The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) often serves as shorthand for the first appearance of evolutionary theory. But Darwin wrote at a time when several different theories of evolution had already been proposed. Moreover, his own version of evolution had been known to select colleagues well before 1859 and became available to a wider public in 1858. Appreciating the nature of Darwin’s contribution and the extent of his success requires understanding this contemporary context as well as something of the subsequent fate of the Origin’s key idea: natural selection.
Although qualifications have been added and alterations made to this formulation in the last one hundred and fifty years, it remains in its essence the fundamental principle underlying any scientific understanding of living things—of biology in all its variants, ecology, paleontology, botany, immunology, physical anthropology, neuroscience, and other disciplines too numerous to list. Looking back on the publication of On the Origin of Species from a time in which life and its history are seen to be evolutionary through and through, one might, with Huxley, marvel at what now appears to be the staggering obviousness of the book’s main insight. It may seem as though the world changed on 24 November 1859, as if Darwin’s brilliant book with its slow, inexorable marshaling of evidence and fine-grained argumentation was alone responsible for the ascendancy of evolutionary theory among many young (and not-so-young) naturalists of Darwin’s day and, by the twenty-first century, among everyone with scientific knowledge of the earth’s organisms.
On closer inspection, however, the event of the publication of On the Origin of Species—singular and momentous though it certainly was—breaks apart into myriad other events. Earlier theories of evolution played a major role in Darwin’s triumph, even if their explanations were different from his and the mechanisms they suggested incorrect. In addition, friendships and professional networks proved key, ensuring that influential scientists had encountered the ideas put forth in the Origin before 1859 and that others were prepared to accept (if often only provisionally) and defend (usually vociferously) Darwin’s theory when it became public. Further, although the theory was Darwin’s, it was equally that of Alfred Russel Wallace. Short treatments of the idea by both men were read before a meeting of the Linnean Society of London on 1 July 1858 and then published in the society’s Proceedings a month later, more than a year before the Origin saw print. Finally, it was long after 1859, in the 1930s and ’40s, that the so-called modern synthesis established the current state of the field by marrying Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian population genetics. These and other factors, while ineluctably part of the story of the appearance of the Origin, do not diminish its significance. On the contrary, to grasp the complexity of the historical situation in which Darwin did his work is to see more clearly just how remarkable was the formulation and dissemination of the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Earlier theories of evolution or what was called “transmutation” had not been well received in Great Britain, where the consensus in the first half of the nineteenth century was that the Christian God had created each species independently; that these species were incapable of undergoing permanent change; and that the numberless instances of organisms’ peculiar fit with their environments—glands in waterfowl that produce the oil used to keep their feathers dry, woodpeckers’ long tongues, moles’ shovel-shaped feet—were evidence not only of conscious design by a higher power but also of that power’s attributes. The examples of glands, tongues, and feet appear in William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802), probably the most widely read demonstration of the theory it takes as its title. For Paley and other natural theologians, these and similar instances of “contrivance” in nature prove the existence not only of an “intelligent author” of the universe but also of a benevolent one, a caring deity who has ensured that pleasure predominates: “It is a happy world after all,” he claims. “The air, the earth, the water, teem with delighted existence” (Paley 444, 490; emphasis in the original).
Insofar as they threatened this view of a divinely created, static, perfectly adjusted, and joyful natural world, theories that proposed species undergo change over time—that is, are subject to transmutation—necessarily threatened, too, the notion of an all-powerful, well-meaning creator, or of any creator whatsoever. Thus The Temple of Nature (1803), a long transmutationist poem written by Charles Darwin’s paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was received as irreligious. When faced with the poem’s claim that species are in flux, one otherwise favorably inclined reviewer opined: “we feel a difficulty in determining whether we ought to be angry, or to laugh” (“Darwin’s Temple” 123). The French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck received similar treatment for his attempt, in Philosophie zoologique (1809), to show that new species are constantly emerging. In Lamarck’s evolutionary schema, all living things feature an inherent tendency to progress toward perfection. In addition, they adapt to the demands placed on them during their lives: their parts become modified due to use or disuse, and they pass on these modifications to their offspring. The woodpecker’s long tongue, for Paley an indication of God’s thoughtful design, would on a Lamarckian reading be the result of generations of woodpeckers striving to reach grubs hidden in bark. Britons objected on scientific as well as religious grounds. In Principles of Geology (1830-33), Charles Lyell, after a lengthy summary of Lamarck’s views, refuted them point for point with countervailing evidence. Later in the century the Scottish publisher Robert Chambers anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), a wildly popular effort to synthesize all existing scientific knowledge into a single story of gradual development. The one aspect of this account receiving nearly universal condemnation was its transmutationism, principally due to the association of this notion with, as James Secord writes, “free-thinking materialism, . . . working-class socialism, and . . . atheism” (xvi).
