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The publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 was the culmination of more than 20 years of work by Charles Darwin, and the ideas he presented in it would lead to a fundamental change in the way we think about life on earth. Evolution was controversial at the time and now, as the bicentenary of Darwin's birth approaches in 2009, it remains the subject of bitter argument. As revolutionary as the theory was, it did not come out of thin air, but developed within the context of the scientific and philosophical thinking of the period. In order to arrive at a better understanding of the current debate, this book looks at key moments in Darwin's life and at the relevant aspects of the intellectual climate of the time which, taken together, would lead him towards the theory. It goes on to consider how evolution has developed, how its opponents have responded, and how the arguments between scientific rationalism and religious faith are much the same now as they were in Darwin's day.
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Origins and Arguments
By Bill Price
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2008 Bill Price
All rights reserved.
The Book That Changed the World
A Victorian Gentleman
By 1859 Charles Darwin was one of the best known naturalists and geologists in Britain. Since returning from his five-year voyage around the world on board HMS Beagle in 1836, he had written a number of highly regarded books, including works on coral reefs and barnacles which remain relevant today, and numerous academic papers on a variety of biological and geological subjects. His account of the voyage, the Journal of Researches which is now usually called simply The Voyage of the Beagle, had also brought him to the attention of the general reading public, as it went through numerous editions and became what we would now call a bestseller.
By any standards Darwin was a prolific writer. During his lifetime he wrote more than six million words. In addition to the published work, he kept extensive notebooks and journals and also maintained a huge correspondence, keeping in touch with many of the eminent men in his field, including Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker. He also wrote numerous letters to a diverse group of people — including livestock breeders, bee keepers, pigeon fanciers and gardeners — requesting information he felt could be useful for his work. There are something like 14,500 letters in existence, and probably many thousands more which have not survived, and the extent of this correspondence suggests that Darwin was anything but a reclusive and retiring man, as he is sometimes portrayed. In fact, Darwin gives the impression of being both sociable and genial. As well as having a large and extended family, he maintained a wide circle of friends, many of whom he met regularly both at Down House, the house near Bromley in Kent which he bought with his wife a few years after they were married in 1838, and during trips into London. Down House, now owned by English Heritage and open to the public during the summer, is in a relatively quiet country location, while being no more than fifteen miles from central London and only a few miles from the nearest train station.
The impression of him as someone withdrawn from society most likely comes from his reluctance to attend public meetings and society dinners, both of which he professed to hate. Instead he preferred to stay out of the limelight at home with his family and get on with his work. As anyone who has ever done an extended period of research and writing knows, constant interruptions and distractions can be extremely irritating. The best conditions for writing are peace and quiet and this was exactly what Darwin created for himself at Down House. Darwin often excused himself from public engagements because of a recurring illness that dogged him for much of his adult life. It is tempting to think this was simply his way of avoiding a function he didn't want to attend but, at the same time, there is little doubt that he suffered frequently from ill health. The exact nature of the illness has never been fully diagnosed, despite consider able speculation on the subject. In his letters and diaries Darwin described numerous different symptoms, including stomach pains, vomiting, faintness and fatigue, leading to conjectures that he had picked up a disease while travelling in South America, possibly after being bitten by an insect. Another line of thought suggests that his health problems were largely psychosomatic or stress-related responses to overwork. It is also possible that he was something of a hypochondriac who enjoyed the attention he received when he was ill.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Darwin preferred the home life of a Victorian gentleman to the bustle of the city and he did his best to avoid the academic world. Both his family and his wife's family were wealthy, and therefore he was able to follow his own path without ever actually holding a position with an academic institution or, in fact, ever having any sort of job at all. When the Darwins were first married they had a combined private income in the region of £1,300 a year, derived from investments made by both their families. This was a considerable sum for the period and enabled them to pay £2,200 for Down House, where they employed a butler, a nurse for the children and a number of maids and gardeners.
The marriage between Charles and Emma was the third to be made between two illustrious families, the Darwins and the Wedgwoods. Darwin's father Robert and his older sister Caroline were both married to Wedgwoods and Charles and Emma, who had known each other since childhood, were cousins, and were both grandchildren of Josiah Wedgwood (1730 — 1795), who founded the famous Staffordshire pottery that bears his name.
The close relationship between the two families was the cause of some concern to Darwin, involved as he was with the study of inheritance. Three of Charles and Emma's children died young — two before their second birthdays and another, Annie, who Darwin would later say had been his favourite, when she was ten. The fact that none of these three died from what would now be described as a genetic disease, passed on to them by their parents, taken together with the fact that Darwin's seven surviving children showed no sign of any affliction, would suggest that the family were in relatively good health for the period in which they lived. At the time child mortality remained high, with medical science yet to get to grips with a number of infectious diseases then prevalent in the country.
