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

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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