The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

Larry Holzwarth - December 6, 2019

Darwin was not the first to suggest that there was a relationship between man and other species. Nor was he the first to suggest that the earth and the creatures inhabiting it had changed, and were continuing to change, over eons of time. In 1844 a seminal work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, was published in England, proposing the idea of the transmutation of species. The book was speculative in nature and written in a manner which made it easily read by those with no scientific training. It became popular within London society, though its content was attacked by conservatives within the Anglican Church, which at the time controlled the seats of higher learning in Great Britain.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Charles darwin circa 1855. Wikimedia

Darwin was the first to propose the idea of the transmutation of species through the process of natural selection, presenting creation as an ongoing process. His theory was presented from observations made during the voyage of Beagle and subsequent experimentation, influenced by earlier works. With the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin generated a debate within the scientific and religious communities which continues to the present day. He was and remains reviled by some and lauded by others. Genesis or Darwin in school curricula remains a heated argument, which began shortly after Darwin’s work appeared. Here are some of the events following the publication of On the Origin of Species through Natural Selection.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Darwin’s revolutionary work on natural selection appeared in 1859. Wikimedia

1. The early reaction to Darwin’s work was muted

Darwin’s seminal work on evolution was released to the public on November 22, 1859, in Great Britain. The initial print run sold out, and Darwin began work on a second run almost immediately, with corrections and amendments to the text. He also added comments he received from an Anglican rector and novelist, Charles Kingsley, to the last chapter of the second edition. Kingsley had praised the original work, writing to Darwin, “if you be right I must give up much of what I had believed”. He added, regarding the act of creation, that it was, “…just as noble conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self-development”.

It was in the critical literary reviews that the subject of men descending from apes appeared, a theory which was not presented within Darwin’s work, though the inference could be clearly drawn. At the time, it was customary for literary reviews to appear anonymously, and behind that blanket many reviewers were scathing. The debate over Darwinism, as his theories were labeled by those opposing them, was in Britain part of the ongoing debate over separating the teaching of all branches of science from the control of the Anglican Church at the great seats of learning. A wholly different reaction occurred in the United States.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Botanist Asa Gray published Darwin’s work in America. Wikimedia

2. The evolution of species had long been debated by scientists

Charles Darwin has long been regarded as the first to propose the idea of evolution. He was not. The idea of evolution of species was proposed in Greece before the time of Socrates. Scientists and philosophers had long classified species in a hierarchical manner over a century before Darwin’s work. Yet all had, to that time, classified species as wholly independent of each other. The controversy over Darwin was based on his theory of natural selection determining the survival and transmutation of species. Natural selection, to his opponents, removed the divine act of the Creator.

In the United States, Darwin’s work was published by Asa Gray, a botanist (there was no international copyright protection at the time, and Gray received a 5% royalty for Darwin’s work, with the latter’s approval). Darwin’s work appeared in the antebellum United States torn over the issue of slavery and racial equality, and was received in that light. Northern colleges and universities widely accepted his theories of natural selection, those of the South rejected them largely on religious views, peppered, as it were, with the implications of the work indicating all races descended from a single common source.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Darwin depicted as an ape, from an 1871 satirical magazine. Wikimedia

3. In the American South Darwinism was presented as immoral

In the American South, Christian evangelicals rejected Darwinism out of hand, labeling it as an immoral refutation of Creation as described in Genesis. The arguments were based on literal interpretation of the Bible, which was often cited as supportive of slavery. Bible literalists were also concerned that refutation of any biblical stories, as natural selection did of the creation story, would render the rest of the Bible as invalid as a basis for law. The rejection of theories based on the fossil records which had emerged by mid-19th century was limited to a relative few; most clerics and lay scientists agreed that the six days referred to in the creation story were not necessarily 24-hour periods.

