skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project


Origin cover_1859.jpg

Origin of species book cover, 1859
Origin of species book cover, 1859

Darwin’s most famous work, Origin, had an inauspicious beginning. It grew out of his wish to establish priority for the species theory he had spent over twenty years researching. Darwin never intended to write Origin, and had resisted suggestions in 1856 that he publish a short version of his theory. Instead, he believed that his views on transmutation needed to be presented together with supporting evidence, and to this end was steadily writing a work he called his ‘big book’. His progress was abruptly halted when he received a manuscript essay outlining a similar  theory by Alfred Russel Wallace in June 1858. In the aftermath of the first public presentation of documents relating to Darwin’s species theory together with Wallace’s essay at the Linnean Society of London, Darwin was in need of a rest. In addition to the shock of receiving Wallace’s essay in mid-June, Darwin had suffered ‘death & illness & misery’ among his children and he intended to remove the family from Down for a few weeks to the Isle of Wight.

Although Darwin and Wallace’s papers were published in the Linnean Society’s journal, Joseph Dalton Hooker urged Darwin to prepare a longer abstract of his species theory. On 5 July 1858, Darwin stated his intention to start work on this abstract while on the Isle of Wight, but doubted whether he would manage to restrict the length to just 30 pages of the Linnean Journal. In reply, Hooker provided reassurance by suggesting that Darwin might be able to have 100 to 150 pages in a ‘separate supplemental number’ of the journal. By this point, Hooker had also read the draft section of the big book on large and small genera, and was able to tell Darwin ‘you overrate the extent of my opposition to your method. My great desire was to put every possible objection as strongly as I could. I did not feel myself a dissenter from or opponent to your views, so much as a non consenter to them in the present state of my knowledge, nor till you had weighed my objections, wh. I thought of greater weight than I now do.’ 

Even with this endorsement, Darwin’s spirits remained low. ‘We are too old & feeble a party for anywhere but home’, he wrote from the King’s Head Hotel in Sandown on 18 July. Just two days later, he told his cousin William Darwin Fox ‘After all, I am now beginning to prepare an abstract of my Species Theory’. Perhaps because Fox had been instrumental in persuading Darwin not to publish an abstract in 1856, Darwin explained to whole affair to him:

By an odd coincidence, Mr Wallace in the Malay Archipelago sent to me an Essay containing my exact theory; & asking me to show it to Lyell. The latter & Hooker have taken on themselves to publish it in Linnean Journal, together some notes of mine written very many years ago; & both of them have urged me so strongly to publish a fuller abstract, that I have resolved to do it, & shall do nothing till completed: it will be published, probably, in Journal of Linn. Socy. & I shall have separate copies & will send you one.

Darwin’s weariness in anticipation of the work this would cost him, and his disappointment in not being able to provide the full evidence for his theory, was evident when he complained of how it was ‘impossible in abstract to do justice to subject.

Abstracting and skeletonizing

By 30 July, now more comfortably settled in a house on the Isle of Wight, and having started work on his abstract, Darwin was in an altogether more positive frame of mind. ‘I pass my time by doing daily a couple of hours of my Abstract & I find it amusing & improving work’ he told Hooker. ‘I hated the thought of the job’, he confessed, but now appreciated that publishing an abstract would allow him to finish his big book ‘with greater ease & leisure’. Although he thought it ‘a queer plan to give an abstract of an unpublished work’, he was extremely glad he had ‘begun in earnest on it’.

When work on the big book was interrupted by the arrival of Wallace’s essay, he had only just started his analysis of his experiments on pigeons.  Moreover, he had not yet resolved how to account for the cell-making instincts of bees, a challenge to his theory of natural selection, in his chapter on the ‘mental powers and instincts of animals’. Correspondence on both pigeons and bees continued in August, while he was still away from Down. Darwin knew that these puzzles had to be resolved before he published his abstract. While still on the Isle of Wight, Darwin also heard from John Stevens Henslow, his old mentor and Hooker’s father-in-law, who clearly had seen the  Linnean Society papers. ‘I shd. be extremely glad (& grateful) to hear your objections to my species speculations’, Darwin wrote to Henslow, ‘The difficulties which I can see are many & grave. I am now writing a pretty full abstract of all my notions on this subject.’ Darwin evidently continued to fret about the length of his abstract and was relieved to learn from the Linnean Society that he could be a little more expansive. ‘I will try not to be too diffusive’ he assured Hooker, ‘I fear it will spoil all interest in my Book, whenever published.’ It was clear that the big book remained Darwin’s focus of attention for the full exposition of his theory. 

