Charles Darwin

How was the theory of evolution put together by Darwin and received by the public opinion?

Charles Darwin remains one of the more controversial historical figures. For many people across the world, his theory that life on earth is and always has been subject to an evolutionary process of selection and ‘survival of the fittest’, conflicts deeply with religious beliefs. In 1831-1836, he undertook a unique voyage on the HMS Beagle across the world. The observations made on this voyage shaped most of all of the insights that later came together in his book ‘The origin of species’ (1859). Upon publication, and also after his death, public debates on his theory have raged in many countries. This source collection brings together different elements of his theory, as they were observed on the voyage of the Beagle and as they were later contested, admired and critics. The collection is divided in two sections. The first section describes the journey of Darwin and the various aspects of the (development of his) theory. The second part is dedicated to the reception of his theory by the public opinion, both around the time of publication and years later.

Acknowledgements: This source collection has been developed by Jonathan Even-Zohar with the support of Laura Steenbrink. The source collection makes use of sources provided by the Wellcome Library, the London National Maritime Museum, the National Library of Denmark, the Circus Museum, the National Library of France and Stichting Academisch Erfgoed.

The Beagle in the ‘Beagle Channel’ (1826-1830)

The HMS Beagle was a ship of the British Navy that was used for geological studies of the world. It sailed from the Atlantic into the Pacific through Patagonia (the southern tip of the Americas) in 1826-1830. Charles Darwin joined an expedition in 1831-1836. When he saw the glaciers in this region, "It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow." (National Maritime Museum, London, BY-NC-SA 4.0, PAF6232  H 20.4 1878  10 PW6232, CC)

The Beagle in the ‘Beagle Channel’ (1826-1830)

The HMS Beagle was a ship of the British Navy that was used for geological studies of the world. It sailed from the Atlantic into the Pacific through Patagonia (the southern tip of the Americas) in 1826-1830. Charles Darwin joined an expedition in 1831-1836. When he saw the glaciers in this region, "It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow." (National Maritime Museum, London, BY-NC-SA 4.0, PAF6232  H 20.4 1878  10 PW6232, CC)

Journey across the world (1831-1836)

When Charles Darwin joined the expedition, the journey took him and his colleagues across the world on a journey exploring many different environments. This map charts the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, with the thin lines following the principle tracks that Darwin took. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0051046, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Journey across the world (1831-1836)

When Charles Darwin joined the expedition, the journey took him and his colleagues across the world on a journey exploring many different environments. This map charts the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, with the thin lines following the principle tracks that Darwin took. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0051046, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Darwin and Captain Fitzroy on Slavery

During the voyage, Charles Darwin mainly took notes on plants and animals on land, but he also gives us ideas about other issues. For example, in a discussion with the Captain (see source), slavery as they encountered in Brazil was described: ”…in the voyage at Bahia in Brazil he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered "No." I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything. This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word, we could not live any longer together.” (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=V0001930, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Darwin and Captain Fitzroy on Slavery

During the voyage, Charles Darwin mainly took notes on plants and animals on land, but he also gives us ideas about other issues. For example, in a discussion with the Captain (see source), slavery as they encountered in Brazil was described: ”…in the voyage at Bahia in Brazil he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered "No." I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything. This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word, we could not live any longer together.” (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=V0001930, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Discovering a Giant Sloth

In the most southern area of the Americas, Darwin found fossils of large mammals. His drawings of the remains were added to the scientific knowledge of the existence of large mammals in the past. Before applying this scientific approach, these kind of fossil remains were interpreted as remains of giants and monsters. As the record of fossils and understanding of biology grew in the 19th century, more precise reconstructions could be made. Megatherium (Giant Sloth) is constructed here in 1822. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=V0023167, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Discovering a Giant Sloth

In the most southern area of the Americas, Darwin found fossils of large mammals. His drawings of the remains were added to the scientific knowledge of the existence of large mammals in the past. Before applying this scientific approach, these kind of fossil remains were interpreted as remains of giants and monsters. As the record of fossils and understanding of biology grew in the 19th century, more precise reconstructions could be made. Megatherium (Giant Sloth) is constructed here in 1822. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=V0023167, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Understanding the Large, Through the Small

The Beagle sailed to the Galapagos Islands. On this remote group of islands in the Pacific, the expedition observes many new species of plants and animals. The theory of why these small islands knew so many different, and unknown, species, helped Darwin form his theories of evolution. In closed eco-systems, such as a remote island, the process of evolution is observed in comparison with life on other islands and the mainland. Darwin looked for evidence attaching wildlife to an older "centre of creation", and found mockingbirds allied to those in Chile but differing from island to island. So he was able to construct a ‘tree of evolution’. All this knowledge is copiled in his 1859 work ‘The origin of species’. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0003829, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Understanding the Large, Through the Small

