2009 was unofficially declared the year of Charles Darwin. It marked both the bicentenary of his birth and the sesquicentenary of the publication of his most significant treatise, On the Origin of Species. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this work. Origin is to science what Wealth of Nations is to economics, Rights of Man to republicanism, Vindication to feminism, or The Prince to politics. A first edition, recently sold at a Christies auction for £103 000. Few books have their own biography. Origin has several. Among the best is Janet Browne’s work which appeared in Groove Atlantic’s suitably titled series “Books that Shook the World”. Not only did Origin shake the Victorian world, this work published on 24 November 1859 continues to generate contention in the twenty-first century.
The closing chapter of Origin claims that “This whole volume is one long argument”. The scientific argument was relatively straight-forward; the species we see around us have common ancestors and have evolved over time through the process of natural selection. Despite its scientific nature, the argument could not be divorced from the implicit consequences both philosophically and theologically. Natural selection and evolutionary theory challenged the prevailing orthodoxy and Church of England dogma that the earth and all living creatures had been created in seven days as described in Genesis. More generally, evolutionary theory cannot help but diminish the role of the theistic creator god. Rather than a precise architect, the creator can only be an instigator of evolution within Darwin’s framework, if indeed there is need for one at all.
Biographers of Darwin suggest he arrived at his conclusions as early as 1837, following his famous travels on the HMS Beagle. By the late 1850s he had written over a hundred thousand words on evolution but had made no publications. His delay in publishing has been compared to Shakespeare’s troubled Prince of Denmark. Was it fear of the religious backlash, the impact of personal tragedies, or academic considerations that allowed two decades to pass between inspiration and dissemination? Speculation abounds but we will never really know. What ended his procrastination is easier to pinpoint. Alfred Russel Wallace independently arrived at the theory of natural selection and wrote to Darwin in 1858 noting that he planned to publish. Darwin was forced to go public with his grand theory, while also acknowledging Wallace. A year later, Origin was in print.
Darwin was cautious in his approach and certainly did all he could to minimise criticism from the religious establishment. In the Origin, he is deliberately silent on whether humans are also the result of evolution – despite this being an obvious conclusion. It would not be till 1871 that Darwin made his position public in The Descent of Man; “man with all his noble qualities … still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin”. Origin also avoids a discussion on how the divine could be reconciled with evolutionary theory. If this had been an attempt to placate religious fury, it failed. Intense debate and fierce criticism was the immediate result.
Sensitive and often retiring, Darwin shied away from the public debates over Origin and left it to others to make the case for evolution by natural selection. Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”, took up the cause with enthusiasm. On 30 June 1860 he debated the Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at Oxford University on the merits of Darwinian theory in an event still referred to as the Great Debate. By the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, evolution by natural selection had become orthodoxy in the scientific community.
While Darwin’s ideas were scientifically accepted in the nineteenth century, intense debate would continue in the twentieth, both in the court of public opinion and literal courts. The powerful Christian Fundamentalist movement in the United States had successfully lobbied to have a number states outlaw the teaching of evolution. In the Scopes Trial of 1925, a Tennessee high school teacher deliberately indicted himself to protest the law. Although he lost the case, it highlighted the potential conflict of religion and science to a national and international audience. During the second half of the twentieth century, the teaching of evolution became mainstream in public schools in the United States and much of the world.
It is not hyperbolic to speak of a Darwinian revolution. Our understanding of the natural world and our place in it has been profoundly shaped by the ideas laid out in Origin. Any ranking of most influential books in history will include it somewhere near the top. Even in the twenty-first century, it is still a work that provokes fear and admiration in equal measures. To mark the sesquicentenary, a group of public science enthusiasts launched the Darwin 150 project to share resources and raise awareness about Darwinian ideas and achievements. Meanwhile, evangelical Christian group published 50 000 anniversary editions of Origin with a creationist introduction to hand out for free at college campuses.
The battle of ideas continues. In Britain, a 2009 poll suggested that half the population either do not believe in evolution or simply do not understand it. Given there has been scientific consensus for over a century, this surely represents a coup for religious propaganda and an indicator of how dangerous Darwin’s ideas still are. Evolution is not a competing belief system with Christianity and Origin is not a competing Bible. Yet, that is how the Religious Right often present the case and large numbers of people, few of whom would have read Origin, are nevertheless convinced they disagree with it.
Even among Darwin’s supporters, both avid and tacit, it is surprising how few have actually read Origin. While it does at times fall into the lecture-style of Victorian academic writing, replete with paragraph-long sentences, there is also a charm to the prose and a disarming sense of caution. Far from the caustic prose of the New Atheists, its author does not come across as an enemy of religion so much as a lover of nature. From Aristotle to Wallace, Darwin is quick to praise others and quick to highlight the limits of his own understanding. Rather than a didactic tome, in parts it is closer to a diary entry revealing hidden thoughts and ideas. Indeed, he would compare writing Origin to “confessing a murder”.
Over a century and a half has passed since this seminal text was first published and it remains every bit as challenging, charming, insightful and brilliant today. Still revered and reviled, its place in history is assured. Like all works of great influence, it is tempting to formulate an opinion based on what others have written but nothing can replace reading the original. The anniversary of its first publication on 24 November is a perfect time to do just that.
Dr Benjamin T. Jones is an Australian Research Council Fellow in the School of History at the Australian National University.