A number of Darwin's biographers have suggested that Charles and Emma's marriage was, in effect, a marriage of convenience between two connected families. Charles, after returning from the Beagle voyage, decided it was time he got married and selected Emma because she fitted the profile of the type of woman he was looking for. It is impossible to say now if this was actually the case but, if it was, then the couple appear none the less to have had a long and, for the most part, happy marriage. If they were not head over heels in love when they married, then they were certainly devoted to each other and to their children. Unlike Charles, Emma remained devoutly religious throughout her life and it is hard to believe that Charles's work did not cause a certain amount of tension between them. But, despite the deaths of their three children and Charles's frequent bouts of ill health, they appear to have been an essentially happy couple.
Darwin's Big Year
The title of this section refers to 1859, the year The Origin of Species was published, but the actual story behind the book does not fit quite so neatly into the parameters of one year. The events that would culminate in the publication of the Origin in November 1859, making that year what we would now consider the most important year of Darwin's life, actually began in the middle of the previous year.
June 1858 was a traumatic month for Darwin, both personally and professionally. In the middle of the month his daughter Henrietta caught diphtheria, a contagious disease of the respiratory tract which, at that time, resulted in the deaths of around ten percent of the people who contracted it. Henrietta would gradually recover, but much worse was to come. Almost immediately after Henrietta's illness Darwin's youngest son, who was eighteen months old, fell victim to the scarlet fever epidemic which was then sweeping through the south of England, and died on 28 June.
While the family were enduring this desperately trying situation, Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russell Wallace, an occasional correspondent who was on a specimen-collecting expedition in the Malay Archipelago. The letter contained an essay detailing Wallace's theories on species change, which bore striking similarities to Darwin's own work. Darwin had been doing extensive research on the subject since he had first articulated his great idea in his notebooks twenty years previously, but he had not made any of his findings public. He had only discussed them with a number of close friends. Wallace was fifteen years younger than Darwin and did not have any of the social or financial advantages enjoyed by the older man. He was a largely self-taught naturalist and paid for his expeditions by selling the specimens he had collected, first in the Amazon with Henry Walter Bates and then on his own in the Malay Archipelago. One of the inspirations for his expeditions had been reading Darwin's account of the Beagle voyage and the two had met briefly before he had set off for the Far East. They had written to each other on a number of occasions, their correspondence mostly involving Darwin requesting information from Wallace in the same way he requested it from numerous other contacts around the world. Wallace was aware of Darwin's field of interest, which was why he sent him the essay, together with a request that, if Darwin considered the essay to be of any merit, he should forward it to Charles Lyell.
It appears now to have been an extraordinary coincidence that Wallace chose to send the essay to Darwin but, at the time, evolution was a controversial subject which was not accepted by the majority of mainstream academics. Wallace had exchanged a few letters with Darwin touching on the subject and knew that Darwin was sympathetic to the idea. He also knew that Darwin was one of the most respected naturalists in Britain and was socially very well connected, so, if Darwin approved of the essay, it would find a much wider acceptance than if Wallace had sent it directly to a scientific society with the hope of its being published in a journal. As far as Wallace was concerned, he was sending his essay to one of the few men in Britain who could appreciate it and advance his cause. It was very much the case of the younger man seeking approval from somebody he admired. Little did he know the traumatic effect it would have on Darwin. The content of the essay was a bombshell for Darwin but, ever the honourable Victorian gentleman, he did as Wallace requested and sent the essay on to Charles Lyell, who had previously advised Darwin to publish his work on the subject before somebody else beat him to it. He included a letter of his own with the essay, expressing his anguish to Lyell:
Your words have come true with a vengeance that I should be forestalled. You said this when I explained to you here very briefly my views on "Natural Selection" depending on the struggle for existence. I never saw a more striking coincidence. If Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better abstract. Even his terms now stand as Heads to my Chapters.
A little later in the letter he goes on to say 'So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed'. This was what he was most worried about. In scientific circles, publishing first on a subject could not only lead to great esteem for the author, but was considered to give them an intellectual priority over the area. Darwin was in danger of losing this priority over the work to which he had devoted his life.