On Darwin’s return to Down in mid August, he recommenced his work on pigeons and spent a nearly a month skeletonising them and completing his ‘Pigeon M.S.’ (Darwin's Journal) ‘At last, thank God, I have done with my Pigeons, & have just killed all the scores of cross-breds’, he told W. B. Tegetmeier on 8 September, inviting him to take any of the pure birds that were left. Although Darwin looked forward to the visit and expressed his hope that Tegetmeier would bring a bee hive ‘with incipient cells’ as well as a ‘comb with a cylindrical cell’, he warned that his health was bad and that he was ’incapable of talking for long’. Despite his poor health, Darwin recommenced working on his abstract, telling his eldest son, William, on 22 September that he was hard at work on the abstract of his Book, ‘which will make a large-sized pamphlet.’ On the 4 October, in a letter to T. C. Eyton explaining his change of plans regarding publication, he complained that the work of writing the abstract was ‘too great’ for him, but that ‘three-fourth’ was done. He fretted that it was growing to an ‘inordinate length’ and about his rate of work, but by early October he had begun to see its advantages: ‘You cannot imagine what a service you have done me in making me make this abstract’, he told Hooker, ’for though I thought I had got all clear, it has clarified my brains much, by making me weigh relative importance of the several elements.’ Darwin continued to write until the end of October when he took the water cure for a week because his stomach was ‘horridly bad’. By this point he had drafted six sections. 

As Darwin completed his chapters, he actively sought criticism from trusted readers like Hooker, Lyell, and Thomas Henry Huxley. He chided himself for having asked Hooker not to be too severe against natural selection, claiming in his defence that he had become so used to ‘opposition & even contempt’ that he momentarily forgot that Hooker was the ‘one living soul’ who was sympathetic to his aims. Nonetheless, he had not suspected that his ‘speculations were a “jam pot”’ to Hooker. Indeed, when Hooker was writing his essay on the flora of Australia in December 1858, he asked to borrow Darwin’s ‘Chapter on transmigration of forms across tropics’. When Hooker’s essay was published in 1859, it was one of the first publications to draw on Darwin’s theory. Darwin must have been further buoyed up in January 1859, when he received a (now lost) letter from Wallace, expressing satisfaction with the joint publication of his species theory with Darwin’s by the Linnean Society. ‘I never felt very sure what he would say’, Darwin admitted, adding that Wallace ‘must be an amiable man.’ Wallace evidently asked whether his and Darwin’s species theory had had any effect on Lyell. ‘I think he is somewhat staggered,’ Darwin replied, ‘but does not give in, & speaks with horror often to me, of what a thing it would be & what a job it would be for the next Edition of Principles, if he were “perverted”.— But he is most candid & honest & I think will end by being perverted.’ The effect of Darwin of Hooker’s views were apparent when he reported to Wallace that ‘Dr. Hooker has become almost as heteredox as you or I.—and I look at Hooker as by far the most capable judge in Europe.’ By April 1859, he was able to tell Wallace that ‘Huxley is changed & believes in mutation of species: whether a convert to us, I do not quite know.— We shall live to see all the younger men converts. My neighbour & excellent naturalist J. Lubbock is enthusiastic convert.

Making the book

By mid-October 1858, Darwin had expected that his abstract would ‘run into a small volume, which will have to be published separately’. By mid-November, Darwin realised that his ‘everlasting Abstract’ would not be finished until around April 1859. But this was an optimistic estimate. Despite the support of his confidants and only two more chapters to write, the work proved too much for Darwin. From 5 to 19 February, he again took the water cure to ease his ‘severe vomiting’ and ‘distressing swimming of the head’. Although the treatment was less efficacious than usual, Darwin resumed work, and by the end of March thought he might go to press with his ‘little volume’ in early May. His concern now was to find a suitable publisher, and once again Lyell came to his aid. In late March, Lyell had a word with his own publisher, John Murray, who had already published the second edition of Darwin’s Journal of researches. Publishing with Murray (well known as the publisher of the conservative Quarterly Review as well as travel and scientific works) would convey to potential readers the respectability and seriousness of Darwin’s work. In light of this, Darwin asked Lyell whether he should ‘tell Murray that my Book is not more un-orthodox, than the subject makes inevitable’ or ‘had I better say nothing to Murray, & assume that he cannot object to this much unorthodoxy, which in fact is not more than any Geological Treatise, which runs slap counter to Genesis.

