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Darwin's Diary

Introduction | 1809-1825 | 1826-1829 | 1831 | 1832 | 1833 | 1835 | 1836
1837 | 1838 | 1842-1854 | 1856 | 1858-1859 | 1881 | 1882


Fall 1858-Fall 1859 (Birth of a Theory)

"In September 1858 I set to work to prepare a volume ... on the transmutation of species, but was often interrupted by ill-health."

With Wallace's prompting, Darwin decides he should publish his book quickly. He writes an abridged version of the magnum opus he had intended. And all the while, he is plagued by worries about how his radical ideas will be received.

"It cost me thirteen months and ten days' hard labour ... It is no doubt the chief work of my life."

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, is arguably the most important work in the history of biology. At the end of his life, Darwin remembers with some pride, "It was from the first highly successful. The first small edition of 1250 copies was sold on the day of publication, and a second edition of 3000 copies soon afterwards."

It begins

"When on board HMS. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts ... seemed to throw some light on the origin of species -- that mystery of mysteries ... After five years work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions ... from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision."

Darwin saw his 500-page book as "one long argument" for the theory of natural selection.

"It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving or adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers ... We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long-past geological ages, that we see only that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were."

1859 (Darwin's Struggle with Faith) (Birth of a Theory)

Darwin writes in On the Origin of Species

"I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one."

Yet he indeed knows that they will -- that his theory challenges the religious beliefs of many of his colleagues, friends, even his own wife.

Darwin at this time is undecided about his own religious views. When later asked by an American newspaper to write about them, he responds, "I feel in some degree unwilling to express myself publicly on religious subjects, as I do not feel that I have thought deeply enough to justify any publicity."

The Harvard botanist, Asa Gray, an evangelical Christian, is one of Darwin's dearest colleagues. In a letter to Gray in 1860, Darwin confesses his religious doubts, and adds that they may be unresolvable. "I am inclined," he writes, "to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton."

It is never Darwin's intent to attack organized religion, or cast aspersions on personal faith. After some people take offense, he is at pains in later editions of On the Origin of Species to stress that evolution can be reconciled with belief in God.

"A celebrated author and divine has written to me that 'he had gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.'"

Darwin closes On the Origin of Species with these words:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

Here, Darwin borrows a term from the Book of Genesis, "breathed." In later editions, he adds "by the Creator" to show there was nothing impious in his vision of nature.

-> Go to 1881


Introduction | 1809-1825 | 1826-1829 | 1831 | 1832 | 1833 | 1835 | 1836
1837 | 1838 | 1842-1854 | 1856 | 1858-1859 | 1881 | 1882

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