Darwinism, as it was called, was the basis of discussion over slavery, the emancipation of slaves, civil rights, the rights of the native American tribes, women’s suffrage, and other social issues in the United States from the time of Gray’s release of the Englishman’s work in America. The debate was almost entirely on religious issues, based on interpretation of the Bible. The scientific community accepted Darwin’s work and expanded on it. So did America’s Catholic community for the most part, at least as regarding evolution, though the process of natural selection proposed by Darwin was largely ignored.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Another satirization of Darwin’s work, which appeared in Punch. Wikimedia

4. Darwin was surprised that his work became popular with the general public

Charles Darwin had intended his work to be for the consumption of scientists, and expressed surprise that it became a popular book with a wide audience, particularly in America. After learning from Gray of its American reception, Darwin wrote to the botanist, “I never dreamed of my Book being so successful with general readers: I believe I should have laughed at the idea of sending the sheets to America”. He asked Gray to keep the share of the profits the latter had negotiated with the American publisher. The book’s popularity in Great Britain was likewise a surprise, as was the reaction of the religious community there.

Great Britain at the time did not have as large of a community of fundamentalists as the United States, and the religious debate in Europe took on a different tone than on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In Great Britain, the argument was centered on separating scientific education from the Anglican Church. Thomas Huxley, a leading proponent of such a reform, created a new word for those who expounded science by suspending religious belief; agnosticism. To Huxley, agnosticism meant one should, “follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard for any other consideration”.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Thomas Huxley was a spirited defender of Darwin’s work. Wikimedia

5. Thomas Huxley became known as Darwin’s Bulldog in the debate over natural selection

What is known in modern parlance as evolution was in Darwin’s day called development theory, and Huxley, a self-taught anthropologist and biologist, was not supportive of it, questioning what could be the basis of its operation. His position was that there was a lack of scientific evidence to support the theory. When he was one of a small group of scientists who were shown Darwin’s theory of natural selection before it was published, his response was, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that”. Huxley harbored doubts that natural selection was the driver of the evolutionary process, but accepted it as a working hypothesis for further study.

It was Huxley who wrote one of the earliest reviews praising On the Origin of Species for the Times of London in December 1859. He followed it with articles supporting Darwin’s methods of collecting and analyzing evidence which supported his theories, written for several publications. Reviews which panned Darwin’s work appeared in other British newspapers, among them the Edinburgh Review, written by Richard Owen. Another, by Samuel Wilberforce, appeared in the Quarterly Review. The hostile reviews demonstrated battle lines being drawn, to be resolved via academic debate, over the validity of Darwin’s scientific methods and the conclusions he had drawn.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
A caricature of Samuel Wilberforce from 1869. Wikimedia

6. Samuel Wilberforce was a leader of the opposition to Darwin in Great Britain

Samuel Wilberforce was a bishop of the Church of England when On the Origin of Species appeared in Great Britain. Renowned as a public speaker, Wilberforce was a member of the House of Lords (as Lord Bishop of Oxford) and a writer, who published the review of Darwin’s book in the Quarterly Review which ran over 17,000 words, and refuted Darwin’s findings. Wilberforce was socially prominent, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and educated in both mathematics and the classics. He was a lifelong friend of William Gladstone, a liberal, and a strident opponent of the implication from Darwin that mankind evolved from the apes.

Richard Owen was a geologist (as was Darwin) and paleontologist who over the course of his lifetime coined the words dinosauria and dinosaur. Owen agreed with Darwin over some of the latter’s theories of evolution, but denied both natural selection and the transmutation of certain species. Owen argued that the human brain was much larger in relation to the body than those of the apes, which indicated that they were not descended from the latter. Owen believed that among the existing species, humans were unique, and were not the result of transmutation of other species but the work of a divine Creative Power. His review panning Darwin’s work was published anonymously, and for a time he and Darwin remained friends, debating the work in private.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
1868 portrait of Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. Wikimedia

7. The 1860 debate over evolution at Oxford

Seven months after the publication of On the Origin of Species the British Association (a society and charity) held its annual meeting at Oxford. Charles Darwin was not present. Thomas Huxley was, as were Richard Owen, Samuel Wilberforce, and several others on both sides of the debate over evolution and natural selection. The main argument against Darwin had by then devolved into whether humanity had, through the process of natural selection and transmutation of species, descended from the same source as the apes. Though many opponents to Darwin accepted the theory of evolution (including Owen), they denied that humanity had been part of the process.

