How Dangerous was Darwin?

Charles Darwin had been working on his ideas of Natural Selection since he returned from the Beagle voyage in 1836. He amassed evidence to develop and support his ideas, gathering information from correspondents all over the world.

In 1842 and 1844 Darwin produced long sketches of his ideas, but was in no hurry to publish; despite encouragement to do so. In 1858 he received a letter and essay from Alfred Wallace that forced him to review his situation.

This pack explores Darwin’s personal dilemma and the background to an event that altered the course of scientific thinking. What was the impact of Darwin’s publication, On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection? What did it mean to Victorian society? Just how dangerous was Darwin?

  • History KS3 and 4
  • Religious Education KS3 and 4
  • English KS3 and 4

The Correspondents

Read the letters to explore Darwin’s dilemma about the publication of his book and find out more about those involved.

Open the letter Animate the mail route

The Dilemma

Letters before the publication of On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection
As you read the letters consider the following questions:
  1. Why did Darwin respond the way he did?
  2. What was the role of his friends?
  3. What do you think should have happened?
Charles Darwin
Joseph Hooker
Charles Lyell
1
2
3
4

Joseph Hooker & Charles Lyell
Unidentified
5

Alfred Wallace
Joseph Hooker
Charles Darwin
Charles Lyell
6
7
8

How did the world respond?

Click on the quotes to see responses to the publication of On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection.
As you read the letters consider the following questions:
  1. Why was the book so popular?
  2. Why might the idea of evolution by means of natural selection be controversial for Victorian society?
  3. What are the sources of evidence for this controversy and how would you assess their reliability?
This seems to be doing away altogether with the Divine Image which forms the insurmountable distinction between man & brutes.’
Leonard Jenyns
Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow;
Adam Sedgwick
The Bishop of Oxford...asked the professor whether he would prefer a monkey for his grandfather or his grandmother
British Association for the Advancement of Science
And as to the curs which will bark & yelp you must recollect that some of your friends at any rate are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often & justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead- I am sharpening up my claws & beak in readiness
T. H. Huxley
...it will have a great effect in the scientific world, causing a thorough and open discussion of a question about which people hitherto felt timid. So the world gets on step by step towards brave clearness and honesty!
George Eliot
…all the lines of connexion stop short of a beginning explicable by natural causes; and the absence of any conceivable natural beginning leaves room for, and requires, a supernatural origin.
William Whewell

George Peacock to John Stevens Henslow

George Peacock writes to ask Henslow to recommend a naturalist to accompany Captain Fitzroy on the Beagle voyage. He stresses that it is a rare and great opportunity.
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