Darwin Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin theorized that existing plant and animal species evolved from earlier living forms, providing an organizing principle for biology that cast serious doubt on the biblical story of Creation and launched a debate between science and religion that has continued into the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

Charles Darwin was born into a middle-class English family whose heritage included a deep interest in science. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin had earlier speculated about evolution, although, like the French theorist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the older Darwin attributed organic changes to the will of the organism seeking to adapt itself to its changing environment. Charles Darwin himself later claimed that his grandfather’s ideas had had little impact on him, and he disputed any comparison between his own work and Lamarck’s. It is known, however, that Darwin as a youth read his grandfather’s Zoönomia: Or, The Laws of Organic Life (1794-1796). Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;On the Origin of Species On the Origin of Species (Darwin) Evolution;and Charles Darwin[Darwin] Science;evolutionary theory Botany;and evolution[Evolution] Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;on natural selection[Natural selection] [kw]Darwin Publishes On the Origin of Species (Nov. 24, 1859) [kw]Publishes On the Origin of Species, Darwin (Nov. 24, 1859) [kw]On the Origin of Species, Darwin Publishes (Nov. 24, 1859) [kw]Origin of Species, Darwin Publishes On the (Nov. 24, 1859) [kw]Species, Darwin Publishes On the Origin of (Nov. 24, 1859) Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;On the Origin of Species On the Origin of Species (Darwin) Evolution;and Charles Darwin[Darwin] Science;evolutionary theory Botany;and evolution[Evolution] Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;on natural selection[Natural selection] [g]Great Britain;Nov. 24, 1859: Darwin Publishes On the Origin of Species[3340] [c]Genetics;Nov. 24, 1859: Darwin Publishes On the Origin of Species[3340] [c]Biology;Nov. 24, 1859: Darwin Publishes On the Origin of Species[3340] [c]Genetics;Nov. 24, 1859: Darwin Publishes On the Origin of Species[3340] [c]Science and technology;Nov. 24, 1859: Darwin Publishes On the Origin of Species[3340] Darwin, Erasmus Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste Buffon, comte de Huxley, ThomasHenry Lyell, Sir Charles Wallace, Alfred Russel

Darwin’s first interest was in becoming a physician like his father, but he found medical studies distasteful. Instead, he entered Cambridge University with the intention of becoming a clergyman, but once there he quickly developed his lifelong interest in the natural sciences and came into contact with some of the best naturalists of his day.

Editorial cartoon by John Leech (1817-1864) lampooning the notoriety that Charles Darwin was receiving after the publication of On the Origins of Species.

The most momentous development in Darwin’s life came when he traveled as the naturalist on the Royal Navy Royal Navy;Beagle expedition ship HMS Beagle Beagle, HMS , which left England in 1831 for South America. South America;and Charles Darwin[Darwin] Immersed as he was in geological investigations, his primary pursuit at the time, Darwin nevertheless became more and more interested in flora and fauna as the expedition progressed. The tremendous diversity of life that he encountered impressed him, and the old explanations for this diversity seemed altogether unsatisfactory. His experiences in the Galapagos Islands Galapagos Islands , off the western coast of South America, were particularly important. They jolted him into noting that although the islands’ climate was essentially the same as the nearby mainland, there were significant differences among closely related species on the various islands themselves.

The Beagle Beagle, HMS Royal Navy;Beagle expedition expedition lasted nearly five years. When Darwin left England, he had no particular ideas about evolution, but by the time he returned, he was convinced that biological evolution was a fact. This in itself was not unprecedented; there had been earlier theories concerning the evolution of species, but none had received general acceptance. Lamarck’s Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste concept had never found favor because by ascribing organic evolution to the will of the organisms themselves, it was an argument that was incapable of investigation. The French naturalist comte de Buffon Buffon, comte de had speculated that organic changes were determined by climatic and environmental factors. Yet, as Darwin noted, flora and fauna in similar climatic conditions were not necessarily similar.

Darwin was also familiar with the techniques used by animal breeders to raise new strains of animals with desirable characteristics. It was perhaps natural for him to ask whether any similar process occurred in nature. The answer occurred to him in 1838 after reading An Essay on the Principle of Population Essay on the Principle of Population, An (Malthus) (1798) by Thomas Malthus Malthus, Thomas Robert [p]Malthus, Thomas Robert;and Charles Darwin[Darwin] . Darwin realized that if a biological population always tended to outgrow the available sources of food, then there must be constant struggles for existence in nature. If this were so, then these struggles would play the roles of selective breeders, and animals that developed variations that aided their survival would pass their variations on to their progeny; thus the species will gradually evolve into a new species. Darwin’s initial theory did not account for the variations themselves but did provide a mechanism by which biological variations could be perpetuated.

