The three fears of Charles Darwin and the writing of The Origin of Species

April 4, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, writers, writing.

Three fears haunted Charles Darwin during the 15 years it took him to write and publish his history-changing work, The Origin of Species.

Two of them slowed his writing down. He feared that his work would be dismissed by the fellow scientists for whom it was written. That would have been a humiliation that he did not believe he could stand.

He also feared what his wife, a deeply religious woman, would think.

The final fear had the opposite effect from the first two. It drove him to finish and finish quickly.

He feared getting scooped.

Charles Darwin

All three of those fears were far worse in Darwin’s mind than they turned out in reality. Darwin had been a working scientist for more than a quarter of a century at that point. He was careful, meticulous, and thorough — far more thorough than he needed to be. Darwin spent years collecting evidence to support his theory and ended up with far more evidence than he needed.

During all of that time, Darwin carefully cultivated many friendships and relationships among scientists. He spent much time reading and responding to papers sent to him by other scientists. He gentle and gentlemanly manner often won people over even when they did not agree with his solutions.

When Origin of Species was published in November 1859, it was favorably and sometimes glowingly reviewed by many of the people who knew him and his work very well. The reception of the book, both by the public and by fellow scientists, was immensely favorable.

As to the second fear — Darwin’s wife’s reaction — he had taken some pains to alleviate what might be a problem. He had been careful not to deal with human evolution in this book. The idea of evolution had been a matter of public and scientific discussion for a while, and the idea that man had “descended” from apes was already in the public’s mind. But Darwin did not say that, and the Church of England’s response to the book was initially fairly mild.

Darwin’s wife Emma rejoiced at Charles’ good fortune in having the book so well received. According to Paul Johnson’s biography of Darwin (Darwin: Portrait of a Genius):

She was a loyal wife, and her support and evident approval of the book as a work of professional scholarship removed a huge burden from Darwin’s shoulders. (p. 95)

Darwin’s third fear arrived in the form of a letter and a manuscript in the late spring of 1858 from Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace had been researching the development of species along the same lines as Darwin and was coming to the same “natural selection” conclusion. Darwin has first outlined his idea of natural selection in 1839 and had expanded its explanations in 1844. Darwin could thus claim that he had the idea first.

But the claim would be meaningless unless he formalized the idea and published it in a book.

Darwin quickly set to work that summer. He had envisioned a multi-volume work that would include much of his research.  Now he had to summarize it in one tight volume. And he had to do it quickly. In the words of biographer Johnson:

. . . Wallace’s intervention was an astounding stroke of luck for Darwin, typical of the good fortune that attended him throughout his life. For it did stir him into action of precisely the kind required. He began to write, with all deliberate speed, a general account of evolution by natural selection, that could be understood by the public and contained to one reasonable-sized volume. (p. 79)

The book was ready by the fall of 1859 and was published on November 22. The first printing of 1,200 sold out in a day. It continued to sell and has not been out of print for more than 150 years.

Nothing about how mankind viewed its origins would ever be the same.


Note on Alfred Russel Wallace: Wallace was doing research in South Asia when Darwin’s book was published, but he never felt that Darwin had cheated him out of the proper credit for the idea of natural selection. Wallace continued his line of research, and he and Darwin remained cordial for the remainder of their lives. Watch this five-minute video about Wallace by the BBC’s Richard Attenborough.


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