The debate was not a formal debate, but an argument which arose out of a discussion over a paper presented by John Draper of New York University, which discussed Darwin’s impact on Europe. The debate has often been presented as having been a victory of science over religion, though it was not. Most famously, Huxley responded to a question from Wilberforce, over whether he minded his grandmother being descended from a monkey with a retort. He said that he would not be ashamed to be descended from a monkey, but that he, “would be ashamed to be connected to a man who used great gifts to obscure a truth”.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
The Catholic Church of Pope Pius IX did not object to Darwin’s work. Wikimedia

8. Atheists received Darwin’s work with exuberance, though Darwin was not an atheist

Perhaps understandably, scientific evidence which questioned the fundamental beliefs over how humanity came into existence was welcomed by atheists. Hewett Watson was a botanist and phrenologist (one who compared size and shape of the cranium in relation to character traits) who worked extensively with Darwin, providing data and the results of experiments and studies. Watson was later one of the first scientists to suggest the different roles of the right and left sides of the human brain. He was also an atheist, who congratulated Darwin when his work was published.

Other atheists and doubters were enthusiastic in their response to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In the United States, fundamentalists considered anyone supportive of his views to be a heretic. Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church did not condemn Darwin’s views, and never has, choosing instead to accept the concept of evolution, including the transmutation of species, and to ignore the concept of natural selection. The position of the church allowed Catholics to accept the emerging science without consequently altering their religious beliefs or the catechism of the church.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Darwin left the religious debates over his work to his allies. Wikimedia

9. The Anglican Church in England rose in opposition to Darwin

The Anglican Church was a potent political force and the source of most scientific training in Great Britain when On the Origin of Species appeared, and in addition to Wilberforce, its leaders opposed Darwin’s findings. Though not all. Those of the church hierarchy with more liberal leanings supported Darwin’s theories, and presented the idea of natural selection as part of God’s divine plan for His creation. Conservative Anglicans were less receptive. One of the leading supporters of Darwin’s work was a priest of the church and mathematician Baden Powell. Powell (father of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts) called Darwin’s work a “masterly volume”.

Powell argued that creation included natural and physical laws, which could not be violated, and that the violation of which would be miraculous. Hence to Powell, the belief in miraculous intervention was in itself atheistic. Only adherence to faith in natural, physical, and spiritual laws was true belief in God. Darwin’s work, according to Powell, was an expression of natural law in action over thousands of years. Powell was one of seven scholars who contributed to a work supporting the theory of evolution published in the spring of 1860, Essays and Reviews, which supported the work of Darwin and other evolutionists.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Frederick Temple, one of the writers of Essays and Reviews, later became Archbishop of Canterbury. Wikimedia

10. Essays and Reviews revealed deep divides within the Anglican Church

The seven scholars who contributed to the work Essays and Reviews were free to select their topic and express their viewpoint, without regard for the established philosophy of the Anglican Church. Six of the contributors were ordained within the church, the only layman was a prominent lawyer. All of the authors were experts in other fields, including geology, mathematics, and theology. The essays were a challenge to the historicity of the Bible, including its presentation of the young earth, based on the fossil record and other geological developments, as well as Darwin’s presentation of evolution of species over eons of time.

Essays and Reviews, like On the Origin of Species, were intended for a limited audience of scholars, religious leaders, and practitioners of science. Instead, it became widely popular, and its arguments, though they did not directly support Darwin’s theories, were quoted as such by his supporters. In it, influential church leaders challenged the historicity of the Bible as it regarded the age of the earth, which had been a significant arguing point for those opposing the theory of evolution. The claim that evolution was impossible because of the biblical record of the age of the earth was refuted using geologic and theological evidence, supporting Darwin and confounding his critics.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Darwin did not specifically describe humans descending from apes in On the Origin of Species. Wikimedia

11. The beginning of the ape-man debate

Throughout the work On the Origin of Species, there can be found no direct statement that humanity descended from the apes, or from any other species. The inference can be readily drawn, however, and readily was, in a manner often sneering, as a means of dismissing Darwin’s overall work. When the book was published, Darwin withdrew himself from the debate, and the relentless attacks on his work and his character by churchmen. Criticism of his science he responded to, those of his religious views he did not. Darwin amended the original text for each subsequent edition during his lifetime, incorporating the views of critics and correcting what he later perceived to be errors in his original work.

