Darwin didn't delay

Charles Darwin is usually painted as a reluctant, tormented hero trapped between religion and science. This is completely wrong.

 
Charles Darwin's statue at the London Natural History Museum. CGP Grey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Charles Darwin's statue at the London Natural History Museum. CGP Grey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

Charles Darwin first conceived his celebrated theory of evolution in 1838, but didn't formally publish his ideas until On the Origin of Species (1859). This delay has puzzled historians. “One would think that he would rush this, the most important theory in biology, to the printer as quickly as possible," wrote evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr. Yet Darwin took over 20 years to publish.

Many have concluded that Darwin was afraid ‒ that he kept his blasphemous ideas secret for fear of being ostracised by Victorian society. This theme has featured heavily in the Darwin literature, as well as the 2009 biopic Creation.

But this interpretation misses the mark. Darwin's correspondence, collected by historian John van Wyhe, reveals a long list of contemporaries — friends, family members and fellow scientists — with whom he openly discussed evolution in the 1840s and 50s.

By the mid-19th century, evolution simply was not the outrageously blasphemous concept that we imagine. It was certainly 'fringe' in scientific circles, but far from unprecedented. Geologists like James Hutton and Charles Lyell had already shown that the Earth was millions of years old and constantly changing. Various theories of transmutation (as evolution was then known) had been kicking around for decades. Even Darwin's grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a noted physician during the Enlightenment, had proposed his own evolutionary theory, suggesting that "all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament."

 
Charles Darwin (left, pictured with his son William in 1842) and Joseph Hooker (right) became lifelong friends in the 1840s and often discussed Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Unknown/Wikimedia Commons (public domain); Kew Royal Botanical Gardens (public domain)

Charles Darwin (left, pictured with his son William in 1842) and Joseph Hooker (right) became lifelong friends in the 1840s and often discussed Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Unknown/Wikimedia Commons (public domain); Kew Royal Botanical Gardens (public domain)

 

If one scientist readied the world for evolution, it was Frenchman Jean Baptiste de Lamarck. In his Philosophie Zoologique (1809), Lamarck argued that an organism's body structures grow and shrink over its lifetime due to use or disuse. These changes are then passed on to the next generation.

To support his theory, Lamarck pointed to the blind mole-rat, its eyes apparently degraded from generations of disuse in underground tunnels. Notably, Lamarck didn't believe that all species evolved from a common ancestor; instead, he thought that all life became more complex over time, and that new simple life was constantly being created through spontaneous generation.

Lamarck's brand of evolution, known as Lamarckism, was widely read and discussed in the early 19th century. But it wasn't until 1844 that evolution became a cultural phenomenon, with the publication of Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chambers, who published his book anonymously, argued that everything in the universe ‒ including humans ‒ was the product of evolutionary processes. Vestiges proved hugely popular in polite Victorian society, so much so that Prince Albert read it aloud to Queen Victoria.

 
Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (left) popularised evolution in Europe with his 1809 book Philosophie Zoologique (right). Unknown/Wikimedia Commons (public domain); Wellcome Trust/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (left) popularised evolution in Europe with his 1809 book Philosophie Zoologique (right). Unknown/Wikimedia Commons (public domain); Wellcome Trust/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

 

Despite its popularity, the arguments made in Vestiges were weak, and it was torn to shreds by its critics. The Reverend Adam Sedgwick, a geologist and early mentor of Darwin, wrote a lengthy, scathing review of the book and concluded from its "hasty jumping to conclusions" that the author must be a woman. Darwin, carefully cultivating his own theory of evolution, read Sedgwick's review "with fear & trembling, but was well pleased to find, that I had not overlooked any of the arguments."

Even so, Darwin knew that he couldn't convince his critics with a mere essay, since each statement would need “such an array of facts” to back it up. So he decided to publish his theory only after addressing every scientific criticism that might be levelled against him. This was, indeed, a tall order, and one for which 20 years does not seem an exorbitant amount of time ‒ especially given the frequent illnesses that punctuated Darwin’s work, and the other projects to which he dedicated so much time.

In particular, Darwin considered the behaviour of social insects a significant conceptual hurdle, since natural selection should in theory select against individuals who sacrifice reproduction for the good of the group. As late as 1857, Darwin was still struggling to reconcile this behaviour with his theories before they could be published.

 
Darwin considered the behaviour of social insects a particular challenge to his theory of evolution. Jennifer C./Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Darwin considered the behaviour of social insects a particular challenge to his theory of evolution. Jennifer C./Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

So where did this fear narrative about Darwin come from? Van Wyhe traces its origins to the 1940s, and it simply gained momentum from there. Suitably-primed historians see what they want to see, and for decades they both expected and saw fear in Darwin's procrastination. In an 1844 letter to the botanist Joseph Hooker, Darwin even seems to liken his belief in evolution to a heinous crime:

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. [...] You will now groan, & think to yourself ‘on what a man have I been wasting my time in writing to.’— I shd, five years ago, have thought so.

Yet Darwin had been corresponding with Hooker for only two months when he volunteered this supposedly intimate confession. More likely, he was being humorously dramatic in admitting his interest in an unconventional scientific belief.

As for Darwin wrestling painfully with his religious beliefs, he wrote himself that his conversion to agnosticism in the late 1840s "was so slow that I felt no distress.” That's a far cry from the tortured soul played by Paul Bettany in the film Creation. Even Darwin’s wife Emma, who was deeply religious, was a keen proof-reader of the Origin of Species manuscripts, often making helpful suggestions to improve the accuracy and readability of his work.

Darwin’s publication delay has seeped its way into how we picture Darwin, perhaps because it conforms to our expectations of what a scientific revolution should be ‒ a reluctant hero who struggles but ultimately triumphs against a hostile, unenlightened world. But if we look back into the historical record, we see only a careful, thoughtful scientist trying to be as comprehensive as possible.

Edited by Diana Crow