 Even before seeing Darwin’s manuscript, Murray objected to the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘natural selection’ in the title; Darwin gave way on the first objection (although he felt the term explained the absence of references and facts in full), but held firm about natural selection. ‘I hope to retain it with Explanation, somewhat as thus,— “Through Natural Selection or the preservation of favoured races”’, he told Lyell. On 31 March 1859, Darwin wrote to Murray describing his work on the origin of species, how much was left to do, the projected length, and the terms he expected; he also acknowledged that Murray wished to see the manuscript before ‘deciding and offering any terms’. The following day Murray told Darwin ‘I can have no hesitation in swerving from my usual routine & in stating at once even without seeing the MS. that I shall be most happy to publish it for you on the same terms as those on which I publish for Sir Charles Lyell’. Darwin was uneasy. Murray, he thought, should see the manuscript before deciding. ‘My volume cannot be mere light reading,’ h explained, ‘& some parts must be dry & some rather abstruse; yet as far I can judge perhaps very falsely, it will be interesting to all (& they are many) who care for the curious problem of the origin of all animate forms.’ Moreover, Darwin warned Murray, ‘it would be a stigma on my work for you to advertise it, & then not publish it.’ He emphasised that Murray ‘or anyone’ could not judge his book without reading the whole, ‘as the whole is one long argument.

Reading Darwin’s first three chapters was sufficient for Murray to confirm his offer on 10 April. But then there was a slip up. The fair copies of the chapters on geographical distribution that Darwin had sent to Hooker for comments were accidentally placed in the drawer in which Hooker’s wife kept paper for the children to draw on. At least a quarter of the chapter was gone before the mistake was discovered. Hooker was mortified because he knew this loss would cost Darwin time in having the chapters copied again. Darwin, however, bemoaned the loss of Hooker’s comments more than the time, although he admitted that had he not kept the old draft ‘the loss would have killed me!’ Although Murray was committed to publishing Origin, he sought the opinion of the editor of the Quarterly Review, Whitwell Elwin, and that of his friend George Frederick Pollock. The former, in a long letter to Murray, believed that Darwin should ‘re-consider the propriety of sending forth his treatise in its present form’, while the latter not only recommended publication but advised Murray to increase the print run from 500 to 1000 (Haynes 1916, p. 233). Darwin dismissed Elwin’s suggestion as ‘impractical’, and robustly stated: ‘I have done my best. Others might, I have no doubt, done the job better, if they had my materials; but that is no help.’ Even Huxley’s pointing to a flaw in Darwin’s hypothesis in early June could not shake Darwin’s confidence, evident in his reply. 

You speak of finding a flaw in my hypothesis, & this shows you do not understand its nature. It is a mere rag of an hypothesis with as many flaws & holes as sound parts.— My question is whether the rag is worth anything? I think by careful treatment I can carry in it my fruit to market for a short distance over a gentle road; but I fear that you will give the poor rag such a devil of a shake that it will fall all to atoms; & a poor rag is better than nothing to carry one’s fruit to market in—

The only thing that did shake Darwin while checking page proofs was his ‘incredibly bad’ writing style. ‘I am extremely sorry to say, on account of expence, & loss of time for me, that the corrections are very heavy,—as heavy as possible’, he told Murray on 14 June. He tried to make the text ‘clear & striking’, but feared that he had failed. Correcting proofs proved so onerous that Darwin lost his ability to judge his work. ‘You say you dreamt that my Book was entertaining’, he wrote to Hooker, ‘that dream is pretty well over with me, & I begin to fear that the Public will find it intolerably dry & perplexing. But I will never give up that a better man could have made a splendid book out of the materials.’ As the work of correcting proofs continued over the summer of 1859, Darwin had to take the water cure two more times. By 1 September, he was ‘becoming as weak as a child’, incapable of anything except his ‘3 hours daily work at Proof-sheets’. Darwin completed this work on 1 October, noting in his journal that the ‘Abstract on Origin of species’ had taken 13 months and 10 days (Darwin's Journal). The very next day, he set out for two months rest at a hydropathic establishment in Yorkshire.