Still, the view of the general public, untrained in science, was often shaped by what was heard from the pulpit. Darwin was unable to defend his work in the arena of religion, and it was left to his supporters. Until the sixth edition was published – the last of Darwin’s lifetime – the word evolution did not appear in the text. But it appeared in the written debates over Darwin’s work from the time of its first publication, as did the inference that Darwin believed man had descended from the apes. In Great Britain, the debate remained largely clerical and scientific, while in the United States it became visceral and often coarse.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Another caricature of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Wikimedia

12. Religious opposition to Darwin was most prevalent in the United States

In the United States, the scientific community embraced Darwin, and praise for his work was nearly unanimous. The religious community reacted with revulsion, and was highly vocal in its opposition. To the religious community, particularly among the fundamentalist movement, Darwin’s theories presented earth populated with creatures locked in an eternal struggle for survival, a brutal and savage world in which only the strongest survived. The idea of survival of the fittest became linked with Darwinism, though the term did not appear in his work.

Early in the 20th century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints issued its first official statement on the origins of humanity, stating that, “Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image, and endowed with divine attributes”. It was a position reflected in the beliefs of several of the religions of the United States, though some went further, challenging the theory of natural selection with biblical passages and claiming the account of creation in Genesis was irrefutable. The reaction to Darwin’s theory of natural selection in the United States created much of religious fundamentalism in the United States, which continued to argue against the science and its teaching in American schools into the 21st century.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Tennessee governor Austin Peay signed the Butler Act into law. Library of Congress

13. The Butler Act in Tennessee prohibited the teaching of evolution

John Washington Butler was a member of the Tennessee legislature who introduced a bill known as the Butler Act in 1925. It was his belief that, “the Bible is the foundation upon which our American Government is built”. Butler also asserted that the “evolutionist who denies the Biblical story of creation, as well as other Biblical accounts, cannot be a Christian’. The Butler Act, passed by the Tennessee legislature and signed into law in 1925 by Governor Austin Peay, made the teaching of evolution in schools within the state illegal. The Genesis account was the only basis of creation allowed in Tennessee schools.

The law was challenged following the Scopes trial (also known as the Monkey trial), when the verdict convicting a teacher for presenting evolutionary theory was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Though the verdict was overturned on a procedural technicality, the law itself was upheld, encouraging fundamentalists in other states to lobby for similar laws, which denied Darwinism and upheld the use of the Bible as the only source for the origination of the universe, and of humanity. The Butler Act remained in force in Tennessee until 1967. It was repealed by the Tennessee legislature that year, though similar laws remained in effect in several southern states.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Portrait of Darwin circa 1881. Wikimedia

14. The battle over the theory of natural selection continued after Darwin’s death

Charles Darwin continued to work on the process of natural selection for two decades after the publication of On the Origin of Species, collecting scientific evidence and collaborating with other evolutionists. By the time of his death in 1882 his theories, with some modifications, were widely accepted, and acceptance within the scientific community was nearly universal by the end of the 19th century. The theory of evolution also gained acceptance with the general public. In the early 20th century, particularly following the First World War, rejection of his work on religious grounds intensified.

As religious opposition intensified in the latter stages of Darwin’s life he was denigrated as an atheist in the arguments against his work. Darwin claimed to be an agnostic in the sense of the word as coined by Thomas Huxley – meaning that he followed his reason as far as it could take him – but denied he was an atheist. “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God…” he wrote. Darwin also addressed the existence of an afterlife, writing, “As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague possibilities”.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
An illustration from Darwin’s The Descent of Man. Wikimedia

15. Darwin did criticize Christianity in his autobiography

Charles Darwin wrote an autobiography, which was published following his death. Prior to publication many of his comments regarding Christianity were excised by his widow and son, anxious to preserve his reputation and protect his legacy from further attacks. It was a futile effort. The comments removed were restored to the work in 1958. One read, “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine”.

