1859 an all that: Darwin's bombshell
Here is the most fabulous site, with all Darwin's works available online.
Science is not value-free, and the language and concepts of Darwinism are those of the economic and social doctrines of the time. Darwin's Origin of Species was published at a particularly sensitive time, when scientists were making a bid for cultural supremacy.
The keystone of traditional naturalism was Archdeacon William Paley’s Natural Theology, which Darwin studied at Cambridge. The argument was simple and apparently convincing:
- Life was good because through the kindness of God, all human beings were adapted to their surroundings;
- Animals, including humans, are complex beings from the divine workshop, exquisitely fitted to their place in the world.
- This proves there must be a designer.
The voyage of the Beagle
On 27 December 1831 a tiny ship named the Beagle left Plymouth. The volatile, bad-tempered, depressive captain, Robert FitzRoy, was starting on a two year survey, commissioned by the Admiralty, of Tierra del Fuego and the southern coasts of South America. On board the ship were three inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, who had been ‘collected’ by Fitzroy on an earlier expedition, and were being shipped back to their country of origin to fulfil the captain’s vision of establishing Christianity there. Also on board as Fitzroy’s companion was Charles Darwin a young naturalist intended for the church, whose father, a Shrewsbury doctor, had only reluctantly sanctioned his going. Darwin’s aim was to collect as many specimens as he could and donate them to a prominent institution, and thus establish himself as a scientific celebrity. In this period there was no clear distinction between collecting, hunting and plundering.
Darwin was away from home for five years, financed by his wealthy father. Of this five years only eighteen months was spent in actual sailing. While at sea, he was often sick, and lay listening to the shrieks of men being flogged and reading Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Landing on the volcanic island of St Jago in January, in territory no geologist had visited before, he decided that the signs of volcanic activity indicated relatively recent action – in contrast to the much older volcanic structure of Edinburgh where he had studied medicine.
In December 1832 the Beagle arrived in Tierra del Fuego. Darwin never forgot his first sight of ‘wild men’: ‘They are as savage as the most curious person would desire’; ‘like the troubled spirits of another world.’ But both Darwin and Fitzroy were convinced that the Fuegians were the same species as Europeans. It was this fact that made the whole experience so painfully interesting to him as it seemed to reinforce the essential fragility of civilization. But it also confirmed his Whig belief in the possibility of progress and his recognition of the underlying unity of the human race became one of the building blocks of his theory of evolution.
In June 1834 the Beagle sailed into the Pacific. In April 1835 the crew witnessed a devastating earthquake in Chile. In September the ship began to head west and reached the Galapagos Islands on the 15th. At first he did not recognize the significance of what he saw – the fact that different species of tortoises, iguanas, and finches were found on the different islands. He shot birds, but when he examined their corpses he assumed that the differences were insignificant anomalies.
In January 1836 they arrived at Sydney. Here Darwin mused on the uniqueness of the Australasian flora and fauna:
‘Surely two distinct creators must have been at work.’He also explored coral reefs, which he described as one of the most remarkable alterations in the natural world.
By the time the Beagle was heading homewards, Darwin had abandoned the prospect of becoming a clergyman; he wanted to become a proper naturalist like Lyell.
Between the Beagle and Origins
On 2 October 1836 the Beagle arrived at Falmouth. Darwin was now well known because his letters to one of his scientific friends had been published. He arrived home with a huge number of specimens (but not tortoises – he had eaten them!) which he donated to the Zoological Society in London. He was eagerly received by geologists, became friendly with Lyell and Richard Owen, and was elected a fellow of the Geological Society. He became a celebrity in London scientific circles.
Darwin’s intellectual breakthrough arose out of a meeting at the Zoological Society in March 1837 where his findings were discussed. The problems focussed on the rheas (flightless birds) he had brought back from Patagonia and the Galapagos finches (initially thought to be mockingbirds) and iguanas. Equally significant were the pampas fossils. In January Richard Owen at the College of Surgeons had identified them as giant sloths, anteaters and armadillos – South American types which suggested a lone of succession from long-dead to currently living forms on the same spot. Why the divergence into different species? Why the divergence into different species? What was the relationship between modern and extinct species?
The solution clearly involved transmutation of species, a theory already put forward by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin, but heretical among British naturalists in the 1830s.
‘From then on transmutation became the central, undisclosed hub of Darwin’s life … he possessed the pivotal idea of change in living beings – of real ancestral links between animals and mankind.’He hit on the concept of the mechanism for this transmutation in September and October 1838 when he read Thomas Malthus’s Essay on Population: those who died (human or animal) were the weakest, those who lived the strongest, or best adapted; over a long period of time variations might become fixed and a whole species might adapt to its current situation. The theory also fitted well with Darwin’s own background in competitive, entrepreneurial England. By 1842 he was using the phrase natural selection – a theory which ruled out the need for God.
