III. How Was Darwin’s Theory of Evolution First
Many people assume that upon
publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species that its weight
of argument was so convincing, belief in his theory was compelled from
Not so. In fact most scientists initially rejected
it. It is true that within 20 years his theory had received general
acceptance; but this was not so much due to the weight of argument as
the prevailing climate of the times. For example, Cynthia Eagle
Russett, a lecturer in American history at Yale University and
specialist in American intellectual history, observes that Darwin’s
theory was not so much a revolution as a catalyst for a much broader
emerging change that had been waiting in the wings:
Darwinism, superficially so sensational, actually focused the
inchoate strings of an even more basic shift in thought
patterns—away from supernaturalism, ultimate reality, and final
causes…. But, in fact, the Origin did not so much initiate as
accelerate a long-term trend that can be traced back at least as far
as the Renaissance, a trend toward secularism and humanism in the
broadest sense. There can be little doubt that the rough direction
of this trend had been well established long before Darwin…. The
fact is that the times were ripe for a reorientation of intellect,
and Darwinism offered itself as symbol and mechanism of such a
But the implications of Darwin’s theory were so vast
that the Pelican Classics edition of the Origin of Species
observes it "was greeted with violent and malicious criticism."2
Not only did his Origin (1859) receive
constant critical review, but "The scientific world also was almost
wholly against the Origin. In later years, T. H. Huxley,
speaking of the year 1860, described the situation by saying, ‘The
supporters of Mr. Darwin’s views were numerically, extremely
insignificant. There is not the slightest doubt that if a general
council of the church scientific had been held at that time, we should
have been condemned by an overwhelming majority.’"3
The reason for such criticisms is well expressed by
Michael Denton, M.D., a researcher in molecular biology and author of
Evolution: A Theory in Crisis:
The intuitive feeling that pure chance could never have achieved
the degree of complexity and ingenuity so ubiquitous in nature has
been a continuing source of skepticism ever since the publication of
the Origin; and throughout the past century there has always
existed a significant minority of first-rate biologists who have
never been able to bring themselves to accept the validity of
Darwinian claims. In fact, the number of biologists who have
expressed some degree of disillusionment is practically endless."4
This was true from the start. Below we present a
sampling of illustrations of the critical response. [The fact that a
few of these critics may have held to various evolutionary ideas or
may later have joined Darwinian ranks does not discount the validity
of their criticisms. Men can accept a theory which they acknowledge is
contrary to the facts and which they suspect may not be true for want
of, in their minds, a better theory to replace it.]
That the acceptance of Darwinism was by no means
universal can be seen from the review of Henry Fawcett (professor of
political philosophy at Cambridge) writing in Macmillan’s
magazine for December, 1860, Vol. 3, p. 81: "No scientific work that
has been published within this century has excited so much curiosity
as the treatise of Mr. Darwin. It has for a time divided the
scientific world into two great contending sections. A Darwinite and
an anti-Darwinite are now the badges of opposed scientific parties.
Each side is ably represented."5
As remains true today, many of the severest
criticisms of Darwin’s theory were from scientists. Philosophy
professor David L. Hull observes that Darwin had not "anticipated the
vehemence with which even the most respected scientists and
philosophers in his day would denounce his efforts as not being
properly ‘scientific.’" And, "With the publication of the Origin of
Species, large segments of the scientific and intellectual
community, turned on him."6
As Hull demonstrates, it was not only the scientists
who objected, it was also the leading philosophers of the day:
The leading philosophers, contemporary with Darwin, John
Herschel, William Whewell, and John Stuart Mill, were equally
adamant in their conviction that the Origin of Species was
just one massive conjecture. Darwin had proved nothing! From a
philosophical point of view, evolutionary theory was sorely
deficient. Even today, both Darwin’s original efforts and more
recent formulations are repeatedly found philosophically
objectionable. Evolutionary theory seems capable of offending almost
Further, the scientific reviewers were not
pre-disposed against the idea: "Many of the reviewers were competent
scientists honestly trying to evaluate a novel theory against the
commonly accepted standards of scientific excellence, and evolutionary
theory consistently came up wanting."8
Adam Sedgwick (one of the
founders of the science of geology in England, a colleague of Darwin
and Woodwardian professor of geology at Trinity College, Cambridge):
[In a letter to Darwin, December 1859; from Life and Letters
(1877), pp. 42-45]—"Parts of it [On the Origin of Species] I
admired greatly, parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore;
other parts I read with absolute sorrow, because I think them
utterly false and grievously mischievous. You have...started us in
machinery as wild, I think, as Bishop Wilkins’ locomotive that was
to sail with us to the moon. Many of your wide conclusions are based
upon assumptions which can neither be proved nor disproved....9
Sedgwick summarized his view of Darwin’s thesis as
From first to last it is a dish of rank materialism cleverly
cooked and served up.... It is like a pyramid poised on its apex. It
is a system embracing all living nature, vegetable and animal; yet
contradicting—point blank—the vast treasure of facts that the Author
of Nature has...revealed to our senses. And why is this done? For no
other solid reason, I am sure, except to make us independent of a
Richard Owen (M.D.),
Superintendent of the Natural History Department of the British Museum
and the leading comparative anatomist of his time:11
[From the Edinburgh Review, April 1860] "But do the facts
of actual organic nature square with the Darwinian hypothesis?…
Unquestionably not."12 Later he refers to the "defective information
which contribute, almost at each chapter" which prevent him from
believing in Darwin’s hypothesis of natural selection.13
William Hopkins. Hopkins
was an important mathematician who took his degree from Cambridge and
was influenced in his geological studies by Adam Sedgwick. His
analysis is described as "a detailed criticism of evolutionary theory
on the basis of the best views then current on the nature of
Hopkins’ approach was to demand of Darwin’s theory
"the same kind of general evidence that we demand before we yield our
assent to more ordinary physical theories. While we admit the same
principles of research, we cannot admit different principles in
interpretation, and yield our assent to the naturalist on evidence
which we should utterly reject in the physicist.... He who appeals to
Caesar must be judged by Caesar’s laws."15
Hopkins’ review (in which the above statements
occur) comes from Fraser’s magazine, June and July, 1860. He
further stated: "We venture to assert, without fear of contradiction,
that any physical theory of inorganic matter which should rest on no
better evidence than the theory we are considering, would be instantly
and totally rejected by everyone qualified to form a judgment upon
In commenting on Darwin’s method for overcoming his
many difficulties, Hopkins replies as follows:
It is thus by a vague hypothesis, entirely unsupported by facts,
that our author meets a difficulty which appears to us, as it has
appeared to many others, to be of the gravest magnitude....