As Darwin began to anticipate the reception of his book, he shared the proofs with Lyell. ‘I cannot too strongly express my conviction of the general truth of my doctrines, & God knows I have never shirked a difficulty’, he told Lyell on 20 September 1859, ‘I am foolishly anxious for your verdict. Not that I shall be disappointed if you are not converted; for I remember the long years it took me to come round; but I shall be most deeply delighted if you do come round, especially if I have a fair share in the conversion. I shall then feel that my career is run, & care little whether I ever am good for anything again in this life.’ ‘I have just finished your volume’, Lyell told Darwin on 3 October, ‘& right glad I am that I did my best with Hooker to persuade you to publish it without waiting for a time which probably could never have arrived tho’ you lived till the age of 100, when you had prepared all your facts on which you ground so many grand generalizations.’ Lyell not only thought Darwin’s book ‘a splendid case of close reasoning & long sustained argument’ but had also publicly praised Darwin’s species work at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting held in Aberdeen from 14 to 21 September 1859. Darwin was confident that in time Lyell would be ‘perverted’, telling him that ‘if you ever are, I shall know that the theory of Nat. Selection is in the main safe’.

Darwin reassured Lyell on 11 October that he was aware that his theory of natural selection included ‘many errors, even though he could not see them’. This echoed Darwin’s statement made after correcting the last proof sheets. ‘Looking back, I think it was more difficult to see what the problems were than to solve them, as far as I have succeeded in doing’. By late October, Hooker assured Darwin that Lyell was becoming a convert. Darwin was ‘exceedingly’ pleased. ‘I remember thinking above a year ago’, he wrote in reply, ‘that if ever I lived to see Lyell, yourself & Huxley come round, partly by my Book & partly by their own reflexions, I shd. feel that the subject was safe; & all the world might rail, but that ultimately the theory of Natural Selection (though no doubt imperfect in its present condition, & embracing many errors) would prevail.

As the trade publication day of 22 November approached, Murray sent Darwin a bound ‘specimen copy’ of On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, and proposed that the work be priced at fourteen shillings. With a print run of 1250, this would yield a profit of £240, of which Darwin would receive two thirds. Darwin declared himself ‘infinitely pleased & proud at the appearance of my child’, and agreed to Murray’s proposed price. According to Darwin’s wish, presentation copies of Origin were distributed before the publication date. Among the earliest responses was one that must have amused Darwin; it came from his elder brother, Erasmus Alvey Darwin. ‘For myself I really think it is the most interesting book I ever read,’ Eramus wrote on 23 November, ‘& can only compare it to the first knowledge of chemistry, getting into a new world or rather behind the scenes. To me the geographical distribution I mean the relation of islands to continents is the most convincing of the proofs, & the relation of the oldest forms to the existing species. I dare say I dont feel enough the absence of varieties, but then I dont in the least know if every thing now living were fossilized whether the palæontologists could distinguish them. In fact the a priori reasoning is so entirely satisfactory to me that if the facts wont fit in, why so much the worse for the facts is my feeling’. On the same day Darwin wrote to Lyell, stating ‘I have been thinking that if I am much execrated as atheist &c, whether the admission of doctrine of natural Selection could injure your Works; but I hope & think not; for as far as I can remember the virulence of bigotry is expended on first offender, & those who adopt his views are only pitied, as deluded, by the wise & cheerful bigots.

After finishing Origin, Darwin told Lyell on 20 October that his ‘larger book’ would have to be ‘wholly rewritten, & not merely present volume expanded; so that I want to waste as little time over this volume as possible, if another Edition be called for; but I fear subject will be too perplexing, as I have treated it, for general public.’ Nonetheless, he thanked Lyell on 23 November for his criticisms of Origin, which, he stated, ‘if there be 2d. Edit. I will attend to.’ Darwin was confounded to hear from Murray on 24 November that the ‘whole Edition’ of Origin sold on the first day, and that a new edition was wanted ‘instantly’. As Darwin began preparing a second edition, responses, both positive and negative, to his work flowed in. By early December 1859, he admitted that he needed to ‘think less of myself & my book.’ After all, in March of 1859, he had stated to his cousin Fox ‘You do me injustice when you think that I work for fame: I value it to a certain extent; but, if I know myself, I work from a sort of instinct to try to make out truth.’ By the end of the year Darwin could begin to see the impact his work was having, and the fulfilment of his stated aim in July 1858 when he began to write his abstract: ‘Whenever naturalists can look at species changing as certain, what a magnificent field will be open,—on all the laws of variation,—on the genealogy of all living beings,—on their lines of migration &c &c.



Haynes, E. S. P. 1916. Master George Pollak. Cornhill Magazine n.s. 41: 232–7.