The reviews of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin is the most influential man of science who has ever lived. The scale of his influence inside and outside the sciences is impossible to fully appreciate. For over a century a great deal has been written about how the world reacted to the publication of his Origin of species in 1859 and other works. Nowadays, most think it was a just case of science versus religion. The reviews here show this is a vast over simplification.

   Provided here is not only the largest collection of book reviews of Darwin ever published, but the largest collection of reviews of any scientific figure in history. Of the 1,700 reproduced here, 290 are Darwin's own copies, sometimes with his annotations. We have transcribed more than 300 of them. This reviews project began as part of the expanded Darwin Online project at the University of Cambridge in 2005, which soon published over a hundred reviews. Since then an ever larger list of reviews has been continuously sought. The collection now presented contains records of over 1,700 reviews and responses in sixteen languages. (Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Welsh.) This is still far from complete, especially for languages other than English.

   Book reviews were often a clearly defined literary genre. Other reviews are less clear cut and what counts as a review soon becomes fuzzy. We have chosen to be inclusive while not going so far as to unlock the flood gates by which thousands of other publications discussing Darwin's theories and views (but not a specific publication) could have been included. The guiding principle has been to provide an authoritative and nearly comprehensive collection of the reviews of Darwin's publications.

  Reviews are only one part of the study of the reception of Darwin's work. The vast majority of comment and discussion in the press was not reviews but publications of many different kinds. These ranged from books to lectures, letters to the editor, articles on Darwin or his theories, caricatures, poems, even music and art. The number and extent of these items is inconceivably vast. Nevertheless, reviews played a special role in influencing opinion, especially amongst those who did not read Darwin for themselves. We need only look at how much opinion today is based on second- and third-hand reports in social media etc.

   As Alfred Russel Wallace wrote after Darwin's death in 1882:

The great man so recently taken from us had achieved an amount of reputation and honor perhaps never before accorded to a contemporary writer on science. His name has given a new word to several languages, and his genius is acknowledged wherever civilization extends. Yet the very greatness of his fame, together with the number, variety, and scientific importance of his works, has caused him to be altogether misapprehended by the bulk of the reading public. Every book of Darwin's has been reviewed or noticed in almost every newspaper and periodical, while his theories have been the subject of so much criticism and so much dispute, that most educated persons have been able to obtain some general notion of his teachings, often without having read a single chapter of his works,—and very few, indeed, except professed students of science, have read the whole series of them. It has been so easy to learn something of the Darwinian theory at second-hand, that few have cared to study it as expounded by its author. (Century Magazine [in Wallace Online])

   The reviews provided here reveal a far more complicated picture of the reactions to Darwin's writings than is appreciated or imagined today. This is not the place to provide a study of over 1,700 reviews- instead we have located and provided them to scholars and the public for free to form a basis for future studies. No one has ever seen them all before. They range from reverent to contemptuous, from scientifically sophisticated to entirely ignorant, from suspicious to satirical. And they are full of surprises.

   For example, Darwin's works were reviewed not just in scientific journals but in some rather surprising periodicals, including: Sporting Magazine, Water-cure Journal, American Bee Journal and the American Journal of Insanity. Some of his reviewers clearly had fun inventing some truly excellent titles for their reviews such as 'Darwin demolished', 'The angel or the ape', 'Darwin's new heresy' and 'The wonders of worm world'.

   Some of the reviews are still famous and have been assigned readings for students for decades but most have not been seen by modern readers. Also included is a first installment of reviews in Russian, translated into English for the first time.

Review of Origin of species by Robert Chambers, anonymous author of the notorious cosmic-evolutionary best-seller, Vestiges of the natural history of creation (1844).

