Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most controversial, scientific theory ever developed. First published in 1859 in a book titled, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, the theory proposed that human beings - and all living creatures for that matter - had arrived at their current state through a process called natural selection, which is the result of millions of years of adaptation. Darwin found his ideas solidified when on a trip to the Galapagos Islands where evolution had run rampant, and he later put those thoughts into words that almost anyone could understand.
Believe it or not, declaring that living things had been crafted by a natural process instead of being personally created by the Christian god caused a bit of a stir in the Western World. The suggestion that human beings may have descended from apes wasn’t meant as a personal slight at anyone, but people sure took it that way. Even the idea that the Earth was millions of years old was, and unfortunately still is, a highly controversial notion. Scholars, religious figures, and cartoonists alike all lined up to lampoon Charles Darwin and his wild ideas. Fortunately for him, his theory would be “naturally selected” as time went on, and has become the most probable and elegant way of explaining life on Earth as we know it.
The first print run of On the Origin of Species included only 1,250 copies - and they sold out almost immediately. Darwin knew that he had a hit on his hands, so he quickly set out to make some corrections to the work in preparation for the second edition. Even though the first edition came out in November of 1859, he was able to get the revisions done lightning fast in time for the second printing in January of 1860. Demand was still high, and a third edition would not be far behind.
Charles Darwin knew that the publication of On the Origin of Species was likely to cause a bit of a firestorm. So, in order to get out ahead of the controversy, he began sharing his findings with select individuals in hopes of courting allies and supporters. More than 20 years elapsed between his voyage to the Galapagos and the publication of his book, so he had plenty of time. Darwin gained three close allies who would go on to support him to varying degrees in the coming years - Charles Lyell, a geologist; Joseph Dalton Hooker, a botanist; and Thomas Huxley, a naturalist who would become Darwin’s most virulent supporter.
One of the first people to read On the Origin of Species was Charles Kingsley, a prominent Christian novelist. Despite his religious beliefs, Kingsley sent Darwin a letter praising his theory, saying that “if you be right, I must give up much that I have believed.”
Other early reviewers weren’t so kind. The first official review was published anonymously by John Leifchild, who took incredible offense to the idea that humans had evolved from apes. Fittingly, this first criticism thrown at Darwin is the same one that opponents of evolution still throw around to this day.
On the Origin of Species became so notable that word of it soon spread overseas. People in the United States of America were soon demanding the book, and copies finally arrived there by early 1860. One of the individuals who helped to spread the word of Darwin was his brother, Erasmus. The awesomely-named sibling was also formerly a close friend of Harriet Martineau, an extremely influential British writer known as “the first female sociologist.” Martineau was enamored with the book, and she too spread praise for it far and wide, stating that it took her breath away.