THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES: Reaction to Darwin's Work


On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life [The Origin of Species] (1859) was the culmination of over twenty years intense work for Darwin; but it was also just the beginning of a controversy that was predicably revolutionary in his own lifetime, and which continues to this day. The debate over when and how to reveal his beliefs about the origin and evolution of species brewed almost entirely privately within him for years (he likened it to ‘confessing a murder’); when it was finally offered to the public, the reaction was necessarily explosive. While Darwin’s opus never directly states that Mankind was descended from the ape, and Darwin was keen to distance himself from the suggestion, most of the reviews quickly launched into attacks on Darwin’s assumptions regarding Man-from-Ape and bemoaned the end of Immortality. Soon, cartoons and insults were strewn within the international press. Darwin left his defence to his friends and the public debate was taken up most fervently by Darwin’s 'Bulldog', T.H. Huxley, using the book to launch secular attacks against Richard Owen and his supporters.

Nevertheless, the book oversubscribed its first edition of 1250 before it even was released in November of 1859. Reports had it being bought up by commuters, selling on street corners and talked of everywhere. A second edition of 3000 copies was put into motion, along with a German translation.

Darwin was extremely sensitive to criticism, wounded by the negative reviews, and going so far as to amend, within a month of its public life, lines towards the end of the book that admitted a Creator: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into few forms or into one…" In the second edition this became: ‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into few forms or into one…’. He continued to make amendments that addressed criticisms of his ideas in subsequent editions of the book.

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In some ways, however, the responses Darwin that valued most also best illuminate the divisive and extremely personal reaction to the book as close friends took opposite sides of the dispute for or against his ideas.

When Darwin sent his old mentor and friend John Henslow, a copy of the book, he did so self-deprecatingly: "I fear, however, that you will not approve of your pupil in this case… You know also how highly I value your judgement" [Letter 2522, 11 Nov 1859]

Meanwhile, Darwin wrote to Adam Sedgwick that he considered the book only an ‘abstract’. [Letter 2525, 11 Nov. 1859] Sedgwick replied:

“…I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow; because I think them utterly false & grievously mischievous— You have deserted…the true method of induction—& started up a machinery as wild I think as Bishop Wilkin's locomotive that was to sail with us to the Moon.” [Letter 2548, 24 Nov 1859]

Henslow was less harsh in his critique and indeed, spent two weeks with the Darwin’s in February of 1860. But privately, he wrote to Reverend Jenyns that while “the Book is a marvelous assemblage of facts & observations—& no doubt contains much legitimate inference—but it pushes hypothesis (for it is not real theory) too far.” In public, he said it was “a stumble in the right direction” but protested his name being linked with Darwin’s supporters.

On The Origin of Species went to six editions in Darwin’s life. Interestingly, the word ‘evolution’ was not added until the sixth edition.