[Darwin’s approach is] to found a theory, not on our knowledge, but
on our ignorance. Nor is this the only instance in which he seems to
have adopted similar reasoning.... We confess ourselves to have been
somewhat astonished at this bold manner of disposing of
difficulties.... We had imagined, too, that the facts reasoned upon
ought to be real, and not hypothetical.... We confess that the
adoption of such conclusions, unsupported by any positive and
independent evidence, merely on the demand of an unproved theory,
appears to us little consistent with the sobriety and dignity of
The defect of this theory is the wont of all positive proof,...18
In the statement of facts, the author is uniformly impartial. It
is difficult to conceive a fairer advocate. But when, in his
judicial capacity, he comes to the discussion of facts in their
theoretical bearings, we recognize a wont of strict adherence to
philosophical and logical modes of thought and reasoning. There is
one great and plausible error of this kind which pervades nearly his
whole work. He constantly speaks of his theory as explaining certain
phenomena, which he represents as inexplicable on any other theory.
We altogether demur to this statement.19
Henry Charles Fleeming Jenkin
(Professor of Engineering at Glasgow University who worked with Lord
Kelvin in laying the Transatlantic Cable). Jenkin’s review, quoted
from The North British Review, June 1867, in the words of
Darwin "has given me much trouble."20
The chief arguments used to establish the theory rests on
We are asked to believe all these "maybes" happening on an
enormous scale, in order that we may believe the final Darwinian
"maybe" as to the origin of species. The general form of his
argument is as follows:—all these things may have been, therefore my
theory is possible, and since my theory is a possible one, all those
hypotheses which it requires are rendered probable. There is little
direct evidence that any of these maybes actually have been.
Many of these assumed possibilities are actually impossibilities,…22
Jenkin stated of evolution that "its untruth can, as
we think, be proved…"23
and "any one of the main pleas of our argument, if established, is
fatal to Darwin’s theory."24
He concluded, "A plausible theory should not be accepted while
unproven; and if the arguments of this essay be admitted, Darwin’s
theory of the origin of species is not only without sufficient support
from evidence, but is proved false by a cumulative proof."25
(Physiologist and Professor of Geology at Dublin University). In the
Natural History Review (1860, Vol. 7, pp. 23-32) Haughton
How does it happen that a theory of the origin of species, which
rests upon the same [wholly unfounded] basis, is accepted by
multitudes of naturalists, as if it were a new gospel? I believe it
is because our naturalists, as a class, are untrained in the use of
the logical faculties by which they may be charitably supposed to
possess in common with other men. No progress in natural science is
possible as long as men will take their rude guesses at truth for
facts, and substitute the fancies of their imagination for the sober
rules of reasoning.26
(to be continued)
1. Cynthia Eagle Russett, Darwin in America:
The Intellectual Response 1865-1912 (San Francisco: W. H.
Freeman & Co., 1976), pp. 216-27.
2. Charles Darwin (ed. J. W. Burrow), The
Origin of Species (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1974), p. i.
3. Robert E. D. Clark, Darwin: Before and After
(Chicago, IL: Moody, 1967), p. 63.
4. Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in
Crisis (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler Publishers, Inc., 1986), p.
5. David L. Hull, Darwin & His Critics: The
Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by the Scientific
Community (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), p.
6. Ibid., pp. 3, 6; cf., Robert E. D. Clark,
Darwin: Before and After (Chicago: Moody Press, 1967), p. 63.
7. Hull, Darwin & His Critics, p. 7
8. Ibid., p. 14.
9. Ibid., pp. 157-58.
10. In Ibid., p. 169, citing John Stuart Mill,
The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill (NY: Columbia University
Press, 1924), p. 140.
11. Hull, Darwin & His Critics, p. 213.
12. Ibid., p. 193.
13. Ibid., pp. 208-09.
14. Ibid., p. 273, cf. pp. 230-231.
15. Ibid., pp. 230-31.
16. Ibid., p. 275.
17. Ibid., pp. 263-65.
18. Ibid., p. 266.
19. Ibid., p. 267.
20. See Darwin to J. D. Hooker, January 16, 1869
in More Letters, Vol. 2, p. 379 from ibid., p. 302.
21. Hull, Darwin & His Critics, p. 338.
22. Ibid., p. 338.
23. Ibid., p. 340.
24. Ibid., p. 343.
25. Ibid., p. 344.
26. Ibid., p. 227.