Charles Darwin waited over 20 years to publish his theory of evolution by natural selection, primarily to develop a concrete report and thus, avoid rejection from both the scientific and religious community. Darwin certainly faced intense criticism from the church and leading religious thinkers; however, his theory was at least in part accepted by a large number of influential scientists. On the Origin of Species (by Charles Darwin) sold out almost immediately following publication and, in honor of the work he had done for the scientific community and society at large, Darwin was buried in the renowned house of God, Westminster Abbey, beside kings, queens and other famous figures from British history. In other words, Darwin did not face the harsh critique or the reactions to “On the Origin of Species” he had been so concerned about.
Nevertheless, his ideas still faced rejection and, when they were first published, very few people fully accepted them. The idea that humans are a result of chance and evolution, not of fate and purpose, represented a significant threat to some of the principle ideas of Christianity. In response, some of his critics used religious debates to negate Darwin’s hypothesis, stating that concepts such as natural selection were incompatible with Christianity and did not allow room for essential species. However, many criticized his work itself. Renowned scholars such as Adam Sedgwick, John Herschel and John Stuart Mill critiqued Darwin’s scientific method, claiming that it was too subjective and based on the method of hypothesis and thus, proved nothing. Adam Sedgwick went as far to state that, “parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore…you (Darwin) have deserted the true method of induction…many of your wide conclusions are based on assumptions.”
Darwin largely distanced himself from this critique, and any scientific and moral controversies that his opponents presented. Instead, it was Thomas Henry Huxley that truly fought for Darwin’s natural selection theory, even dubbing himself ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ and Darwin once referred to him as, “My good and kind agent for the propagation of the Gospel – i.e the devil’s Gospel.” Huxley fiercely lectured in favor of Darwin to huge crowds of people, including Karl Marx. Huxley played an important role in propagating and defending Darwin’s work. He even argued for separating religion from science.
However, even Huxley had his doubts about some of Darwin’s work. He argued that Darwin was incorrect in so fiercely supporting natura non facit saltum or nature makes no leap. Indeed, one major hole still existed in the theory of natural selection: the mechanism that enabled variations in populations. As one of his opponents St. George Mivart said, it was “The Incompetency of ‘Natural Selection’ to account for the Incipient Stages of Useful Structures” that Darwin’s argument lacked. In other words, how does an organism evolve from something so simple to something so complex? – a bird can only fly with a fully-developed wing (i.e the flightless cormorant). Darwin understood that populations consist of individuals that have physical variations, and that nature selects those variables most suited to the environment. However, Darwin was not able to explain why variations continued to occur even after a population was well adapted to an environment.
The European monk, Gregor Mendel, actually discovered this mechanism around the time that Darwin published his book; however, he was mostly ignored until the early 1900’s. Through experiments with plant breeding, Mendel discovered that the traits of the parents are recombined in the offspring, creating variations in populations. This idea came to form the basic principles of heredity and the foundation of modern genetics.
Thus, unaware of the key element that Mendel had discovered, society at large was slow to fully accept Darwin’s theory. ‘On the Origin of Species’ provided many answers to doubts that had arisen about the true age of the earth and the extensive fossil collection that had been discovered, yet it still left gaps in man’s understanding of evolution, and left many religious and scientific thinkers uncertain of the truth. When Darwin died in 1882, his work was generally accepted; however, not in its entirety. Members of society either embraced Darwinism, but modified, misunderstood or misinterpreted the theory to maintain their Christian beliefs, or simply embraced both teachings.
What remains true is that the work of Charles Darwin should be considered as one of the greatest achievements in humankind. To seek for a scientific and logical explanation, especially in front of such dogmatic society, can only get done by tenacity, kindness, assertiveness, and guts; this is who Charles Darwin was.
Blog Reviewed by: Francisco Dousdebés
Image Credits: Francisco Dousdebés