   Reviews of Darwin's works began surprisingly early, the first was a review of a pamphlet of his letters printed during the voyage of the Beagle in 1835. Only four reviews have been found of his physically largest and most prolifically illustrated work, the Zoology of the Beagle (1838-1843). Darwin became a well-known author with the publication of his Journal of researches [or Voyage of the Beagle] (1839, 2d edn. 1845). One of the earliest reviews described it as "one of the most interesting narratives of voyaging that it has fallen to our lot to take up, and which must always occupy a distinguished space in the history of scientific navigation." (Quarterly Review) A later translation of the work, after Darwin had achieved a far greater fame, was reviewed in Germany:

Like Humboldt, Darwin confronts us as a comprehensive genius: the phenomena of inorganic nature such as those of the plant and animal kingdom and no less those of human existence are equally understandable to him, and soon it is the climatic conditions or sea or air, clouds and lightning, which are presented to us as curious, now the horrific effects of the earthquake at Concepcion [Chile], which Darwin describes as an eyewitness, then the formation of a valley or the peculiarity of the vegetation and above all the animal world, which are clearly and meaningfully described. (Zoologische Garten)

Anonymous review of Origin of species by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce from the Quarterly Review.

    Not surprisingly, the reviews of Darwin exploded in 1859 with the publication of Origin of species. One of the earliest reviewers remarked: "Although it is certain that Mr. Darwin's views will cause painful anxiety to many who will regard them as hostile to the truths of Revelation, we cannot share in that anxiety, and are therefore not disposed to discuss the new theory on any other than strictly scientific grounds. …the conclusions announced by Mr. Darwin are such as, if established, would cause a complete revolution in the fundamental doctrines of natural history". (Saturday Review) The geologist and anti-evolutionist Louis Agassiz wrote in another review: "I shall therefore consider the transmutation [evolution] theory as a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievous in its tendency." (American Journal of Science and Arts) Samuel Wilberforce, wrote "Now we must say at once and openly…that such a notion is absolutely incompatible not only with single expressions in the word of God [the Bible] but with the whole representation of that moral and spiritual condition of man which is its proper subject matter." (Quarterly Review)

   Darwin wrote to his friend T. H. Huxley (incidentally, never called Darwin's bulldog as every modern publication incorrectly states) in December 1860: "I have got fairly sick of hostile reviews. Nevertheless, they have been of use in showing me when to expatiate a little and to introduce a few new discussions. I entirely agree with you, that the difficulties on my notions are terrific, yet having seen what all the Reviews have said against me, I have far more confidence in the general truth of the doctrine than I formerly had." (Life and letters)

   One reviewer of Variation of animals and plants under domestication (1868) was unimpressed: "Mr. Darwin's just published bulky work neither advances him nor the students of his theory one step towards the realisation of his cherished dream concerning the Origin of Species." (Eclectic Review)

Review of Origin of species by T. H. Huxley from Macmillan's Magazine.

   With the publication of Descent of man (1871), reviews exploded again. A reviewer in The Daily News predicted that two types of readers would read the book, those who want enlightenment and those who seek laugh at the absurdity of the idea. Numerous comments in the press in that year stated that the London Zoo was extra packed with people eager to look at the monkey house. A commentator in the Newcastle Courant called Darwin "this cynical philosopher" who degraded humanity to the level of a baboon. But usually, even critical reviews were respectful of Darwin's character, intelligence and scientific abilities. The Nashville Union and American concluded "We must bring science, therefore, to interpret the Bible, and not the Bible to interpret science."

   By the time his last book, Earthworms, appeared in 1881, Darwin had become so famous, and to some, infamous, that there was another explosion of reviews, many of them satirical. One review was titled 'The early Darwin catches the worm' (Daily American). Another wrote: "'We are worms,' observed that acute naturalist, the late Artemus Ward, 'but we cannot all glow.' If Mr. Darwin is a worm, he has seldom glowed more brilliantly than in his record of the benefactions of his and our poor relations." (The People). The Dublin Evening Telegraph declared the book to be "one of the most startling revelations of the all-wise provisions of nature that has ever appeared."