Darwin, familiar with the reception of his grandfather’s ideas, having read Lyell’s refutation of Lamarck while on a circumnavigation of the globe aboard HMS Beagle (1831-36), and acutely interested in Vestiges and its fate, had ample justification for fearing the results of going public with his theory. He had worked out the essentials as early as 1837, in a series of private notebooks begun on his return from the Beagle voyage, and subsequently drafted several versions of a work on speciation. But, famously, he deferred publishing. In an 1844 letter to botanist J. D. Hooker, Darwin indicates something of the trepidation he felt: “At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable” (Burkhardt et al. 3: 2). Hooker and other scientific friends such as U. S. botanist Asa Gray and Lyell himself provided the perfect interim audience, allowing Darwin to test out the theory with a small set of knowledgeable and, he hoped, forgiving readers. The long delay in publishing also allowed him to build up a reputation for solid scientific accomplishment and a large professional network. As Janet Browne has documented, in the lead up to 24 November 1859 Darwin arranged for his publisher, John Murray, to send over eighty complimentary copies of the Origin to influential people, many of whom he knew either personally or via correspondence (84-86). Friends wrote reviews (Huxley anonymously penned one of the first), began making reference to the book in their own work, and recommended it to colleagues. Noting how fast and far the theory put forth in the Origin travelled, Browne observes that “what has retrospectively come to be known as the Darwinian revolution was, in reality, as much about the transmission of texts across the world and throughout society as it was about science’s ultimate agreement about the validity of natural selection” (102).
It was also about Darwin’s surprising power as a writer. Gillian Beer speaks to the experience of many readers, then and now, when she refers to “the intellectual and emotional excitement generated by The Origin of Species,” attributing that excitement in part to Darwin’s prose, “the outcome of [his] struggle to find a language to think in” (xviii). Similarly, George Levine, making a case for the Origin as “the most important book in English literature written in the nineteenth century,” contends that its “enormous cultural success—in the short run, at least—depended . . . on the form of [Darwin’s] argument and the nature of his language” (5). Both Beer and Levine have pointed out that Darwin’s theory ran so counter to common sense that articulating it forced him to twist and stretch the available lexicon. Nature with its oil-gland-equipped waterfowl and shovelfooted moles bears all the marks of having been exquisitely designed; how could he acknowledge this but deny the existence of a designer? The metaphor of natural selection implies a conscious agent to do the selecting, yet there can be no such agent in Darwin’s world. Processes of development imply an end-point or telos, but Darwinian evolution amounts to nonteleological development—adaptation to existing conditions on the understanding that conditions always change. That the Origin soars rather than sinks under such a burden is testament to Darwin’s genius not only as a scientist but also as an artist in prose.
The book might never have been published at all but for the genius of another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who inadvertently forced Darwin’s hand. Having read an article by Wallace titled “On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species” (1855) that used the facts of species’ geographical distribution to question independent creation, Lyell encouraged Darwin to prepare a sketch of his theory for publication in order to secure his precedence as discoverer of descent with modification (Desmond and Moore 438). A reluctant Darwin complied but still refused to commit to print. Three years later Wallace himself sent Darwin the manuscript of another article, “On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type,” which outlined a theory of natural selection: “progression and continued divergence,” as Wallace called it, “deduced from the general laws which regulate the existence of animals in a state of nature, and from the undisputed fact that varieties do frequently occur” (59; original emphasis). On 18 June 1858, a stunned Darwin wrote to Lyell: “Your words have come true with a vengeance—that I should be forestalled. . . . I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my MS. sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract!” (F. Darwin 2: 116.). There followed a scramble among Darwin’s inner circle to ensure Wallace did not scoop Darwin, the result being the 1858 reading and publication of Wallace’s article along with an excerpt from a manuscript on the transmutation of species Darwin had drafted in 1839 and a condensed version of a letter he had written to Gray in 1857 (Wallace; C. Darwin, “Extract”; C. Darwin, “Abstract”). Darwin immediately set to work on what would become On the Origin of Species.
