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
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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