   Darwin kept an extensive collection of reviews which eventually were formed into two volumes (now in CUL-DAR226) as well as working lists of reviews. See 'Lists of journals and reviews' CUL-DAR262.8.1-2 and 'List of reviews of Origin of Sp & of C. Darwin's Books' CUL-DAR262.8.9-18. We have identified many incompletely or incorrectly described items in the original Cambridge catalogue, greatly improving the Darwin Online Manuscript Catalogue which has already many thousands of corrections, identifications and corrections to the original sources.

Anonymous review of Origin of species from the Saturday Review.

The list of reviews in Darwin Online

In the 19th century reviews were usually anonymous. However, many authors have been identified. Each reference in our list is followed by links if the item is available in Darwin Online, and finally a number, starting either with A or CUL. 'A' is used for additional items in Darwin Online and 'CUL' stands for Cambridge University Library. As part of his personal library of research materials, Darwin kept pamphlets and offprints. This collection has been referred to as his reprint collection and as the "Darwin Pamphlet Collection-CUL" by the editors of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Darwin kept a scrapbook-style catalogue of the collection, divided into three separately numbered sections. One of these sections was for reviews (and responses) to Darwin's and others works. Darwin pasted tiny slips into a scrapbook alphabetically; historian Peter Vorzimmer later re-arranged them according to their catalogue numbers in his catalogue of Darwin's reprint collection, available here. (scroll to p. 141) This unique annotated copy of Vorzimmer's catalogue was kindly provided by J. David Archibald. These reviews are indicated in our list of reviews with the abbreviation DAR Pam followed by a number, e.g. R48, the 48th numbered item in Darwin's list of reviews. This shows which reviews we can be certain Darwin himself owned. See Archibald's important introduction to Darwin's library here.

The list is divided into the titles of Darwin's works. To keep the references as concise as possible, we have used short titles for Darwin's works. Below is a table of the short and full titles of the principal works reviewed. See the list of reviews here.

Living Cirripedia

A monograph of the sub-class Cirripedia, with figures of all the species

Journal of researches

Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle

Origin

On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life

Orchids

On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects

Variation

The variation of animals and plants under domestication

Descent

The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex

Expression

The expression of the emotions in man and animals

Climbing plants

The movements and habits of climbing plants

Cross- and Self-fertilisation

The effects of cross and self fertilisation in the vegetable kingdom

Forms of flowers

The different forms of flowers on plants of the same species

Erasmus Darwin

Preliminary notice. In E. Krause, Erasmus Darwin

Movement in plants

The power of movement in plants

Earthworms

The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms

 

One can also find reviews not in the CUL Darwin Archive via the Freeman Bibliographical database, here.

We have found about seventy reviews of Darwin's articles and pamphlets. These are listed first. The c. 1,600 reviews of his books break down as follows:

Journal of researches

95

Zoology of the Beagle

4

Geology of the Beagle

46

Living Cirripedia

10

Origin of species

294

Orchids

63

Variation under domestication

132

Descent of man

265

Expression of the emotions

127

Insectivorous plants

125

Climbing plants

49

Cross- and Self-fertilisation

75

Forms of flowers

47

Erasmus Darwin

39

Movement in plants

109

Earthworms

195

 

The reviews are listed chronologically. Besides responses appearing in books and pamphlets, we have found reviews in 290 periodicals, 260 of these being newspapers and of those 240 were foreign.

Other studies of the reviews and reception of Darwin

The reception of Darwin's views has been discussed since the time of their first publication. An early posthumous overview from the perspective of his advocates was T. H. Huxley's 'The Reception of the Origin of Species' in Life and letters (1887) vol. 2, pp. 179-204 in which he triumphantly remarked "the present condition of public opinion upon the Darwinian question; between the estimation in which Darwin's views are now held in the scientific world…is so startling that, except for documentary evidence, I should be sometimes inclined to think my memories dreams". Just two years later A. R. Wallace wrote in his great work Darwinism (1889) "But now this is all changed. The whole scientific and literary world, even the whole educated public, accepts, as a matter of common knowledge, the origin of species from other allied species by the ordinary process of natural birth. The idea of special creation or any altogether exceptional mode of production is absolutely extinct! … And this vast, this totally unprecedented change in public opinion has been the result of the work of one man, and was brought about in the short space of twenty years!" Another early account was by James Bryce, Personal reminiscences of Charles Darwin and of the reception of the "Origin of Species". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1909).