Steve Jones has pointed out that too much should not be made of Darwin’s five week stay on the Galapagos islands. For next forty years following the Beagle’s return he wrote 19 books and hundreds of scientific papers, totalling 6 million words. Their subjects ranged from barnacles, orchids, insect-eating plants and earthworms to the expression of emotion in dogs, apes and people. Together they contributed to his revolutionary idea.
In December 1838 he married his cousin Emma Wedgwood. Already he recognized that he could not share her religious beliefs and as he developed his theory of natural selection he knew that he would alienate many of his naturalistic friends. It was this thought that kept him from publishing. He wrote an essay in 1842 but did not publish it. In January 1844 (now living at Down House) he wrote to his new friend, the botanist Joseph Hooker:
‘I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable… think I have found out (here’s presumption) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.'In this letter he set out succinctly the thesis of Origins: the mutability of species and the mechanism of natural selection. To Darwin’s relief, Hooker’s response was matter-of-fact, but he still felt no rush to publish. But he still felt no rush to publish.
Then in October 1844 the Scottish journalist Robert Chambers published anonymously his Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which promptly became both fashionable and notorious. Darwin was stunned to find that, in spite of his amateurish zoology and geology, Chambers’ thesis was the same as his. The book ran into many editions and stimulated great debate. It clearly influenced Tennyson's In Memoriam. Ideas of extinction and evolution were very much in the air years before the publication of Origins.
The writing of Origin
In 1854 Darwin finally got down to writing a book, with the title Natural Selection. In April in the same year Alfred Russel Wallace arrived in Singapore to explore wild life in the East Indies. While collecting birds on the small volcanic islands of Bali and Lombok, he noticed a change in the fauna:
‘The islands … though of nearly the same size, of the same soil, aspect, elevation and climate, and within sight of each other, yet differ considerably in their productions, and in fact belong to two quite distinct zoological provinces.’For example he found placental mammals only on Bali’s side, in the western ‘Indo-Malayan’ zone, marsupials only in the Austro-Malayan zone stretching from Lombok eastwards. In August 1856 he drew his famous boundary known as ‘Wallace’s Line’.
In September 1855 Wallace published a paper in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History, based partly on his earlier research in the Amazon basin. He later described his paper:
‘Relying mainly on the well-known facts of geographical distribution and geological succession, I deduced from them the law, or generalisation, that “Every species has come into existence coincident in both Space and Time with a Pre-existing closely allied Species’; and I showed how may peculiarities in the affinities, the succession and the distribution of the forms of life, were explained by this hypothesis, and that no important facts contradicted it.’Darwin told Wallace:
‘I can see plainly that we have thought much alike, and to a certain extent have come to similar conclusions.’But though Wallace had established the fact of evolution, he had not explained the 'how'. This was natural selection.
In June 1858 Darwin received a letter from Wallace, from Ternate in the Dutch East Indies enclosing an essay written in February
‘which, line by line, spelled out virtually the same theory of evolution by natural selection that Darwin believed was his alone. … He was well and truly forestalled.’ Janet Browne, Charles Darwin, The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2002), 14-16.As Wallace had requested, he despatched the essay to Lyell, who discussed the matter with Hooker. On 30 June the two men forwarded to the Linnean Society three papers that were read at a meeting of the Society, to little reaction:
- extracts from Darwin’s sketch of 1844,
- Darwin’s letter written in September 1857 to his friend the American biologist Asa Gray,
- Wallace’s essay.
In his conclusion, Darwin summed up his argument
'that species have changed and are slowly changing by the preservation and accumulation of successive slight favourable variations'. (The Origin of Species and the Voyage of the Beagle, New York and London: Everyman, 2003, p. 906)He predicted correctly that
'we can dimly foresee that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history'. (Ibid, p. 909)And he hinted - though no more - at the full implications of this theory when he wrote
'Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.'(Ibid, p. 912)[He was to set out his theory of human evolution more explicitly in his Descent of Man (1871).
The overall message was arguably grim, but the final paragraph was lyrical.
'Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having originally been breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.' (Ibid, p. 913)The reception of Origin
The book sold well, though not on the scale of Vestiges of Creation or even of Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help. It was very useful that Mudie’s Circulating Library agreed to distribute it. Darwin received a letter of approbation from Charles Kingsley, who was the first churchman publicly to endorse evolution. Marx and Engels called it a ‘bitter satire’ on man and nature': Marx noted that
‘Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society.’Others were appalled at the laissez-faire message and believed that the book would gratify the free-market fanatics. On the other hand, optimists seized on sentences such as this:
'And as natural selection works solely for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection. (Origin, p. 913)However there was great distress among Darwin’s old friends, such as his former professor Adam Sedgwick at Cambridge, and among many, though not all, of the Anglican hierarchy, and this probably cost Darwin a knighthood. Richard Owen wrote a long, venomous anonymous review in the April 1860 edition of the Edinburgh Review.
