Charles Darwin, 1871

In Darwin’s day

Charles Darwin may be the name associated with evolution, but he was not alone in his radical thinking

Much is made of Darwin’s voyages on HMS Beagle and his encounters with Galápagos finches. Yet his theory of natural selection was not an inspired bolt from the blue. Other people had been thinking along similar lines – including Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

In the 1840s Robert Chambers, a publisher from Edinburgh, had caused ripples with his anonymous work, ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’, which championed evolutionary thinking in geology. And, of course, Alfred Russel Wallace came up with essentially the same idea as Darwin.

Wallace outlined his theory in a letter to Darwin. Darwin feared being scooped, but also did not want to cheat Wallace. He consulted eminent friends, who suggested that he outline his theories at a special meeting of the Linnean Society, along with a paper from Wallace. Darwin then set about describing all his evidence, which he published in ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859.

This book was truly revolutionary. Darwin himself was retiring and promoted his thinking mainly through letter-writing. It was people such as T H Huxley, often called ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, who fought his battles in public.

Huxley took part in evolution’s most famous confrontation, with outspoken critic of evolution Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Oxford in 1860. Wilberforce enquired whether Huxley was descended from apes on his mother’s or father’s side.

Amid uproar, Huxley retorted that he would rather be descended from an ape than a human who used “great gifts to obscure the truth”.

Huxley was not driven solely by a belief in ‘truth’. He was an academic outsider and wanted to establish his career in academia. Bishops held a stranglehold on learning – power that Huxley was keen to demolish.

Another important figure was Herbert Spencer. He was interested in people and society, and held that societies evolved towards ‘higher’ civilisations in a natural, organic way. He drew upon Darwin’s thinking to support his own ideas. It was Spencer who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, which Darwin slipped into later editions of his own book. The application of Darwinian thinking to social affairs has always been controversial.

Darwin’s book was a product of its time. (Interestingly, it was also helped by advances in printing technology, which brought books to a wider audience.) It captured, and built on, existing thinking, and reflected a Victorian obsession with progress and the march of civilisation. Even so, it remains one of the most important books ever written.

Lead image:

Colour lithograph of Charles Darwin, 1871.

Wellcome Library, London CC BY


Questions for discussion

  • Who else was thinking about evolution in Darwin’s time and before? How did their ideas differ from Darwin’s?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Evolution’ in January 2007 and reviewed and updated in December 2014.

Ecology and environment, Careers, History
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development