   Studies by historians and scholars began with Alvar Ellegard's pioneering and still important Darwin and the general reader. (1958 2d edn. 1990). There have been very many subsequent studies. David Hull's Darwin and his critics (1973) reproduced fifteen contemporary book reviews which criticized Darwin's methodology.

   Space permits mention of only a handful of the other important studies, including Gowan Dawson, Darwin, literature and Victorian respectability (2007) which examines the reception of Darwin's books in light of contemporary views on sexuality, pornography, and mores for the sexes. Studies have gone far beyond the initial considerations of reactions to Darwin in the English-speaking world with, for example, Thomas Glick ed., The comparative reception of Darwinism (1988); Numbers & Stenhouse, Disseminating Darwinism: the role of place, race, religion, and gender (1999); Glick et al eds., The reception of Darwinism in the Iberian world (1999); Eve-Marie Engels & Glick eds. The reception of Charles Darwin in Europe (2 vols. 2008); Marwa Elshakry, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950 (2013); Glick & Elinor Shaffer eds., The literary and cultural reception of Charles Darwin in Europe (4 vols. 2004); Ana Leonor Pereira, The reception of Darwin in Portugal (1865-1914). Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia vol. 66 (2010): 643-660; Alper Bilgili, An Ottoman response to Darwinism: İsmail Fennî on Islam and evolution. BJHS,  48, 4, 2015: 565-582 and Xiaoxing Jin, Translation and transmutation: the Origin of Species in China. BJHS 52, 1, 2019: 117-141. John Lynch published a four volume collection of reviews covering 1859-1871 in 2001, Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the many who have assisted or contributed to this project over the years including Samantha Evans, Paul White, Jim Secord, Nick Gill, David Hull, Cambridge University Library, Randal Keynes, Sue Asscher and Rosemary Clarkson. High-quality colour scans of particularly rare and important reviews were kindly provided by Angus Carroll and J. David Archibald. Pedro Navarro helped with Portuguese reviews. The Danish reviews were identified and provided by the Darwin in Denmark project at the Aarhus University (later The Danish Darwin Archive by Interdisciplinary Evolutionary Studies, Aarhus University) led by Peter Kjaergaard. Other readers sent references to rare reviews. Financial support for early stages of the project was provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and an anonymous American donor.

   The new translations of Russian reviews appear here for the first time (many more are forthcoming). They were created by Stephen M. Woodburn, Professor of History at Southwestern College in Kansas. He has published translations of Nikolai Danilevskii's Russia and Europe: The Slavic world's political and cultural relations with the Germanic-Roman West (2013) and its sequel, Woe to the victors! The Russo-Turkish War, the Congress of Berlin, and the future of Slavdom (2015). Andrew M. Drozd is Associate Professor of Russian at the University of Alabama and the author of Chernyshevskii's What is to be done?: A reevaluation. Brendan G. Mooney is Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Miami University in Ohio.

   Between 2005-2015 Kees Rookmaaker compiled an enormous database of reviews from many existing sources, particularly those in the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University Library and new discoveries made during research for Darwin Online.

   The greatest contributor to this project has been Christine Chua, Associate editor with Darwin Online. She uncovered and procured copies of hundreds of previously unrecorded reviews, prepared references, checked ruthlessly for errors and inconsistencies, transcribed many and made countless other careful contributions. The project could not have been completed without her indefatigable work.  

John van Wyhe

November 2021

 

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