The Beagle sailed to the Galapagos Islands. On this remote group of islands in the Pacific, the expedition observes many new species of plants and animals. The theory of why these small islands knew so many different, and unknown, species, helped Darwin form his theories of evolution. In closed eco-systems, such as a remote island, the process of evolution is observed in comparison with life on other islands and the mainland. Darwin looked for evidence attaching wildlife to an older "centre of creation", and found mockingbirds allied to those in Chile but differing from island to island. So he was able to construct a ‘tree of evolution’. All this knowledge is copiled in his 1859 work ‘The origin of species’. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0003829, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Understanding through Observing

The core of Darwin’s work were observation of differences and variations, classification of species and a careful collection and referencing of notes. This is a page, extracted from ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’, his first book. This pages depicts four types of birds, all from the same island. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0026712, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Understanding through Observing

The core of Darwin’s work were observation of differences and variations, classification of species and a careful collection and referencing of notes. This is a page, extracted from ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’, his first book. This pages depicts four types of birds, all from the same island. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0026712, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Origins of Man

In 1871, Darwin published “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex”, where he applied the theory of life and evolution to humanity. Very careful studies of a range of primates and apes were included in this analysis. This caused most controversy by the public opinion as it proposed a radically different view then the views that were common to society, namely stating that humans evolved from primates, and not created in the image of God. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0051109, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Origins of Man

In 1871, Darwin published “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex”, where he applied the theory of life and evolution to humanity. Very careful studies of a range of primates and apes were included in this analysis. This caused most controversy by the public opinion as it proposed a radically different view then the views that were common to society, namely stating that humans evolved from primates, and not created in the image of God. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0051109, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Darwin Honoured

On 20th June 1885, a statue of Charles Darwin was unveiled in the British Museum. The statue was built with donations from many people across the world. The Prince of Wales at the opening "willingly assigned this honourable place to the statue of this great Englishman, who has exercised so vast an influence upon the progress of those branches of natural knowledge which is the object of the vast collection gathered here. A memorial to which all nations and all classes of society have contributed cannot be more fitly lodged than in our museum, which, though national, is open to all the world, and the resources of which are at the disposal of every student of nature, whatever his condition or his country, who enters our doors.“ The wide support and donations for this statue illustrate that Darwin was, besides largely criticises, also admired to a great extent by people all over the world. (National Library of Denmark, http://www.kb.dk/images/billed/2010/okt/billeder/object149001/en/, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Darwin Honoured

On 20th June 1885, a statue of Charles Darwin was unveiled in the British Museum. The statue was built with donations from many people across the world. The Prince of Wales at the opening "willingly assigned this honourable place to the statue of this great Englishman, who has exercised so vast an influence upon the progress of those branches of natural knowledge which is the object of the vast collection gathered here. A memorial to which all nations and all classes of society have contributed cannot be more fitly lodged than in our museum, which, though national, is open to all the world, and the resources of which are at the disposal of every student of nature, whatever his condition or his country, who enters our doors.“ The wide support and donations for this statue illustrate that Darwin was, besides largely criticises, also admired to a great extent by people all over the world. (National Library of Denmark, http://www.kb.dk/images/billed/2010/okt/billeder/object149001/en/, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Evolution Misunderstood

The public debate was constantly commenting on Darwin’s theories in simplistic ways which ridiculed the idea of evolution. Here a butler is seen as evolving from a dog and into his own meal (1862). (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=V0011243, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Evolution Misunderstood

The public debate was constantly commenting on Darwin’s theories in simplistic ways which ridiculed the idea of evolution. Here a butler is seen as evolving from a dog and into his own meal (1862). (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=V0011243, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Evolution Misunderstood

This is another example of the reception of Darwin’s theories to the public opinion. In a satirical drawing, meant to ridicule Darwin’s ideas of evolution, a writer is seen as evolving from a fox that is riding a goose (1863). (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=V0011242, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Evolution Misunderstood

This is another example of the reception of Darwin’s theories to the public opinion. In a satirical drawing, meant to ridicule Darwin’s ideas of evolution, a writer is seen as evolving from a fox that is riding a goose (1863). (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=V0011242, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Evolution Misunderstood

A final example of expressions of the public debate to Darwin’s theories of evolution. On this satirical image, a thief is shown, evolving from a bear in chains (1863). (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=V0011249, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Evolution Misunderstood

A final example of expressions of the public debate to Darwin’s theories of evolution. On this satirical image, a thief is shown, evolving from a bear in chains (1863). (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=V0011249, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Natural Selection Misunderstood

Natural selection, as a main mechanism of evolution, was also misunderstood. An idea, broadly ridiculed by the public opinion. Here we see two girls commenting on the fact that the new doctor's children are ugly as they pass them in the woods - misinterpreting the theory of natural selection. (1892) (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=V0011428, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Natural Selection Misunderstood

Natural selection, as a main mechanism of evolution, was also misunderstood. An idea, broadly ridiculed by the public opinion. Here we see two girls commenting on the fact that the new doctor's children are ugly as they pass them in the woods - misinterpreting the theory of natural selection. (1892) (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=V0011428, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Searching for the “Missing Link”

The public debate also criticised Darwin for not having a clear link, making a clear distinction, between humans and primates. This was called “the missing link”. It became part of the public language. Here a girl, taken from Laos by an expedition, who was born with more hair than usual was taken into the circus and advertised as “the missing link”. (1892) (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0047972, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Searching for the “Missing Link”

