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Charles Darwin
Reaction to Darwin's theory
General Information
Charles Darwin's Education
Inception of Darwin's theory
Development of Darwin's theory
Publication of Darwin's theory
Reaction to Darwin's theory
Charles Darwin's views on religion
Journey on the Beagle


Darwin's book set off a public controversy which he monitored closely, keeping press cuttings of thousands of reviews, articles, satires, parodies and caricatures. Reviewers were quick to pick out the unstated implications of "men from monkeys", though a Unitarian review was favourable and The Times published a glowing review by Huxley which included swipes at Richard Owen, leader of the scientific establishment Huxley was trying to overthrow. Owen initially appeared neutral, but then wrote a review condemning the book.

The Church of England scientific establishment including Darwin's old Cambridge tutors Sedgwick and Henslow reacted against the book, though it was well received by a younger generation of professional naturalists. Then Essays and Reviews by seven liberal Anglican theologians declared that miracles were irrational (and supported the Origin), distracting attention away from Darwin.

The most famous confrontation took place at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford. Professor John William Draper delivered a long lecture about Darwin and social progress, then Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, argued against Darwin. In the ensuing debate Joseph Hooker argued strongly for Darwin and Thomas Huxley established himself as "Darwin's bulldog" – the fiercest defender of evolutionary theory on the Victorian stage. The story is that on being asked by Wilberforce whether he was descended from monkeys on his grandfather's side or his grandmother's side, Huxley muttered: "The Lord has delivered him into my hands" and replied that he "would rather be descended from an ape than from a cultivated man who used his gifts of culture and eloquence in the service of prejudice and falsehood" (this is contested, see Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter). The story spread around the country: Huxley had said he would rather be an ape than a Bishop.

Many people felt that Darwin's view of nature destroyed the important distinction between man and beast. Darwin himself did not personally defend his theories in public, though he read eagerly about the continuing debates. He was frequently very ill, and mustered support through letters and correspondence. A core circle of scientific friends – Huxley, Hooker, Charles Lyell and Asa Gray – actively pushed his work to the fore of the scientific and public stage, defending him against his many critics in this key scientific controversy of the era, and helping to gain him the honour of the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1864. Darwin's theory also resonated with various movements at the time and became a key fixture of popular culture. The book was translated into many languages and went through numerous reprints. It became a staple scientific text accessible both to a newly curious middle class and to "working men", and was hailed as the most controversial and discussed scientific book ever written.