In 1915, as part of the evangelical movement to refute Darwinism and evolutionary science, a woman named Elizabeth Cotton (after marriage known as Lady Hope) claimed to have visited Darwin shortly before his death. Cotton claimed that Darwin expressed his regrets at having published the theory of natural selection, refuted it as false science, and converted to Christianity. Darwin’s family denied the story, which continued to be cited by religious opponents of evolution into the 21st century. In 1934 Darwin’s last surviving child, his son Leonard, called Cotton’s story “purely fictitious”, though it continues to be repeated among creationists.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury. Wikimedia

16. The Anglican Church came to accept evolution by the end of the 19th century

During the last quarter of the 19th century, the debate over evolution in the hierarchy of the Anglican Church in England led to gradual acceptance. Frederick Temple was a leading figure of the Church who was present at the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce and became a proponent of evolution. Temple delivered a sermon during the same conference in which in praised the insights provided by the science of evolution, and later (1884) delivered a series of lectures which claimed that evolution and religion were not mutually exclusive. Temple claimed that evolution, “is in no sense whatever antagonistic to the teachings of Religion”.

In 1896 Temple became Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England (under the titular head of the Church, the monarch of Great Britain). His elevation to the post indicated the broad level of acceptance of evolution as fact based on science in Great Britain. The Catholic Church likewise generally supported the science of evolution and the teaching of its tenets in Catholic schools, though it did not support natural selection, but rather divine intervention in the continuing transmutation of species. In the United States, several Protestant groups opposition to evolution, and it’s being taught in publicly funded schools, intensified.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
In the United States, resistance to Darwinism continued unabated. Wikimedia

17. Protestant groups within the United States called evolution a religious belief, not a science

In the 20th century, fundamentalists and creationists argued that evolution was not a proven science, but a theory unproven, and thus belief in evolution was in itself a religion. By establishing evolution as a religion, it is teaching in public schools was a violation of the Establishment Clause in the Constitution, which prohibits the state support of one religion over others. Teaching evolution meant teaching creationism – the story recounted in Genesis – as well. Evolution as a religion was just one of many arguments put forward by opponents to Darwin’s scientific findings.

From the publication of On the Origin of Species, the argument was put forth in the United States that Darwin was purporting an unproved theory which was in direct conflict with the infallibility of the creation account in the Bible. By the 1920s Bible literalists in the American south and west had successfully created laws that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public education. Some of the laws remained in effect until the late 1960s, when the Supreme Court of the United States decided they were a violation of the Establishment Clause, since they specified that the Genesis account was the sole authority on the creation of the universe and all which it comprised.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
William Jennings Bryan was a staunch believer of the Genesis story of creation, as well as literal interpretation of the Bible. Library of Congress

18. William Jennings Bryan campaigned against evolution in the 1920s

William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president unsuccessfully in three separate campaigns, became one of America’s most vocal opponents of evolution in the early 20th century. Bryan was not a cleric, but he was a devout evangelical, who published several religious-themed works, broadcast a radio program on which he preached sermons which were heard nationwide, and was a supporter of what became known as “day-age” creationism (in which the six days of creation in Genesis are not 24 hour days, but specific periods of indeterminate time). Day-age creationism attempted to reconcile Genesis with the geological record.

Bryan was appalled that leading members of established religions had embraced evolutionary theory, declaring it was compatible with religious teaching of their respective churches. He did not agree, and argued that literal interpretation of the Genesis account was unchallengeable. At the Scopes Trial, he was called as a witness by the defense, and in the end, his testimony was expunged by the judge, who called for a directed verdict of guilt by the jury. Bryan argued that what he called Darwinism was merely a “hypothesis“, and in a written speech the judge would not allow him to deliver but which he later published, he claimed, “science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals”.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Clarence Darrow lost the Scopes Trial, but gained a wider acceptance of evolution. Wikimedia

19. H. L. Mencken and Clarence Darrow boosted the evolutionists at the Scopes trial

During the Scopes trial, which was turned into a trial of the theory of evolution by defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, one of the audience members was H. L. Mencken. William Jennings Bryan was called to the stand as an expert on the Bible by Darrow, and despite the objections of the local prosecutor, he was allowed to testify. He testified with the jury outside of the room, and Darrow’s questions were barbed, such as asking how the light and the dark could have existed before the creation of the sun, as is related in Genesis. Though the jury did not hear Bryan’s testimony, and it was stricken from the record of the trial, Mencken heard it all.

