“On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” may not sound like the catchiest of titles, but it was to prove to be the greatest and most influential scientific work to be published in the 19th century, and the day of publication was 24th November 1859.
Despite being written in a far from readable style, Charles Darwin’s book sold 1,250 copies on the first day and has never been out of print.
“The Origin of Species” only dealt with the evolutionary principle as it affected animals, and it was not until 1871 that he filled in the blanks by extending it to mankind in “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex”.
Darwin knew that his theories would cause controversy, which was one reason why he had delayed publication for many years, but perhaps even he would be amazed by the fact that, more than 150 years later, there would still be people who preferred to believe the mythological account of creation in the Book of Genesis to his application of science to what was clearly observable in the natural world.
To the literal believer in the Genesis account, Darwin’s theories were heretical, and he attracted huge amounts of hostility from Church authorities for his assertion that mankind was not created “in the image of God” as a perfectly formed being but was in fact closely related to several species of ape with which man must have had a common ancestor.
However, it is now generally accepted that Darwin was right, and that the Genesis story, written by people who were making up a story to fit what they saw as the facts, must be read symbolically, like any myth, and not as a literal account of what happened. There are very few Christians or Jews in the civilised world today who do not accept Darwin’s theories, although the proportion of opponents in the United States does seem to be much higher than in most of the rest of the world. Why? A very good question!
© John Welford