Darwin Week, part 4 – Darwin’s Legacy

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)

Darwin had published On the Origin of Species, and it achieved worldwide fame in a short period of time. It sparked fierce debates, and while Darwin was not available to attend these debates due to his recurring illness, his supporters were out in force. Thomas Henry Huxley in particular was such a fierce debater, he became publicly known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog.’

The religious views were mixed, with the Church of England against the book, and the liberal Anglicans praising Darwin’s work, and citing natural selection as an instrument of God’s design. The cleric Charles Kingsley said that natural selection was “just as noble a conception of Deity.” When it came time to publish the second edition of On the Origin of Species, Darwin quoted Kingsley in the last chapter, adding “by the Creator” to the closing sentence, which now read, “life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.” While some feel this is a concession Darwin made and later regretted, at the time Darwin still believed that God created life through these natural laws.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where the great debate took place. Image from WikimediaCommons.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where the great debate took place. Image from WikimediaCommons.

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‘Darwin’s Bulldog,’ Thomas Huxley. Image from WikimediaCommons.

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Samuel Wilberforce. Image from WikimediaCommons.

In June of 1860 at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce publicly spoke against Darwin’s work. Joseph Hooker and Huxley were in the audience and came to the defense; the debate between Wilberforce and Huxley was heated, with Wilberforce at one point asking Huxley,whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.” Huxley responded that, “he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.” While both sides of the argument claimed victory, the ball was more solidly in the Darwinian’s court.

In America, botanist Asa Gray read On the Origin of Species, and while he agreed evolution happened, he argued that it was a modus operandi, reflecting design of the Creator. He went on to publish a pamphlet, Natural Selection is not inconsistent with Natural Theology, which helped spread the idea of Theistic Evolution, which was a popular compromise.

Back in England, Richard Owen had been one of the first to review Darwin’s book; while he agreed with some points, he could not agree to mankind coming from apes. Darwin had long discussions with him and wrote to Lyell, “Under garb of great civility, he was inclined to be most bitter & sneering against me. Yet I infer from several expressions, that at bottom he goes immense way with us.” Owen grew furious when it seemed Darwin had lumped him in with others that defended the immutability of species; Darwin assured Owen he was looking at all of the evidence as a result of ‘designed laws,’ which

Darwin was the subject of satire often for his idea that humans evolved from apes. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Darwin was the subject of satire often for his idea that humans evolved from apes. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Owen interpreted as sharing his belief in a higher ‘Creative Power.’ However, Darwin had spoken more clearly to friend Lyell, stating that if all steps in evolution were planned, the “whole procedure would be a miracle and natural selection superfluous.”

Owen viewed the book as an “abuse of science to which a neighbouring nation, some seventy years since, owed its temporary degradation,” (referring to the French Revolution) and wrote a scathing review on it. Darwin read the review and wrote about it to Lyell, stating he felt it was “extremely malignant, clever & I fear will be very damaging. He is atrociously severe on Huxley’s lecture, & very bitter against Hooker. So we three enjoyed it together: not that I really enjoyed it, for it made me uncomfortable for one night; but I have got quite over it today. It requires much study to appreciate all the bitter spite of many of the remarks against me; indeed I did not discover all myself.– It scandalously misrepresents many parts. …. It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me.” As Darwin had respected Owen for some time, this was devastating to him, as he and others sought approval from their peers.

 

Still, Darwin was steadfast in his ideas, and was undeterred from his research. He kept writing, adding to his ‘big book,’ and collaborating with other scientists with his findings. He considered On the Origins of Species as merely an abstract to his greater idea, and wrote about human evolution. Huxley had already proven humans to related to apes due to similarities in skeletal structure, and it fit in well with Darwin’s initial hypothesis.

Darwin published his ‘big book,’ titled The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871; copies sold incredibly fast due to name recognition. However, it seemed to people that the ideas were old, with Darwin writing, Everybody is talking about it without being shocked,” which he believed showed the increase in liberal ideas in England.

Darwin's 'big book,' which delves into the evolution of humans, and introduces sexual selection as a mechanism for evolution. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Darwin’s ‘big book,’ which delves into the evolution of humans, and introduces sexual selection as a mechanism for evolution. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Darwin had ample evidence to show that mankind was descended from animals, as well as boldly stating that humans are all one species. He introduced the idea of sexual selection, and used it to explain traits such as the large plumage of peacocks which otherwise seemed to serve no purpose. Darwin concluded from this book “that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system–with all these exalted powers–Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”

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Huxley argued that anatomically, humans are apes. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Modern 'evolutionary tree' diagrams are much more detailed that the simple tree Darwin drew when exploring his theory. Image Source.

Modern ‘evolutionary tree’ diagrams are much more detailed that the simple tree Darwin drew when exploring his theory. Image Source.

While Darwin made remarkable strides in influencing the thoughts of people in his day, his legacy still lives on. Evolution is now accepted as the method for speciation, and there are entire branches in the sciences devoted solely to the study of it. It is taught in classrooms around the world, and is observed repeatedly in both the fossil record and shown in modern species we can observe. There are celebrations in early February of every year for his birthday and to spread knowledge of his ideas and research, as “the last 150(+) years have revolutionised our understanding of nature and our place within it.”

 

Further Reading:

van Wyhe, John (2008), Darwin: The Story of the Man and His Theories of Evolution, London: Andre Deutsch, ISBN 0-233-00251-0

Bowler, Peter J. (2003), Evolution: The History of an Idea (3rd ed.), University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-23693-9

Browne, E. Janet (2002), Charles Darwin: Vol. 2 The Power of Place, London: Jonathan Cape, ISBN 0-7126-6837-3

Leifchild (1859), “Review of ‘Origin'”, Athenaeum (No. 1673, 19 November 1859)

Huxley, Thomas (1863), Six Lectures to Working Men “On Our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature” (Republished in Volume II of his Collected Essays, Darwiniana)

Lucas, John R. (1979), “Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter”, The Historical Journal 22 (2), pp. 313–330, doi:10.1017/S0018246X00016848, PMID 11617072

Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James (1991), Darwin, London: Michael Joseph, Penguin Group, ISBN 0-7181-3430-3

Darwin, Charles (1860), “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”, Nature (2nd ed.) (London: John Murray) 5 (121): 318, Bibcode:1872Natur…5..318B, doi:10.1038/005318a0

Quammen, David (2006), The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, New York: Atlas Books, ISBN 0-393-05981-2

 

Larson, Edward J. (2004), Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory, New York: Modern Library, ISBN 0-8129-6849-2

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