Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

Darwin in Four Minutes


Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), expert in barnacle taxonomy, lived his life as an omnivorous reader, letter-writer, and pack-rat. He attended college and traveled abroad, married his cousin Emma, and settled at Down House. There he wrote books, doted on his many children, and suffered bouts of chronic dyspepsia.

We don’t remember Darwin much for these details, eclipsed as they are by his work on evolution. But they are worth noticing if only to make a simple point. Darwin did not live life in anticipation of becoming the father of modern evolutionary biology, a status that seems almost inevitable when we read about Darwin’s life now. Despite the distance of time and culture which separates us from Darwin, he went about his business much as we do: working too much, getting sick and getting better, fretting about others’ opinions, and seeking solace among his friends and family.

In spite of the scrutiny paid to evolution, or perhaps because of it, we continue to see Darwin through a glass darkly, distorted by a body of literature that, despite sophisticated analysis and a Homeric attention to details, reduces his life to the prelude and post-script of the modern era’s most important scientific theory. This is not to beat up on the “Darwin Industry” which has produced a number of superbly researched, balanced portraits of Darwin. But the nuance of such works cannot overcome the weight of Darwin as a mythic figure in the popular imagination.

So what should we remember about Darwin?

He was not the “father” of evolution. The idea that species could change over time had a long history that predates Darwin. “Transformism,” as evolution was called, had many adherents including French naturalists Comte de Buffon and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Even Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, took up the cause, defending the idea in his book Zoonomia (1794-96). But by the mid 19th century, transformism carried with it the whiff of quack science and radicalism. For the empirically-minded European naturalist, accepting transmutation of species was akin to believing in Sasquatch, an idea made all the more unpalatable because it brought with it an uncomfortable proximity to lower social classes and leftist political causes.

Darwin’s reputation rested on different grounds.  He did not become the buzz of London because he supported transformism. Rather, he brought to the defense of transformism a stunning, almost overwhelming, body of evidence. In Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin gathered his data from a number of different fields: comparative anatomy, taxonomy, biogeography, geology, and embryology. Darwin had come to the idea of evolution relatively early in his scientific career. A sketch of an evolutionary tree appears in Darwin’s notebook in 1837. But Darwin kept his views close to his chest, amassing arguments and pieces of evidence over the next twenty years.


But this wasn’t the only reason why Darwin’s monograph flew off bookshelves faster than The Da Vinci CodeOrigin of Species posited an entirely novel mechanism of evolution, natural selection, which explained why species change over time. According to Darwin, all populations quickly outgrow the ability of their environments to sustain them. Ultimately individuals of a species are forced to compete with one other for limited resources, winnowing the ranks of survivors to those who are best adapted to the conditions around them. These survivors pass on their successful traits to their offspring and change the constitution of the population accordingly.

Sounds tidy enough, but natural selection had to compete with a number of other possible mechanisms for evolution. For Buffon, species “degenerated” over time, moving away from their original form. For Lamarck, species changed when individual organisms become modified during their lifetimes and passed down these modifications to their offspring (also known as the inheritance of acquired characteristics). For others, evolution showed the handiwork of the Creator who nudged species, humans in particular, up the ladder of perfection.

In today’s world of creationist parks, polarized school boards, and dueling fish decals, the battle line has been drawn over the idea of evolution. Do species change over time? This is the question that sends evolutionists and biblical literalists charging down the hill at each other like the kilt-clad armies of Mel Gibson. But this was not always the case. In Darwin’s day, evolution had broad (though not universal) support from naturalists as well as liberal members of the clergy.

It was not evolution but natural selection which ruffled feathers. For many nineteenth-century Britons, natural selection seemed Deist at best and nihilist at worst. After all, what room did Darwin allow for God if nature was doing all of the selecting? As a result, many chose to believe in a theistic or “teleological” version of evolution which accepted Darwin’s evidence for evolution but rejected the mechanism he thought lay behind it.

To be fair, even Darwin had his doubts about whether natural selection could explain all aspects of species change. Later editions of Origin of Species left the door open to other mechanisms of evolution, particularly the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Only in the early twentieth century did natural selection finally win the day among professional scientists.

All of this had led some modern critics of Darwin to point out that his work falls short of certainty, that gaps in the evidence, particularly in the existence of intermediate fossils, doom the ideas of Origin of Species to the status of theory. Nothing about this charge would have upset Darwin. Indeed, he said as much himself in Origin of Species, devoting sections of the book to  “Difficulties on Theory,” and  “The Imperfection of the Geological Record.”

Where critics see lemons, Darwin saw lemon meringue pie (recipe circa 1847). While Renaissance scholars once aspired to certainty in the study of nature, this had changed by the 19th century as naturalists realized that the “see it with my own eyes” standard of proof worked poorly in trying to understand phenomena that took place far away or in the deep past. Indirect evidence could never yield certainty, but it could be used to develop provisional ideas that gained or lost strength on their ability to account for new data.  By this standard, Darwin’s two theories, evolution and natural selection, have held up amazingly well over the past 150 years.  That Darwin was comfortable in accepting his work as “theory” may seem like evolution’s Achilles heel to Creation Scientists and Intelligent Designers, but it is exactly this feature which places his research firmly within the era of modern science.

