed on expanded religious duties. A new orthodoxy proclaimed the virtues of truth but also inculcated beliefs that the Bible should be read literally and that religious doubt was in itself sinful so should not be discussed. Science was also becoming professional and a series of discoveries cast doubt on literal interpretations of the Bible and the honesty of those denying the findings. A series of crises erupted with fierce debate and criticism over issues such as George Combe's The Constitution of Man and the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation which converted vast popular audiences to the belief that natural laws controlled the development of nature and society. German higher criticism questioned the Bible as a historical document in contrast to the evangelical creed that every word was divinely inspired. Dissident clergymen grew concerned about the morality of cruel dogmas, and Benjamin Jowett's 1855 commentary on St. Paul brought a storm of controversy.[1][2]

By September 1854 Darwin's other books reached a stage where he was able to turn his attention fully to Species, and from this point he was working to publish his theory. On 18 June 1858 he received a parcel from Wallace enclosing about twenty pages describing what seemed the same theory as Darwin had been working on. Darwin put matters in the hands of his friends Lyell and Hooker, who agreed on a joint presentation to the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858. Their paper were entitled respectively On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.

Publication of The Origin of Species

Darwin now worked on an "abstract" trimmed from his Natural Selection. The publisher agreed the title as On the Origin of Species through Natural Selection and the book went on sale to the trade on 22 November 1859. The stock of 1,250 copies was oversubscribed, and Darwin, still at Ilkley spa town, began corrections for a second edition. The novelist Charles Kingsley, a Christian socialist country rector, sent him a letter of praise: "It awes me...if you be right I must give up much that I have believed", it was "just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self development... as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made." Darwin added these lines to the last chapter, with attribution to "a celebrated author and divine".

First reviews

The reviewers were less encouraging. The authoritative Athenaeum was quick to pick out the unstated implications of "men from monkeys", saw snubs to theologians, summing up his "creed" as man "was born yesterday – he will perish tomorrow" and demanding that Darwin should be tried "in the Divinity Hall, the College, the Lecture Room and the Museum". The Saturday Review realised that this academic treatise was already "into the drawing-room and the public street", and there were reports of commuters outside Waterloo station buying copies.

By 9 December when Darwin left Ilkley to come home, he had been told that Murray was organising a second run of 3,000 copies. Hooker had been "converted", Lyell was "absolutely gloating" and Huxley wrote "with such tremendous praise", advising that he was sharpening his "beak and claws" to disembowel "the curs who will bark and yelp".[3]

First response

Richard Owen had been the first to respond to the complimentary copies, courteously claiming that he had long believed that "existing influences" were responsible for the "ordained" birth of species. Darwin now had long talks with him, and Owen said that the book offered the best explanation "ever published of the manner of formation of species", though he still had the gravest doubts that transmutation would bestialize man. It appears that Darwin had assured Owen that he was looking at everything as resulting from designed laws, which Owen interpreted as showing a shared belief in "Creative Power".

Darwin made his views clearer to others, telling Lyell that if each step in evolution was providentially planned, the whole procedure would be a miracle and natural selection superfluous. To Asa Gray he suggested "designed laws" with "the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance", and asked, if everything were "ordained", why was there so much misery? "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.", expressing his particular revulsion at the parasitic wasps that lay their eggs in the larvae and pupae of other insects so that their parasitoid young have a ready source of food.

Friendly reviews

The review in the British Unitarian National Review was written by Darwin's old friend William Carpenter, who was clear that only a world of "order, continuity, and progress" befitted an Omnipotent Deity and that "any theological objection" to a species of slug or a breed of dog deriving from a previous one was "simply absurd" dogma. He touched on human evolution, satisfied that the struggle for existence tended "inevitably... towards the progressive exaltation of the races engaged in it".

On Boxing Day (26 December) The Times carried an anonymous review. The staff reviewer, "as innocent of any knowledge of science as a babe", gave the task to Huxley, leading Darwin to ask his friend how "did you influence Jupiter Olympus and make him give three and a half columns to pure science? The old fogies will think the world will come to an end." Darwin treasured the piece more than "a dozen reviews in common periodicals", but noted "Upon my life I am sorry for Owen... he will be so d--d savage, for credit given to any other man, I strongly suspect, is in his eyes so much credit robbed from him. Science is so narrow a field, it is clear there ought to be only one cock of the walk!".

