One hundred fifty years ago, a book appeared in England that changed the world.
Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species has been called the most important book ever written. Introducing the theory of evolution by natural selection, Darwin's book fundamentally altered how scientists look at the natural world, and continues to frame biological research today.
Since the day it appeared, the book has been controversial. But surprisingly, it may be more controversial today than when it first appeared. That's because by 1859, there had been several books on evolution published in Britain.
Courtesy of Huntington Library
The revolutionary scientific work On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin was published in 1859.
The revolutionary scientific work On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin was published in 1859. Courtesy of Huntington Library
"The most famous example being a book that came out in Victorian Britain in 1844 — an anonymous best-seller," says Jim Endersby. "It was called The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation."
Endersby is a professor of the history of science at the University of Sussex and the author of an introduction to a commemorative edition of On the Origins of Species published by Cambridge University.
He says The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation may have captured the popular imagination, but it was lambasted by scientists for its multiple factual errors, and by the clergy for its affront to religious dogma. Darwin's book got a much more positive reception.
"What really impressed people with Darwin's work was not so much the idea itself, but the book," says Endersby. "It was the fact that there was so much detail, so much evidence."
Reviewed By Church Of England
And it wasn't just scientists who liked the new theory. Popular history holds that the church's condemnation of Darwin was immediate and universal. Endersby says it's not that simple. For example, Endersby says Darwin sent a copy of his book to one of the leading members of the Church of England, the Rev. Charles Kingsley.
Kingsley wrote back to Darwin: "It's just as noble a conception of God to think that he created animals and plants that then evolved, that were capable of self-development, as it is to think that God has to constantly create new forms and fill in the gaps that he's left in his own creation." Clearly pleased with this comment, Darwin included it in future editions of On the Origins of Species.
On Nov. 24, 1859, when the book was published, the relationship between religion and science was changing. As scientists started debating Darwin's ideas about evolution, they were keen to hold the debate in a secular context.
"You start seeing people say, 'Well, let's think about this as a scientific question,' " says Jim Secord, the director of the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University. "That's really what it is. Leave the theology. That will work itself out in some sort of way."
'Fault Line For Continuing Controversies'
Of course, the theology doesn't always work itself out. Just look at the strong anti-evolution sentiment in certain religions in this country today. Secord says On Origin of Species didn't create the rift between science and religion, but it was right there when the rift was opening 150 years ago.
"These debates about science and religion, if anything, have actually increased in the last 10 to 20 years," says Secord. "And so Darwin is really a big talking point for these kinds of questions. And I think people read Darwin and look to Darwin in some senses as a kind of fault line for these continuing controversies."
In the decades after the 1859 publication, support for Darwin's theory grew in all quarters. But Endersby believes that at least some of that support was based on a misunderstanding of Darwin's ideas. He says there's no predetermined endpoint in the theory of evolution by natural selection.
The English Interpretation Of Darwin's Book
But Endersby says some people in England misinterpreted the idea of survival of the fittest to mean that some people were meant to survive.
Endersby explains: "So the English would read the book, and it's no surprise that the English made Darwin a hero in England and buried him in the headquarters of the Church of England, because they read this as saying, 'Look, we the English are top nation because we're superior. That is why we have the largest empire the world has ever seen. That's why we had the industrial revolution. That's why we are so rich and powerful. Thank you, Mr. Darwin; you have given us the scientific explanation for what we already know — we're the best.' "
They still treat Darwin as a hero in England. So maybe now that England's international stature is diminished, the English have come to a more nuanced understanding of his theory. Or not.