Darrow had previously questioned a doctor from Johns Hopkins who gave, according to Mencken, “one of the clearest, most succinct, and withal most eloquent presentations of the case for the evolutionists that I have ever heard”. Of Bryan’s testimony, Mencken summed up after it was over: “He sat down as one of the most tragic asses in American history”. Darrow lost the trial, which was over Scopes violating the law by teaching evolution, and was an open and shut case. But Darrow and Mencken generated significant support for Darwinism outside of Tennessee as a result of the trial, and attempts to end its existence by limiting its teaching were blunted outside of the five southern states where it was already illegal to present evolution in public schools.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Creation science emerged as a means to get the Genesis story into public school classrooms. Wikimedia

20. The emergence of creation science was not entirely an attempt to disprove evolution

By 1959 – the centennial of On the Origin of Species – Darwin’s findings and subsequent works by himself and other scientists were considered mainstream science. It found opposition in few quarters, other than in fundamentalist Protestantism which supported the literal inerrancy of Genesis, as well as the rest of the Bible. A new form of creationism emerged in the following decade, called by its supporters’ creation science. Creation science disputed the evidence of evolution, offering its own explanations for “facts” which proved the Genesis narrative was literally true. Despite being called a science, neither the scientific community nor for the most part courts of law accepted it as such.

The scientific community rejected it as science, since among other things it offered no hypotheses supported or refuted by evidence. Nonetheless, by the 1970s creation science was taught in schools, as an alternative to the evolution as described by Darwin and subsequent scientists. In 1981 the Arkansas legislature enacted a law which defined creation science and mandated its presentation in schools. It included a provision for separate creation of humans and apes. In 1982 the law was struck down by the US District Court for Eastern Arkansas. The state did not appeal. In 1987 a similar law in Louisiana was struck down by the United States Supreme Court, which rendered the teaching of creation science unconstitutional.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Darwin considered the possibility of design in nature in his work. Wikimedia

21. Darwin anticipated the argument for intelligent design

In the latter years of the 20th century, the argument of intelligent design emerged, with some arguing that evolution is in fact the unfolding of creation as an act of intelligent design, not only of species, but of the entire universe down to the minutest detail. It was an argument presented in Darwin’s day, by astronomers who studied the heavens and naturalists who studied the earth. Darwin considered the argument, and in his autobiography wrote, “There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.”

Asa Gray, the botanist who arranged the publication of On the Origin of Species in the United States, corresponded frequently and at length with Darwin. Gray wrote of Darwin that he had addressed secondary causes in his theory of natural selection, not primary causes, that is, Darwin wrote of how organisms changed over time, not how they had come into being. The issue of creation was not a part of his work, which covered only change. Darwin himself did not believe that acceptance of his work required the rejection of a creator, nor of religion, nor of the Bible. The division was designed by those opposed to the idea that humanity evolved from lesser beings.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
A caricature of Darwin as a performing monkey from a French publication. Wikimedia

22. The development of Social Darwinism

While Charles Darwin was still alive various entities attempted to apply the concepts he had developed, which related to natural selection in nature, to both political and social elements. Under what was termed Social Darwinism, which Darwin had nothing to do with, the strong were meant to get stronger at the expense of the weak, who would correspondingly get weaker. Social Darwinism was a factor in the development of eugenics, authoritarian governments, imperialism, fascism, and Nazism. Following the Second World War the concept faded, but creationists resurrected it as part of their argument against Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which they claimed was dangerous to society as it promoted the concept of survival of the fittest.