Hooker also wrote a favourable review, which appeared at the end of December in the Gardener's Chronicle and treated the theory as an extension of horticultural lore.

Clerical concern, atheist enthusiasm

In his lofty position at the head of Science, Owen received numerous complaints about the book. The Revd. Adam Sedgwick, geologist at the University of Cambridge who had taken Darwin on his first geology field trip, could not see the point in a world without providence. The missionary David Livingstone could see no struggle for existence on the African plains. Jeffries Wyman at Harvard saw no truth in chance variations.

The most enthusiastic response came from atheists, with Hewett Watson hailing Darwin as the "greatest revolutionist in natural history of this century". The 68 year old Robert Edmund Grant, who had shown him the study of invertebrates when Darwin was a student at the University of Edinburgh and who was still teaching Lamarckian evolution weekly at University College London, brought out a small book on classification dedicated to Darwin: "With one fell-sweep of the wand of truth, you have now scattered to the winds the pestilential vapours accumulated by 'species-mongers'."

As 1860 began, more opinions were voiced. Karl Marx saw it as a "bitter satire" that showed "a basis in natural science for class struggle in history", in which "Darwin recognises among beasts and plants his English society".

Erasmus and Martineau

Darwin's brother Erasmus thought it "the most interesting book I have ever read", and sent a copy to his old flame Miss Harriet Martineau who at 58 was still reviewing from her home in the Lake District. From her "snow landscape" Martineau sent her thanks, adding that she had previously praised "the quality & conduct of your brother's mind, but it is an unspeakable satisfaction to see here the full manifestation of its earnestness & simplicity, its sagacity, its industry, & the patient power by which it has collected such a mass of facts, to transmute them by such sagacious treatment into such portentious knowledge. I should much like to know how large a proportion of our scientific men believe he has found a sound road."

Writing to her fellow Malthusian (and atheist) George Holyoake she enthused "What a book it is! – overthrowing (if true) revealed Religion on the one hand, & Natural (as far as Final Causes & Design are concerned) on the other. The range & mass of knowledge take away one's breath." To Fanny Wedgwood she wrote "I rather regret that C.D. went out of his way two or three times to speak of "The Creator" in the popular sense of the First Cause.... His subject is the "Origin of Species" & not the origin of Organisation; & it seems a needless mischief to have opened the latter speculation at all – There now! I have delivered my mind."

Clerical reaction

The Revd. Adam Sedgwick had received his copy "with more pain than pleasure." Without Creation showing divine love, "humanity, to my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalise it, and sink the human race". He indicated that unless Darwin accepted God's revelation in nature and scripture, Sedgwick would not meet Darwin in heaven, a sentiment that upset Emma. The Revd. John Stevens Henslow, the botany professor whose natural history course Charles had joined thirty years earlier, gave faint praise to the Origin as "a stumble in the right direction" but distanced himself from its conclusions, "a question past our finding out".

The Anglican establishment was opposed to Darwin. Apparently Palmerston, who became Prime Minister in June 1859, mooted Darwin's name to Queen Victoria as a candidate for the Honours List with the prospect of a knighthood. While Prince Albert supported the idea, after the publication of the Origin her ecclesiastical advisers including the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce were opposed, and the request was turned down.[4] Some Anglicans were more in favour, and Huxley reported of Kingsley that "He is an excellent Darwinian to begin with, and told me a capital story of his reply to Lady Aylesbury who expressed astonishment at his favouring such a heresy – "What can be more delightful to me Lady Aylesbury, than to know that your Ladyship & myself sprang from the same toad stool." Whereby the frivolous old woman shut up, in doubt whether she was being chaffed or adored for her remark."

