Charles Darwin’s plan for Origin of Species – and his luck

April 12, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, writers.

It helps to have a plan. It also helps to have luck.

Charles Darwin had both.

In fact, Paul Johnson, one of Darwin’s many biographers (Darwin: Portrait of a Genius), calls Darwin the luckiest man of his age.

The luck

Darwin’s stokes of luck began when he was born into a wealthy family — the kind of wealth that would free him to pursue his scientific research without worrying about feeding and housing himself or his family. Darwin came of age when science and scientists were creating new foundations for human knowledge, and many people were participating in building these foundations with avid enthusiasm. Darwin became part of this movement and exhibited a demeanor and temperament that attracted people to him.

Charles Darwin

He took great care in developing those friendships. One of the many friendships was with Sir Charles Lyell, a geologist whose book The Principles of Geology (1832), argued that scientific evidence showed that the earth, without any doubt whatsoever, was thousands, maybe millions, of years old. Such an argument flew directly in the face of Biblical scholars and theologians who had used the Old Testament to set the time of creation as occurring only about four to six thousand years before.

Over the years, Lyell became aware of the work that Darwin was doing, and he — as had others in Darwin’s retinue — urged him to publish his work identifying natural selection as the process whereby living organisms evolved.

But Darwin hesitated. He feared the rejection of his ideas by his colleagues, and he feared the reaction of Emma Darwin, his devout and devoted wife. (See The Three Fears of Charles Darwin, an earlier post of

Then came what biographer Johnson called “the greatest stroke of good fortune” in Darwin’s “remarkably lucky life.” (p.76)

Darwin received a letter and manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace, a scientific researcher who was looking at natural life in the Pacific. Wallace was coming to the same conclusion that Darwin had reached — that the method of evolution was natural selection. Darwin shared Wallace’s correspondence with Lyell. The geologist knew that Darwin had written a paper about natural selection that pre-dated Wallace’s manuscript. Lyell and other friends of Darwin arranged to have both Darwin’s and Wallace’s manuscript read together at a scientific meeting, thus establishing that Darwin was first with the idea.

The meeting itself drew little notice, and the audience had difficulty in understanding the meaning and significance of the paper, but the record was there.

Wallace’s correspondence was what spurred Darwin to write Origin of Species. Darwin had envisioned a multivolume work that would be published over several years. Wallace’s work precluded that — another lucky stroke for Darwin. Origin of Species was a well-written, tightly argued, and thoroughly understandable book when it came out in November 1859.

The plan

Darwin’s basic marketing plan, according to Johnson, was to let others promote the book while never appearing to do so himself. He planned to be drafted into immortality. And so he was.

Darwin had studied the work on many others as he was developing his theory, and he referred to their work with generous praise in his book. It is difficult to criticize the work of a man who praises your own. Besides, Darwin had many genuine admirers, among them Charles Lyell, of course, who held a public meeting to announce the publication of the book and to explain its significance. Asa Gray at Harvard was Darwin’s chief American supporter, and he did the same thing even before the book was available in America. In addition, he wrote a long review of the book for Atlantic Monthly magazine, one of the most influential publications in the country. Darwin had the review reprinted and distributed in Great Britain.

Given the nature of the book and the controversy it stirred up — and continues to engender more than a century and a half later — Origin of Species attracted little hostility in the first months of its publication.

That would come later.

By then, Darwin was where he wanted to be. He was the world’s most eminent scientist.



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