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Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species

This Day in World History

November 24, 1859

Darwin Publishes On the Origin of Species

On the day it was published, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species sold out—eager readers bought every single copy. This alone is not remarkable: the print run was a mere 1,250 copies. But in presenting to the world his theory of evolution by natural selection, Darwin’s tome made history.

Darwin had developed his theory over years of thought about the data and specimens he had collected during the five-year voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, a scientific expedition on which he served as the ship’s naturalist. Reading the work of Thomas Malthus on the stresses placed on populations by a limited food supply had helped spur Darwin’s thinking. Competition for resources, he realized, put stress on populations of plants and animals. The fittest individuals—those best suited to win that competition—would survive and then pass on their adaptive characteristics to the next generation. Here, he concluded, was how species evolved.

The book was not Darwin’s first presentation of these ideas. Darwin had presented his ideas to a meeting of scientists alongside Alfred Russel Wallace, who had somewhat similar ideas, in July of 1858. The November publication of his book was his full working out of his theory, however. By asserting that Earth was ancient, Darwin joined a scientific view gaining currency but still not widely held. By denying that distinct species were created by God, he directly challenged religious orthodoxy.

Critics attacked him. Paleontologist Sir Richard Owen—who had coined the name dinosaur—objected that Darwin’s views were speculation based on insufficient evidence. Others agreed. Botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was among many who jumped to Darwin’s defense. Another prominent defender was Thomas Henry Huxley, dubbed “Darwin’s bulldog” for his pugnacious arguments in favor of Darwin’s ideas. Twelve years later, Darwin published an even more controversial work: The Descent of Man, in which he asserted that humans and apes shared a common ancestor. Biologists today overwhelmingly accept the theory of evolution and many scientists continue research aimed at improving our understanding its workings.

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