Thanks to Dr John van Wyhe, Director of The Complete Works of Darwin Online, for permission to use Darwin Online images for this post.

Other posts on Darwin:

Digital Archive: Charles Darwin

The Beagle Project


Darwin Sites and Blogs:

Darwin Online

The Dispersal of Darwin

The Beagle Project Blog

History of Science in the 19th Century:

Ether Wave Propaganda



  darwinsbulldog wrote @

Hi Michael:

A very consice, quick portrayal of Darwin, showing how the popular conception of him is sometimes wrong (for example, that natural selection was accepted immediately). Do note, however, that “On the Origin of Species” sold out in one day to the book trade (booksellers). How fast it sold to individual buyers, I am not sure.

I do like your comparison of Kansas school boards to Braveheart-ish armies. I am starting a research paper for a public history course, on the creation-evolution issue as it happened in a small Montana town (Darby) in 2004, exploring how the history of the issue may shed light on current events, and – here’s the tricky part – how the issue could be resolved.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Good point about the booksellers, Michael. I didn’t know that. I’ll be interested to see what you find out about Darby when you’re finished with your research. Perhaps you could offer a synopsis of it on Dispersal of Darwin.

  dave s wrote @

Nice summary, but Darwin’s main reputation rested on different grounds. He became the buzz of London long before he supported transformism – firstly because of the extremely rare fossils he sent home, then because of the geological notes from his letters home whch Henslow printed and distributed, showing his inventive speculation about the movement of land and the formation of coral atolls. He already had a reputation as a first rank geologist and collector when he arrived home from the Beagle voyage, and his reputation spread beyond the scientific elite with the publication of his popular Journal and Remarks – nowadays usually known as The Voyage of the Beagle.

While many chose to believe in a theistic or “teleological” version of evolution which accepted Darwin’s evidence for evolution but rejected the mechanism he thought lay behind it, many others believed in a theistic or “teleological” version of evolution which accepted natural selection, with Darwin’s enthusiastic support – see Asa Gray’s writings at http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/content/view/110/104/

Also, it’s wrong to suggest that it was just later editions of Origin of Species that left the door open for other mechanisms, notably inheritance of acquired characteristics – see the section which starts on page 134 of the first edition with “Effects of Use and Disuse.—From the facts alluded to in the first chapter, I think there can be little doubt that use in our domestic animals strengthens and enlarges certain parts, and disuse diminishes them; and that such modifications are inherited….”

  Michael Robinson wrote @


Thanks for the comments. I don’t want to quibble “buzz.” You’re right about Darwin’s prior reputation, but wouldn’t you admit that his work on evolution vaulted him to a new level of celebrity? CD acknowledged inheritance of acquired characteristics in the first ed of Origin, but gave it greater heft in later editions. Quite right about Gray, good point.

  dave s wrote @

The trouble with the “buzz of London” statement is that it’s too parochial – just think about how quickly pirate editions of the Origin were published in the US. The other thing that needs debunked is the idea that he was only known for evolution. Here’s a suggestion for reworking the start of that paragraph –

“Darwin was already eminent as a geologist and author of the travel book “The Voyage of the Beagle” before he revealed his support for transformism. However he did not gain international fame because he supported transformism. Rather, he brought to the defense of transformism a stunning, almost overwhelming, body of evidence….”

I thought of making it “he did not become an international superstar” because that’s closer to the mark, but rather anachronistic. As for inheritance of acquired characteristics, commonly misnamed “Lamarckism”, this was something Darwin believed from the outset and never let go, but as you say emphasised it more because it gave a counter argument to the idea that inherited characteristics would blend back to an original rather than varying to the extent of speciation. If only he’d read that paper by Mendel! So, rather than saying “Later editions of Origin of Species left the door open..” it should really be “All editions of Origin of Species left the door open…”

  John wrote @

Darwin plagiarizes to Pierre Tremaux?

I leave you the link to scientific paper that it affirms that to the idea of allopatric speciation borrow of a book of Pierre Tremaux.

Trémaux on species: A theory of allopatric speciation (and punctuated equilibrium) before Wagner


Tremaux’s Book: Origine et transformations de l’homme et des autres êtres, 1865″ http://fon.gs/tremaux-book-google/

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks for the links to Tremaux. Even if Tremaux’s work influenced Darwin’s third edition of Origin (which I don’t know well enough to confirm one way or another), I don’t think it changes the way we view the impact of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (which was already apparent by 1865, six years after the first publication of Origin). Perhaps the bigger story here, as the Wilkins article suggests, is Tremaux’s possible influence on S. J. Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium a century later, an interesting proposition!

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