Huxley and Owen

In February, Huxley lectured at the Royal Institution on Darwin's theory of Species and Races, and their Origin, using the occasion to goad the clergy and try to wrest science from ecclesiastical control. He referred to Galileo's persecution by the church, which he described as "Canutes of the hour enthroned in solemn state, bidding the great wave to stay.", and said that the Origin heralded a "new Reformation". To Darwin such rhetoric was "time wasted", but by March he was listing those on "our side" as against the "outsiders". His close allies were Hooker and Huxley, whom he called his "good and kind agent for the propagation of the Gospel – i.e. the devil's gospel."[5]

The position of Richard Owen was unknown: when emphasising to a Parliamentary committee the need for a new Natural History museum, he pointed out that "The whole intellectual world this year has been excited by a book on the origin of species; and what is the consequence? Visitors come to the British Museum, and they say, "Let us see all these varieties of pigeons: where is the tumbler, where is the pouter?" and I am obliged with shame to say, I can show you none of them".... As to showing you the varieties of those species, or of any of those phenomena that would aid one in getting at that mystery of mysteries, the origin of species, our space does not permit; but surely there ought to be a space somewhere, and, if not in the British Museum, where is it to be obtained?"

However, Huxley's attacks were making their mark. When Owen's review of the Origin appeared in the April Edinburgh Review he showed his anger at what he saw as Darwin's caricature of the creationist position and his ignoring Owen's axiom of the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things. To him, new species appeared at birth, not through natural selection. As well as attacking Darwin's "disciples" Hooker and Huxley for their "short sighted adherence", he thought that the book symbolised the sort of "abuse of science... to which a neighbouring nation, some seventy years since, owed its temporary degradation." After reading this, Darwin spent a sleepless night and called it "Spiteful, extremely malignant, clever, and... damaging". Later he got together with Huxley and Hooker "so we three enjoyed it together", and commented to Henslow that "The Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book is so talked about. It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me."

Huxley's April review in the Westminster Review included the first mention of the term "Darwinism" and called the Origin a "Whitworth gun in the armoury of Liberalism" projecting "the dominance of Science" over "regions of thought into which she has, as yet, barely penetrated."

Widespread interest

Most reviewers wrote with great respect, deferring to Darwin's eminent position in science though finding it hard to understand how natural selection could work without a divine selector, leading Darwin to remark "I must be a very bad explainer". His older friends were often negative and he felt the attacks were coming down "hot and heavy". He remarked to Lyell "I suppose "Natural Selection" was a bad term" and suggested "Natural Preservation" as a better alternative, but (perhaps reacting to the mood) Lyell read his handwriting as "Natural Persecution".

Darwin had already written thanking Asa Gray for his support; "For myself, also, I rejoice profoundly; for, thinking of so many cases of men pursuing an illusion for years, often and often a cold shudder has run through me, and I have asked myself whether I may not have devoted my life to a phantasy. Now I look at it as morally impossible that investigators of truth, like you and Hooker, can be wholly wrong, and therefore I rest in peace." He now discussed the arguments: "About the weak points I agree. The eye to this day gives me a cold shudder, but when I think of the fine known gradations, my reason tells me I ought to conquer the cold shudder." "I remember well the time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I have got over this stage of the complaint, and now small trifling particulars of structure often make me feel uncomfortable. The sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!"

Interest was widespread. Three publishers tried to exploit the absence of international copyright to print Origin in the USA, but Asa Gray managed to make two withdraw and agreed a 5 per cent royalty with Appleton's of New York, who published a print run of 2,500 copies in May. A well pleased Darwin offered Gray a share of the proceeds, writing "I never dreamed of my book being so successful... [Once] I should have laughed at the idea of sending the sheets to America".


Essays and Reviews

Around February 1860 liberal theologians entered the fray, when seven produced a manifesto titled Essays and Reviews. These Anglicans included Oxford professors, country clergymen, the headmaster of Rugby school and a layman. Their declaration that miracles were irrational stirred up unprecedented anger, drawing much of the fire away from Darwin. Essays sold 22,000 copies in two years, more than the Origin sold in twenty years, and sparked five years of increasingly polarised debate with books and pamphlets furiously contesting the issues.