Charles Darwin’s Voyage on the Beagle





Darwin was cautious. He first shared his theory with scientifically minded friends and performed various experiments to test different aspects of his theory. He did not rush into print but wrote a short account in 1842 for his own use. In 1844, he wrote a somewhat longer statement, but it also remained unpublished. In 1858, however, Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace Wallace, Alfred Russel , who had developed a similar theory of evolution independently. Wallace’s letter finally forced Darwin to action. On November 24, 1859, he brought forward what he considered to be an abstract of a much longer intended work. This abstract was the famous On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; Or, the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. The book was an immediate sensation. All 1,250 copies in its first printing were sold on the day of its release.

Reactions to Darwin’s ideas were mixed. A number of church leaders saw the book as a challenge to the historical accuracy of the Bible. Bible;and evolution[Evolution] Evolution;and Bible[Bible] Darwin’s book was not the first such challenge to the Bible, since many geologists, Geology including Darwin’s friend Charles Lyell Lyell, Sir Charles , were amassing evidence that the earth had existed for a much longer time than a literal interpretation of the Bible would allow. Consistent with the geological evidence, the process of natural evolution would require many millions of years, not the six days that the Bible’s Book of Genesis allowed for Creation.

Some scientists accepted Darwin’s theory quickly, others more slowly, and still others resisted it for years. The Anglican bishop Samuel Wilberforce Wilberforce, Samuel became the most outspoken opponent of the theory, while the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley Huxley, Thomas Henry took on the task of defending the theory at scientific meetings and in print—a challenge that did not fit Darwin’s temperament. Although Darwin did not specifically address the origin of the human species in On the Origin of Species, he presented his ideas on this topic to the public in 1871 in a second volume, The Descent of Man.


Although the evidence for evolution amassed by Darwin was voluminous and convincing to many, the theory as it first appeared was necessarily incomplete, as neither the mechanism of inheritance or of variation would be understood until the molecular biology of genes was fully investigated during the mid-twentieth century. Modern biologists, with access to far more fossil Fossils evidence than Darwin had available, generally accept the theory although many have added the notion of “punctuated equilibrium,” developed to take into account the well-documented “great extinctions,” during which large numbers of species disappeared in relatively short periods of time.

Darwin’s theory in its modern form continues to prove a source of controversy between science and religion Science;and religion[Religion] . Even in the early twenty-first century, many Christians objected to the teaching of evolution in schools. Since the Middle Ages, philosophers and theologians have taken seriously the possibility of a “natural theology,” that is, a body of beliefs about God that could be proven from ordinary experience by reason alone. Prominent within this field has been the “argument from design,” which infers from a highly organized universe the necessity for a supreme intelligence. From this point of view, the existence of highly complex organisms extremely well suited to survival each in its own environment could hardly be explained as the results of chance processes, even given enormous periods of time. In response to this, modern current evolutionary thinking is concerned with proving that random variation coupled with natural selection could give rise to complex structures such as the eye in complex organisms such as humans.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adler, Jerry. “Charles Darwin: Evolution of a Scientist.” Newsweek, November 29, 2005, 50-58. Exploration of Darwin’s personal struggle to reconcile his developing theories on evolution with his religious beliefs, with attention to modern challenges to Darwinism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aydon, Cyril. Charles Darwin: The Naturalist Who Started a Scientific Revolution. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002. Useful attempt to explain the theories described in On the Origin of the Species, and the subsequent debate over those ideas. Outlines the changing fortunes of Darwinian theories since Darwin first published them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Ronald W. The Survival of Charles Darwin: A Biography of a Man and an Idea. New York: Random House, 1984. Dual biography of Darwin and his theory that attempts to account for the survival of both Darwin’s scientific prestige and his theory in a field of immense opposition and competition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Darwin, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters. Edited by Francis Darwin. New York: Dover, 1958. First published in 1892, this autobiography provides a frank and readable account of Darwin’s intellectual development, including his changing religious convictions during the course of his work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin. Edited by Edward O. Wilson. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. First one-volume edition of Darwin’s most important books: Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle (1845), The Origin of Species (1859), The Descent of Man (1871), and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). This edition includes an introductory essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson, who also contributes a new introduction for each book and an afterword discussing evolutionary theory in the context of modern religious conservatism. Other features include a comprehensive index, reproductions of the original illustrations in Darwin’s books, and a map.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. New York: Basic Books, 1995. Concise presentation of evolutionary theory, taking into account the modern discoveries of molecular biology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Explores applications of the notion of evolution by natural selection within and outside the biological realm.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eiseley, Loren. Darwin’s Century. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958. An anthropologist, anatomist, and prolific writer, Eiseley provides a balanced picture of Darwin’s predecessors, allies, and opponents and the intellectual currents leading to the formation and acceptance of his theory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hodge, Jonathan, and Gregory Radick, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Collection of essays examining Darwin’s major theories, the development of his thinking, and how his thought has influenced philosophical, religious, and social debate.

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