Those promoting concepts which are included as examples of Social Darwinism seldom if ever used the term to describe their views. It has nearly always been applied by opponents in a disparaging manner. Supporters of Darwin in terms of evolution and natural selection argued that Darwin’s findings applied to natural events and were devoid of moral judgment. Based on the concept of survival of the fittest, which did not originate with Darwin but with Herbert Spencer, Social Darwinism was a major component of the development of Nazi policies, combined with their belief in a racial hierarchy and opposition to social welfare.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Darwin’s use of scientific method and his meticulously documented findings led to his acceptance by the scientific community. Wikimedia

23. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was accepted by most scientists

Within the scientific community at the end of the 20th century nearly all accepted Darwin’s theory of natural selection – 87%. But among the general public in the United States, 31% believed that the creation story of Genesis and correspondingly young earth explained how humanity came into being. Another 22% rejected Darwin’s explanation of natural selection and supported the idea of divinely guided evolution. In other words, 150 years after Darwin’s explanation of natural selection it was accepted by less than half of Americans.

In the state of Mississippi, nearly 44% of residents denied the existence of evolution as explained by Darwin and other scientists. Across the United States, nearly 70% of people who identified themselves as evangelical Christians believed that humans – in fact, all life present on earth – remained unchanged since creation. The United States held the highest percentage of evolution deniers in the modern industrialized world when the 21st century began.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Darwin illustration from a biology textbook circa 1914. Wikimedia

24. Attacks on Darwin have not eased with the passage of time

Since the appearance of On the Origin of Species, and increasing with Darwin’s later work, The Descent of Man, attacks on both his science and his philosophy have been common. Most of his science has withstood the tests of time and pressure from later scientific thought, which is the reason his views are widely accepted in the scientific community. But for those who viewed Darwin through the veil of religious opposition to his work, he remained a dangerous threat to their security. Creationists continued to attack him, and denigrate his work, for over one and a half centuries.

Darwin’s work was called racist, and teaching Darwin’s evolutionary work and natural selection in schools was decried as teaching racism to children. Some creationists claimed that racism in America was the result of teaching evolution in public schools. Attacks on Darwin’s character were also common, and continue to be, with creationists claiming that it was the scientist’s bitterness towards God following the death of a young daughter which drove him to attempt to disprove the creation story of Genesis.

The Reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Darwin’s theory of natural selection has always been a source of controversy and ridicule. Wikimedia

25. Darwin’s work became more controversial over time

When Darwin first released On the Origin of Species it was controversial among scientists and mainstream clergy. Gradually, over time and through his own continuing work, as well as that of other scientists, it gained acceptance among scientists, and the existence of scientific proof led to its acceptance by most mainstream religions. By the end of the 20th century, the only remaining controversy over his theory of natural selection was to be found among creationists who believed the only acceptable explanation for the existence of all life on earth was that to be found in Genesis. Even those who accepted the existence of evolution found ways to argue that Darwin was wrong.

The principal argument against Darwin throughout history was that the process he described was controlled by natural law. Creationists argued Darwin had eliminated a divine inspiration. But in Darwin’s whole body of work, there are references to divinity, including in his account of the voyage of the Beagle, when his discoveries first took root. Describing both Brazil and Tierra del Fuego Darwin wrote, “Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature-no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body”.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”. Charles Darwin. 1859

“The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: From The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin”. Charles Darwin. 2009

“Evolution: The History of an Idea”. Peter J. Bowler. 2003

“The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America”. James Moore. 1979

“Charles Darwin: The Power of Place”. Janet Browne. 2003

“The Church of Darwin”. Philip Johnson, The Wall Street Journal. August 16, 1999

“Acceptance of Evolution among American Mormons”. Joseph Baker, Journal of American Religion. 2018

“Author of the Law Surprised by the Fuss”. The New York Times, page 1. July 18, 1925

“Apes, Angels, and Victorians”. William Irvine. 1955

“Telling tales: evangelicals and the Darwin legend”. James Moore. 1999. Online

“Frederick Temple Archbishop of Canterbury: A Life”. Peter Hinchliff. 1998

“Is Darwinism a Religion?” Michael Ruse, Huffington Post. July 21, 2011

“William Jennings Bryan”. Article, American Experience. PBS. Online

“Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism”. Philip Kitcher. 1982

“Race: The History of an Idea in America”. Thomas F. Gossett. 1999

“For Darwin Day, 6 facts about the evolution debate”. David Masci, Pew Research Center. February 11, 2011. Online

“The Lie: Evolution”. Ken Ham. 1987

“The Voyage of the Beagle”. Charles Darwin. Project Gutenberg. Online

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