The most scientific of the seven was the Reverend Baden Powell, who held the Savilian Chair of Geometry at the University of Oxford. Referring to "Mr Darwin's masterly volume" and restating his argument that God is a lawgiver, miracles break the lawful edicts issued at Creation, therefore belief in miracles is atheistic, he wrote that the book "must soon bring about an entire revolution in opinion in favour of the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature." He drew attacks, with Sedgwick accusing him of "greedily" adopting nonsense and Tory reviews saying he was joining "the infidel party". He would have been on the platform at the British Association debate, facing the bishop, but died of a heart attack on 11 June.

The British Association debate

The most famous confrontation took place at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford on Saturday 30 June 1860. While there was no formal debate organised on the issue, Professor John William Draper of New York University was to talk on Darwin and social progress at a routine "Botany and Zoology" meeting. The new museum hall was crowded with clergy, undergraduates, Oxford dons and gentlewomen anticipating that Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, would speak to repeat the savage trouncing he had given in 1847 to the Vestiges published anonymously by Robert Chambers. Owen lodged with Wilberforce the night before, but Wilberforce would have been well prepared as he had just reviewed the Origin for the Tory Quarterly for a fee of £60. Hooker was not going to wait for the meeting, but met Chambers who accused him of "deserting them" and drifted in. Darwin was taking treatment at Dr. Lane's new hydropathic home in Richmond.

From Hooker's account, Draper "droned on for an hour", then for half an hour "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce replied with the eloquence that had earned him his nickname. This time the climate of opinion had changed and the ensuing debate was more evenly matched, with Hooker being particularly successful in defence of Darwin's ideas. In response to what Huxley took as a jibe from Wilberforce as to whether it was on Huxley's grandfather's or grandmother's side that he was descended from an ape, Huxley made a reply which he later recalled as being that "[if asked] 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" (from other accounts Huxley was almost inaudible with rage and several alternative versions of this supposed quote exist, see Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter).

Unfortunately Robert FitzRoy, who had been the captain of HMS Beagle during Darwin's voyage, was there to present a paper on storms. During the debate FitzRoy, seen by Hooker as "a grey haired Roman nosed elderly gentleman", stood in the centre of the audience and "lifting an immense Bible first with both and afterwards with one hand over his head, solemnly implored the audience to believe God rather than man". As he admitted that the Origin of Species had given him "acutest pain" the crowd shouted him down.

Hooker's "blood boiled, I felt myself a dastard; now I saw my advantage–I swore to myself I would smite that Amalkite Sam Hip & thigh", he was invited up to the platform and "there & then I smacked him amid rounds of applause...proceeded... to demonstrate that he could never have read your book... wound up with a very few observations on the old & new hypotheses... Sam was shut up... & the meeting was dissolved forthwith leaving you [Darwin] master of the field after 4 hours battle."

Both sides came away claiming victory, with Hooker and Huxley each sending Darwin rather contradictory triumphant accounts. Supporters of Darwinism seized on this meeting as a symbolic confrontation between science and religion. The story spread around the country: Huxley – as "Darwin's bulldog", the fiercest defender of evolutionary theory on the Victorian stage – had said he would rather be an ape than a Bishop.

Wilberforce's Quarterly review

In late July Darwin read Wilberforce's review in the Quarterly. It used a 60 year old parody from the Anti-Jocobin of the prose of Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, implying old revolutionary sympathies. It argued that if "transmutations were actually occurring" this would be seen in rapidly reproducing invertebrates, and since it isn't, why think that "the favourite varieties of turnips are tending to become men". Darwin pencilled "rubbish" in the margin. To the statement about classification that "all creation is the transcript in matter of ideas eternally existing in the mind of the Most High!!", Darwin scribbled "mere words".

Wilberforce also attacked Essays and Reviews in the Quarterly Review, and in a letter to The Times, signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and 25 bishops, which threatened the theologians with the ecclesiastical courts. Darwin quoted a proverb: "A bench of bishops is the devil's flower garden", and joined others including Lyell, though not Hooker and Huxley, in signing a counter-letter supporting Essays and Reviews for trying to "establish religious teachings on a firmer and broader foundation". Despite this alignment of pro-evolution scientists and Unitarians with liberal churchmen, two of the authors were indicted for heresy and lost their jobs by 1862.