The date on the letter was 18 June and Darwin told Lyell he had received the essay from Wallace that morning. There has been some suggestion that he actually got the letter from Wallace up to a month earlier, a theory based on the timetables of ships travelling between Singapore and England, and that he used the time he had before writing to Lyell to incorporate some of Wallace's ideas into his own work. Wallace appears to have posted his letter some time during the middle of March, which means it is possible for it to have reached England by May. However, Darwin's private writings and actions immediately prior to his contacting Lyell on 18 June show no sign that he was aware of Wallace's theory, so there is no actual evidence to back up the claim that he kept Wallace's essay for a number of weeks before taking any action himself. Initially, Darwin proposed to give up any claim he had on the idea of evolution but, in an exchange of letters between himself, Lyell and Joseph Hooker, the director of Kew Gardens, he was persuaded otherwise. With the health of his children fully occupying his mind, Darwin left his two friends to decide what to do. They arrived at a solution which they thought would be fair to both Darwin and Wallace. They proposed that a joint paper should be put together, comprising of Wallace's essay and a number of manuscripts by Darwin, including an essay on natural selection he had written in 1844 and a letter outlining his ideas which he had written the previous year to Asa Gray, the American botanist. Both Lyell and Hooker were well connected at the Linnean Society, an institution that they thought was more open to new ideas than some of the more austere scientific societies of the day, and this enabled them to introduce the joint paper onto the agenda of the last meeting of the society before the summer recess.
Darwin had some misgivings, wondering if he was behaving honourably towards Wallace, who had entrusted him with the essay in the first place, but he went along with the plan. The meeting took place on 1 July, a few days after the funeral of Darwin's youngest son, so Darwin was in no state to attend himself. The secretary of the society read the paper out to the assembled members and, considering the momentous content, it appears to have prompted a muted response. Very little discussion occurred, perhaps because neither Darwin or Wallace was there in person to answer any questions or perhaps because the inclusion of the paper meant that the meeting had been extended and there was little time for the usual discussion between the members.
So, after twenty years, Darwin's great idea was finally in the public domain. One of the reasons he had delayed for so long was the controversial nature of the subject matter and now it had been greeted with hardly a murmur of excitement or debate. In fact, when Thomas Bell, the president of the Linnaean Society, made a speech summing up the activity of the society that year, he said:
The year which has passed has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear.
In the aftermath of the meeting, Darwin worried about Wallace's reaction, hoping he would not think he had been railroaded into accepting a situation that was beyond his control. Darwin wrote to him in the Far East to explain the course of events, including in his letter a note from Hooker along the same lines, and then had to wait for what must have seemed an eternity for a reply. If Wallace was at all unhappy at finding himself the co-discoverer of evolution rather than the sole originator of the idea, he did not mention anything to that effect in his reply to Darwin or in any of his subsequent writing on the subject. In fact, he thanked Darwin for his efforts and appeared to be happy to have had his name associated with such a famous naturalist.
With the meeting out of the way, Darwin and his whole family left Downe for the Isle of Wight, both to escape the scarlet fever epidemic, which would claim the lives of six more young children in the immediate area that summer, and to allow Henrietta to recover from her own illness. Darwin needed to recuperate himself after the strain of the previous month but, as soon as he arrived on the island, he began writing an abstract of his 'big book'. Hooker had persuaded him that he needed to publish a fuller account of his theory as soon as possible, rather than continue working on what he hoped would be a comprehensive treatment of the subject. He had already been doing this for a number of years and it could take several more years to complete.
Darwin began to work in earnest on his abstract, which grew steadily in size, although he remained reluctant to think of it becoming anything more substantial. Over the next nine months it continued to expand, eventually becoming The Origin of Species. Darwin would never actually go on to write his 'big book' on natural selection, although much of the material that did not make it into the Origin would be used in his later writings, particularly The Variation of Animal and Plants Under Domestication and The Descent of Man.
Towards the end of summer of 1858, when the threat from scarlet fever had reduced, the Darwin family returned to Down House and Darwin adopted a strict regime of continuous writing in his study. A combination of factors came together to concentrate his mind on this writing, chief among these the shock he had received with the arrival of Wallace's letter. His theory of natural selection was also now in the public domain, so he needed to make sure of his priority, as Hooker had told him. In addition, he could no longer use the excuse of holding back because of the controversy it would cause. Perhaps the sickness in the family, and the fact that his oldest sister Marianne had also died during the summer at the age of sixty, had made him more aware than ever of his own mortality. It must have become apparent to him that, if he was ever going to get on with writing up his theory, the moment to do so had come.
Excerpted from Charles Darwin by Bill Price. Copyright © 2008 Bill Price. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Table of Contents
1: The Book That Changed the World,
2: The Making of a Naturalist,
3: Evolution After the Origin,
4: The Controversy Continues,
Books by Charles Darwin,