Like Darwin’s and Wallace’s contributions to the Linnean Proceedings, the Origin describes the natural world as a scene of incessant conflict. Such a description was crystallized for Darwin (and Wallace as well) by a reading of Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). Malthus, attempting to prove the absurdity of utopian hopes for humanity, argued that the human population increases at a faster rate than the food supply; poverty, starvation, and social conflict are therefore inevitable. Darwin applies this grim Malthusian calculus to nature. Only because of the severity of what the subtitle of the Origin calls the “struggle for life” is natural selection possible. This essentially negative or destructive functioning of Darwinian evolution distinguishes it not only from Paley’s “happy world” but also from earlier theories of transmutation, all of which had imagined the process as a beneficent one. Herbert Spencer’s phrase “the survival of the fittest” aptly captures this aspect of the new view of nature put forward in the Origin (Spencer 1: 444-45). But Darwin was careful to mitigate this view by reminding readers that the struggle for existence was as much a metaphor as natural selection and by dwelling on the beauty and intricacy of the outcome: the natural world we see around us (C. Darwin, Origin 62, 489-90).
It is frequently claimed that the Origin sold out on the day of publication. Murray, the publisher, initiated this tradition, but he meant that advance orders were taken for 250 more copies than the 1,250 that were to be printed in the initial run (Browne 88). The Origin went through six editions in Darwin’s lifetime, but the numbers involved are less than, for instance, those of Vestiges, which sold over 23,000 copies between 1844 and 1860 (Secord xxvi). Rather than individual books bought or borrowed and read, what definitively spread Darwin’s ideas—frequently in extremely distorted forms—was the deep cultural fascination with them aired in newspapers, journals, poems, and novels, a fascination that was itself the result of the fact that, despite Darwin’s care to mention humans only in passing (“Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history” [C. Darwin, Origin 488]), most believed humanity to be the Origin’s actual topic. An anonymous reviewer in the Athenaeum for 19 November 1859, for instance, asked indignantly: “If a monkey has become a man—what may not a man become?” (qtd. in Browne 87). At the opposite end of the scale of periodical seriousness, the satirical magazine Punch ran a poem titled “Monkeyana” (1861) which opens with the speaker, a gorilla, wondering aloud: “Am I satyr or man? / Pray tell me who can, / And settle my place in the scale. / A man in ape’s shape, / An anthropoid ape, / Or monkey deprived of his tail?” (206). The remainder of the poem parodies answers given by Chambers, Darwin, Huxley, and the anti-evolutionary anatomist Robert Owen, among others. These early responses are but the prelude to a deluge: what Darwinism means for individual men and women as well as for the idea of “the human” itself has proven uninterruptedly engaging from 1859 to the present.
Among scientists, controversy over the details of the theory continued throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. Natural selection was a particular sticking point, failing to convince even Darwin’s staunchest allies—T. H. Huxley being the most surprising among those who balked on this score. Darwin himself, although insisting on natural selection as paramount, always made a place for other processes, including Lamarckian use and disuse. Both Victorian evolutionists’ reluctance to credit the efficacy of natural selection and Darwin’s need to hedge his bets with supplementary causes of species change derived from a failure to understand the laws governing hereditary transmission. Gregor Mendel’s work outlining those laws had been published in the 1860s; its import for evolution did not become clear, however, until it was rediscovered in 1900 (Bowler). Only with the advent of what Huxley’s grandson Julian Huxley termed “the modern synthesis” of Darwinian and Mendelian thinking in the 1930s did natural selection come to be accepted, along with sexual selection and genetic drift, as the bona fide mechanism of evolutionary change. As Huxley described it in 1942, what by the early twentieth century had become “a number of semi-independent and largely contradictory sub-sciences” of biology “converged upon a Darwinian centre” (26, 25; see also Gould 503-84). Decades later, and over a century and a half since the Origin was published, that center still holds.
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
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