Mendelsohn explored the milieu in which Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” 150 years ago, reveal its other evolutionary thinkers, and shed light on skeptics from the worlds of religion and science.
By Brian Handwerk
Special contributor to NatGeo News Watch
Charles Darwin’s evolutionary ideas shook up the scientific world when On the Origin of Species appeared 150 years ago–but just what was “The World Before Darwin” like?
But Mendelsohn explains that society had begun to shift during the decades before Darwin’s book was published in 1859. Political and industrial revolutions had unfolded, traditional religious orthodoxies were being unsettled, and science was also shifting with the times.
“By the time Darwin wrote there was a readiness to accept the basis of the theory,” Mendelsohn said. “It was [really] opposed at the religious end, and by some I’d call scientific fundamentalists, who are those committed to a scientific creationist view of a great design in nature.”
Photo of Everett Mendelsohn courtesy Harvard University
Evolution Before Darwin
Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck penned an embryonic theory of evolution in his 1809 “Zoological Philosophy,” which influenced Darwin. In 1844, Robert Chambers anonymously published “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,” which was short on sound science but “Darwin’s argument at the core,” Mendelsohn said in an interview.
Darwin had already developed his own theory in simple form as early as 1837, just a year after his return from the legendary Beagle voyages. That year he expressed the possibility in a notebook that “one species does change into another.”
But Darwin painstakingly gathered data for his sure-to-be controversial theory for another two decades–and was almost beaten to the punch.
In 1858 Darwin received a letter from naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace had collected specimens in the Amazon and islands of Southeast Asia and developed his own theory of evolution–which had striking parallels to Darwin’s, though Darwin had written the core of his own idea long before and shared it with some select colleagues.
“I never saw a more striking coincidence,” Darwin wrote to his friend the eminent geologist Charles Lyell in June, 1858. “If Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract!”
Fear of preemption finally spurred Darwin to take his own views to the public.
“On the Origin of Species” exploded onto the scene and sold briskly–but not everyone was a fan.
Monkey Business at Oxford
The book sparked a now-legendary June, 1860 debate at the Oxford University Museum involving Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker and others.
Legend holds that Wilberforce asked Huxley whether he traced his descent from a monkey through his grandfather or grandmother’s line. Huxley is said to have responded that descent from a monkey would carry no shame, unlike descent from a gifted man who used his talents to hide the truth.
The botanist Hooker reported to his friend Charles Darwin in a July, 1860 letter that the room was crammed with perhaps a thousand people.
“The battle waxed hot. Lady Brewster fainted, the excitement increased as others spoke–my blood boiled.”
How a British satirist saw Charles Darwin in the 19th Century
Darwin himself was sensitive to the continuing and sometimes spiteful attacks on his book. “But the effect on me is that I will buckle on my armour & fight my best,” he wrote to Asa Gray in May, 1860.
By his death in 1882, Darwin’s well developed argument and overwhelming evidence had won that fight and convinced most of the scientific community that the evolution of species was a reality–leaving the world after Darwin a much different place than it once had been.
Darwin: Live on the Web
“The World Before Darwin” is the first of a free webcast lecture series in which some of the world’s top scientific minds will tackle evolutionary topics.
Later speakers will include Jonathan Weiner (October 7) and Sean Carroll (November 4) on “On the Origin of Species” itself, and E.O. Wilson on the future frontiers of evolutionary biology (November 24).
The series was organized by a group of volunteer Darwin devotees who also hope to rally 1,000,000 users to a Facebook group (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=53320310123) celebrating this year’s 150th anniversary of “On the Origin of Species.”
Darwin Facebook campaign:
Darwin Devotees Make “Father of Evolution” Facebook Superstar
Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life joined a Facebook group devoted to the celebration of this year’s 200th anniversary of the birth of the “Father of Evolution,” Charles Darwin. Now the organizers of the Facebook group are hoping hundreds of thousands more will sign up to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Darwin’s famous book, On the Origin of Species.
Darwin’s First Clues (National Geographic Magazine)
Was Darwin Wrong? (National Geographic Magazine)
PHOTOS: 7 Major “Missing Links” Since Darwin (National Geographic News)
“Instant” Evolution Seen in Darwin’s Finches, Study Says (National Geographic News)
Darwin’s Secret Notebooks (National Geographic Channel)
PHOTOS: How Do Species Evolve? (National Geographic News)