"On the Origin of Species" Turns 150

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published on this day in 1859. Intensely aware of its implications, Darwin prefaced his book with two quotations which suggested that God was part of, and friendly towards, good science. One quotation was by William Whewell, a noted contemporary scientist, and the other was by Sir Francis Bacon:

To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both. (The Advancement of Learning, 1605)

Religion had played a role in getting Darwin on the Beagle in the first place. Faced with his father’s reluctance to let him go, Darwin appealed to his Uncle Josiah Wedgewood (of the china company) for support. Prominent on Wedgewood’s list of persuasions was his belief that “the pursuit of Natural History…is very suitable to a clergyman” – the career which Darwin, before going, envisioned for himself.

Religion also figured prominently in one of the Beagle’s oddest side-adventures, this the final act in an ethnocentric black comedy which had begun with the ship’s first voyage to South America, 1826-1830. Captain FitzRoy had returned from that trip with a number of the local tribe, originally taken as hostage in a dispute over a stolen boat. Three of these were now being returned to Tierra del Fuego, made over with British names, manners and beliefs. The hope was that Jemmy Button, Fuegia Basket and York Minster would prove models of Christian behavior, and helpers to the young missionary who accompanied them. The Beagle crew built their huts, helped unpack such articles as the well-meaning ladies of London had seen fit to provide – the items included wine glasses, tea-trays, top hats and white linen – and went off to do science. When they returned in two weeks’ time the missionary ran screaming to the captain’s launch before it had stopped, refusing to return. The Fuegians did not like beards, and had at that moment been plucking out his facial hair with mussel shells. On the Beagle‘s return a year later, the tea-trays and the entire settlement had disappeared, although a naked, dirty and (according to Darwin) ashamed Jemmy Button was finally recognized among those watching from the bushes. When offered the chance to return to England, he showed no interest.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.