Natural History Review

The Natural History Review was bought and refurbished by Huxley, Lubbock, Busk and other "plastically minded young men" – supporters of Darwin. The first issue in January 1861 carried Huxley's paper on man's relationship to apes, "showing up" Owen. Huxley cheekily sent a copy to Wilberforce.

Darwin at home

As the battles raged, Darwin returned home from the spa to proceed with experiments on chloroforming carnivorous sundew plants, revising his Natural Selection book and reopening his work on pigeon breeding. He wrote to Asa Gray using the example of fantail pigeons to argue that contrary to Gray's belief "that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines" was incorrect in its implication of Creationism rather than Natural Selection.

Over the winter he organised a third edition of the Origin, adding an introductory historical sketch. Asa Gray had published three supportive articles in the Atlantic Monthly. Darwin persuaded Gray to publish them as a pamphlet, and was delighted when Gray came up with the title of Natural Selection Not Inconsistent with Natural Theology. Darwin paid half the cost, imported 250 copies into Britain and as well as advertising it in periodicals and sending 100 copies out to scientists, reviewers, and theologians (including Wilberforce), he included in the Origin a recommendation for it, available to be purchased for 1s. 6d. from Trübner's in Paternoster Row.

The Huxleys became close family friends, frequently visiting Down House. When their 3 year old son died of scarlet fever they were badly affected. Henrietta Huxley brought their three infants to Down in March 1861 where Emma helped to console her, while Huxley continued with his working-men's lectures at the Royal School of Mines, writing that "My working men stick with me wonderfully, the house fuller than ever, By next Friday evening they will all be convinced that they are monkeys."

Arguments with Owen

Huxley's arguments with Owen continued in the Athenaeum so that each Saturday Darwin could read the latest ripostes. Owen tried to smear Huxley by portraying him as an "advocate of man's origins from a transmuted ape", and one of his contributions was titled "Ape-Origin of Man as Tested by the Brain". This backfired, as Huxley had already delighted Darwin by speculating on "pithecoid man" – ape-like man, and was glad of the invitation to publicly turn the anatomy of brain structure into a question of human ancestry. He was determined to indict Owen for perjury, telling Darwin "before I have done with that mendacious humbug I will nail him out, like a kite to a barn door, an example to all evil doers." Darwin egged him on from Down, writing "Oh Lord what a thorn you must be in the poor dear man's side".

Their campaign ran over two years and was devastatingly successful, with each "slaying" being followed by a recruiting drive for the Darwinian cause. The spite lingered. When Huxley joined the Zoological Society Council in 1861, Owen left, and in the following year Huxley moved to stop Owen from being elected to the Royal Society Council as "no body of gentlemen" should admit a member "guilty of wilful & deliberate falsehood."

Lyell was troubled both by Huxley's belligerence and by the question of ape ancestry, but got little sympathy from Darwin who teased him that "Our ancestor was an animal which breathed water, had a swim bladder, a great swimming tail, an imperfect skull, and undoubtedly was a hermaphrodite! Here is a pleasant genealogy for mankind... mankind will progress to such a pitch [that 19th century gentlemen will be looked back on] as mere barbarians". Lyell began work on a book examining human origins.

See Darwin from Orchids to Variation for Darwin's life, work and influences in the following period.


  1. ^ Josef L. Altholz, Professor of History, University of Minnesota (1976). The Warfare of Conscience with Theology. The Mind and Art of Victorian England. Victorian Web. Retrieved on 2007-11-06.
  2. ^ George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University (1992). Bishop Colenso and the Literal Truth of the Bible. The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin. Victorian Web. Retrieved on 2007-11-10.
  3. ^ Darwin 1887, pp. 228–232
  4. ^ Desmond & Moore 1991, p. 488.
  5. ^ Darwin 1887, p. 331, Darwin to Thomas Huxley, Aug. 8, 1860.


Note: this article uses Desmond and Moore, Darwin, as a general reference. Other references used for specific points or quotations.

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  • Darwin, Charles (1842 (published 1909)), , in Darwin, Francis, , Cambridge University Press, Retrieved on 2006-12-15
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  • Darwin, Charles (1958), Barlow, N, ed., , London: Collins, (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin) Retrieved on 2006-12-15
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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Reaction_to_Darwin's_theory". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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