The public debate also criticised Darwin for not having a clear link, making a clear distinction, between humans and primates. This was called “the missing link”. It became part of the public language. Here a girl, taken from Laos by an expedition, who was born with more hair than usual was taken into the circus and advertised as “the missing link”. (1892) (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0047972, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Searching for the “Missing Link”

The public debate presented parts of Darwin’s theory as having a “missing link”. He was criticised for not having a clear link between humans and primates. This is a poster of Pickards Museum Trongate, announcing Solomon the Man Monkey to be witnesses alive. It was, however, a chimpanzee being captured and put on display. (Circus Museum, memorix::col28:dat5316, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/)

Searching for the “Missing Link”

The public debate presented parts of Darwin’s theory as having a “missing link”. He was criticised for not having a clear link between humans and primates. This is a poster of Pickards Museum Trongate, announcing Solomon the Man Monkey to be witnesses alive. It was, however, a chimpanzee being captured and put on display. (Circus Museum, memorix::col28:dat5316, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/)

Denying the Theory

The public debate also criticised Darwin more in general. His idea that human a part of nature in any way and has its origin in other species, was too crazy for the public. Here a man is explaining to his wife and baby that they originate from animals, which is refuted. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0025274, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Denying the Theory

The public debate also criticised Darwin more in general. His idea that human a part of nature in any way and has its origin in other species, was too crazy for the public. Here a man is explaining to his wife and baby that they originate from animals, which is refuted. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0025274, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Dismissing the Theory

This is a drawing with a caricature of Darwin, depicted as a monkey, and holding a mirror to the ape sitting next to him. In the mirror, the animal could see the man. The image is another example of the general criticism on his theory, with Darwin himself being ridiculed on the idea that human is part of nature and has its origin in other species. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0003760, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Dismissing the Theory

This is a drawing with a caricature of Darwin, depicted as a monkey, and holding a mirror to the ape sitting next to him. In the mirror, the animal could see the man. The image is another example of the general criticism on his theory, with Darwin himself being ridiculed on the idea that human is part of nature and has its origin in other species. (The Wellcome Library, http://wellcomeimages.org/ixbin/hixclient.exe?MIROPAC=L0003760, CC BY 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Un-Natural Selection?

Toward the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century, intellectuals also included what was now called ‘Darwinism’ into their thinking about society. In some cases they advocate for society to function on the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’, meaning to be against social policies for disadvantaged parts of society. After the Second World War this became known as ‘Social Darwinism’. This is an example of German propaganda on how allowing the ‘sick’ to multiply is disturbing the natural course of society. (National Library of France, Public Domain Mark 1.0, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10220236h, http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/)

Un-Natural Selection?

Toward the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century, intellectuals also included what was now called ‘Darwinism’ into their thinking about society. In some cases they advocate for society to function on the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’, meaning to be against social policies for disadvantaged parts of society. After the Second World War this became known as ‘Social Darwinism’. This is an example of German propaganda on how allowing the ‘sick’ to multiply is disturbing the natural course of society. (National Library of France, Public Domain Mark 1.0, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10220236h, http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/)

Teaching Evolution?

Ever since Darwin launched his theory, the debate has also included the question if the theory should be taught at school as an explanation for the diversity of life and the course of changes over time. Concepts from Darwin’s work are embedded in geology and biology education since the beginning of the 20th century. This source is an example of the evolution of life in prehistory. (Stichting Academisch Erfgoed, PL-0497, CC0 1.0, http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Teaching Evolution?

Ever since Darwin launched his theory, the debate has also included the question if the theory should be taught at school as an explanation for the diversity of life and the course of changes over time. Concepts from Darwin’s work are embedded in geology and biology education since the beginning of the 20th century. This source is an example of the evolution of life in prehistory. (Stichting Academisch Erfgoed, PL-0497, CC0 1.0, http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

The Dilemmas of Teaching Darwin’s Theories

Already since the moment that Darwin published his theories about the evolution of life, a general debate has emerged about the question whether it should be included in the curriculum at schools. The major questions were the fact if it should be included, but also if so, how it should be presented. Should it be presented as the explanation for the diversity of life and the course and causes for changes over time? Of should it be presented merely as an alternative theory? Natural History museums in most of Europe address Evolution. This is an exhibition from 2010 in The Netherlands on ‘Darwin’s World’. In this year his work was celebrated. (Stichting Academisch Erfgoed, 2010/031, CC0 1.0, http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

The Dilemmas of Teaching Darwin’s Theories

Already since the moment that Darwin published his theories about the evolution of life, a general debate has emerged about the question whether it should be included in the curriculum at schools. The major questions were the fact if it should be included, but also if so, how it should be presented. Should it be presented as the explanation for the diversity of life and the course and causes for changes over time? Of should it be presented merely as an alternative theory? Natural History museums in most of Europe address Evolution. This is an exhibition from 2010 in The Netherlands on ‘Darwin’s World’. In this year his work was celebrated. (Stichting Academisch Erfgoed, 2010/031, CC0 1.0, http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)