The culture war
Darwin’s friend and 'bulldog', T. H. Huxley, was determined to use the book in his war with the Church. In February 1860 he gave a deliberately confrontational lecture at the Royal Institution on Darwin’s theory of ‘species, races, and their origin’, in which he pulled a handful of pigeons out of a wicker basket. In the following edition of the Westminster Review he wrote:
‘Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules.’The climax of the confrontation between the establishment of clergymen-naturalists and the iconoclastic secularists came at the meeting for the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at Oxford on Saturday 30 June 1860. This was in the diocese of Samuel Wilberforce (below left), who had already given a hostile review of Origin in the Anglican Quarterly Review. It was not surprising that he had been asked to give the review as he was a vice-president of the British Association and had served on the Council of the Geological Society. He was acquainted with the geologists Buckland and Lyell. He was a friend and admirer of Richard Owen, and his review (which Darwin found ‘uncommonly clever’) relied heavily on Owen. Darwin was not present at the meeting – though FitzRoy was.
The meeting began badly with a long and boring speech from Professor William Draper of New York. When the bishop came to speak he tried to lighten the proceedings with a joke, and asked Huxley whether it was on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side that he was descended from an ape. This was a risky gambit as it played on Victorian sensibilities about the female sex. According to Huxley, he delivered a decisive riposte:
'If I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence, and yet who employs those faculties for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion – I unhesitatingly affirm by preference for the ape.'Amid the clamour of the crowd, FitzRoy stood up and waved a bible aloft.
Though not all observers thought Huxley had won the argument, a powerful mythology built up round the debate – part of the scientists’ war on the Church. Darwin wrote to Huxley
‘By Jove you seem to have done it well.’But see here for an argument that this is not the whole story. Wilberforce was making three points.
- Over the course of human history there was no evidence of any new species developing;
- Selective pressures, while admittedly having an effect, did not cause a change of species;
- The phenomenon of the sterility of hybrids told strongly in favour of the fixity of species.
There is more on this debate here.
Darwin died 19 April 1882. The next day the papers announced that he would be buried in ‘the family vault’ in St Mary’s churchyard at Downe. But the arrangements were taken over by Huxley and Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, the high-priests of the new scientific clerisy, who wanted him to be given the funeral appropriate to his stature. Lyell had been buried in Westminster Abbey in 1875 – they wanted the same honour for Darwin. This would not be easy. Two years before Huxley had opposed George Eliot’s interment there – but then Darwin had not lived openly in sin as she had!
Huxley had a clerical acquaintance, Canon Frederick Farrar, Canon of Westminster, a former head of Marlborough school and a fellow member of the Athenaeum. He suggested that they approach George Granville Bradley, dean of Westminster, and a man with a strong interest in science (and another member of the Athenaeum), with a request that Darwin be buried in the Abbey.
Meanwhile, Darwin’s neighbour (who was also President of the Linnaean Society) Sir John Lubbock, City Banker and Liberal MP, collected signatures from among his fellow MPs.
The family were then showered with letters urging them to consent, and the newspapers joined the crusade, urging it as a patriotic necessity. Foreign tributes poured in and made the same point. The papers went out of their way to assert that there was no necessary conflict between Christianity and evolution. The church newspapers made the same point, whatever their private misgivings.
The Dean, at the time in France, telegraphed his acquiescence. After this the funeral had to be re-organized. The funeral directors were the same firm who had organized Wellington’s funeral.
However Emma stayed in Down, as did the villagers.
Darwin was buried on Wednesday 26 April. The queen stayed away – but the monarch did not attend the funerals of commoners. Gladstone did not attend, though the Tory leader, Lord Salisbury did. But Parliament emptied and the embassies sent representatives. Darwin was buried beneath the Newton monument.
The following Sunday the bishop of Carlisle pointed out to his congregation that
‘Had this death occurred in France, no priest would have taken part in the funeral, or if he had, no scientific man would have been present’.By 1885 £4,500 was raised for a statue of Darwin to stand in the Natural History Museum. When it was unveiled the Prince of Wales was there, and all the Darwin family except Emma.
Desmond and Moore describe Darwin’s interment as ‘the apotheosis’ of the scientists,
‘the last rite of a rising secularity’.But it also shows the Church’s ability to adapt to the times.