How Charles Darwin Worked

A War of Ideas: Catastrophism, Creationism and Natural Selection

This 1860 London Sketchbook illustration typifies the criticism Darwin's theory received.
This 1860 London Sketchbook illustration typifies the criticism Darwin's theory received.
Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/­Getty Images

"On the Origin of Species" hit the market in November 1859. At the time, its 50-year-old author was still recovering from nausea at a secluded Yorkshire spa. Darwin fretted over the impending world reaction. He wrote letters to several prominent scientists, forecasting their initial reactions to his theories. "How savage you will be, if you read it," he wrote in one letter, "and how you will long to crucify me alive!" [source: Williams]. A war of ideas was brewing, and Darwin dreaded the coming storm.

­The theory of evolution had been around for decades, but it wasn't the sort of theory most respectable naturalists supported. It conflicted with predominant religious, social and scientific beliefs. Most scientists believed in a natural world that was much like a manufactured clock: God had created it and left it to simply tick along in unchanging harmony. George Cuvier explained the disappearance and emergence of life forms within a given area with natural disasters, in a theory called catastrophism. In this, one life form would become extinct following a volcanic eruption, and then new life forms would move in from a nearby area. The theory accounts for change, but without questioning divine creation or defining a truly fluid, changing system.

In "The Origin of Species," Darwin presented the theory of evolution with the mechanics of natural selection and painstakingly backed it up with research. But it would take more than diligent lab work to win everyone over -- it would take breeding and social status. Remember, this was Victorian England, and upper-class intellectual elites dominated the sciences.

Alfred Russel Wallace may have developed the idea of natural selection independently, but in addition to lacking Darwin's wealth of data; he also lacked his contemporary's stature. Darwin was a famed gentleman with several publications under his belt. While Darwin had never been forced to hold a paying job, Wallace struggled to finance his studies by selling specimens to wealthy collectors. Members of the scientific community looked down on the likes of Wallace as a mere tradesman.

Darwin quickly became a rallying point for evolutionary theory, with flocks of loyal scientists rushing to support him. In many ways, their effort resembled a modern-day public relations campaign. His supporters wrote multiple, positive reviews for publications and attended debates (the last place Darwin wanted to be) on the author's behalf. Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley regularly defended the author, earning him the nickname "Darwin's bulldog."

This arrangement allowed Darwin to seclude himself with his work and family, while Huxley and others fought off detractors and brushed off snide insults. As Darwin predicted, the religious community found his theories distressing and the media savaged him, stating outright what Darwin had skirted around in the book: Evolution meant that man descended from apes.

Meanwhile, Darwin struggled through health problems at Down House, corresponded with peers and continued his experiments with orchids and worms to refine his theories. Yet while he was a man driven by his work, his findings taxed him at times. When issues of inbreeding arose in his later works on flowering plants, he grew distressed over how his own offspring, born to Darwin's first cousin, might be affected. He would publish 11 more works before 1882, when, at the age of 73, he died of a heart attack.

­It would be years before the majority of biologists accepted natural selection as the driving force of evolution, but Darwin had devoted his life to theories that would change the world.