A century-and-a-half after the November 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species, a Penn microbiologist looks back at how Darwin’s ideas were received by some of the University’s leading thinkers. By Howard Goldfine

 

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Darwinism Comes To Penn By Howard Goldfine
Illustration by David Hollenbach

 

 

  On June 18, 1858, Charles Darwin received a manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace, which outlined a theory of evolution based on natural selection. Wallace’s letter came from an island in the Malay Archipelago, where he was collecting field specimens and studying the distribution of species. Wallace, like Darwin, invoked the Malthusian concept that a struggle for existence within rapidly expanding populations would be the driving force for selection of natural variants within a species. Darwin’s immediate reaction was one of dismay. He had been working on his “big book on species” since his five-year voyage on the Beagle (1831-36) and a relatively unknown naturalist had forestalled him. Darwin wrote to Charles Lyell, “If Wallace had my [manuscript] sketch written out in 1842, he could not have written out a better short abstract!”

Fortunately, Darwin had previously outlined his theory to his friends, the distinguished geologist Lyell and the botanist Joseph D. Hooker, and in a brief, unpublished draft to Asa Gray, a botanist at Harvard. Lyell and Hooker immediately arranged for Wallace’s paper and a brief summary of Darwin’s theory to be read simultaneously at the Linnaean Society in London on July 1, 1858. These were received with little comment. The president of the society later noted that nothing of great interest had happened that year.

On November 24, 1859, under great pressure, Darwin published the fuller version of his theory, On the Origin of Species, which he described as an abstract of his big book, proposing to provide more complete evidence later. The book was addressed to the literate, general public, which in the mid-19th century consisted of a small proportion of Britons. The first printing of 1,250 sold out on the first day of sale, and subsequent printings were eagerly received. Although there was considerable controversy, the earliest criticisms were mainly published in learned and religious journals. It was a book that was more discussed than read. The first American edition was published the following year by Appleton of New York. Philadelphia, one of the centers of learning, was one of the first cities on the continent to engage in the controversy. The University of Pennsylvania, the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANSP), and the American Philosophical Society were well-established institutions in the then expanding city. The reception of Darwin’s ideas was decidedly mixed.

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