The Many Myths Surrounding Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin said humans descended from monkeys. Darwin coined the term “survival of the fittest.” Darwin was the first person to theorize evolution as the origin of species. Darwin did not believe in God. Darwin played shortstop for the New York Yankees. These are just few of the common myths that are associated with Charles Darwin. (Well, maybe not playing for the Yankees.) But, as with the Yankees myth we just created, the rest are also all false. Here is the truth about a few of the Darwin myths so prevalently repeated.
Myth #1. Charles Darwin said humans descended from monkeys.
The common mocking rhetorical question related to this one is “If evolution says we descended from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?”
In Charles Darwin’s 1871 science-altering book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, the great naturalist and scientist mused on his theory of evolution. While he attempted to draw connecting lines between humans, monkeys, apes, he never explicitly said that humans descended from monkeys. Instead, he referred back to On the Origin of Species, in which he said,
Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to believe that all animals and plants have descended from one prototype. But analogy would be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless, all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, their laws of growth and reproduction.
Darwin’s main musing here was that all living things perhaps descended from one thing, including humans and monkeys. More to the point, he believed that humans and monkeys came from a common ancestor, with humans and monkeys having something more akin to a cousin relationship, than a parent/child one. All that being said, we now know that humans are more directly related to apes. In fact, humans and apes have more common, gene pool-wise, than monkeys and apes.
Myth #2. Darwin was an unknown scientist before On the Origin of Species.
Darwin’s On the Origin of Species struck a chord when it was released in late 1859. But prior to that, he was already well respected in the scientific community. Peers described him as an “accomplished naturalist” (from Andrew Murray’s 1860 review of the book) and “ANY contribution to our Natural History literature from the pen of Mr. C. Darwin is certain to command attention” (Samuel Wilberforce, 1860). There’s a reason all 1,250 copies of the first print of On the Origin of Species sold the first day.
It was as early as 1836 that Darwin started getting attention for his work when his mentor, John Stevens Henslow, started telling others of Darwin’s studies. Darwin wrote many books and pamphlets prior to On the Origin of Species, including Journals and Remarks published in 1839 (basically a memoir about his Beagle travels) and The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (a much more narrow writing about coral reefs). While they weren’t as highly read nor as revolutionary as his more well-known works, they were thought of as scientifically significant within the community and helped establish his reputation.
Myth #3. Darwin was the first to publish a book about evolution.
Despite the common misconception that Darwin is solely responsible for discovering evolution, that is not the case. The idea of evolutionary biology was not by any means a new one, with theories that touch on evolution going all the way back to at least the 7th century BC. Much more recently, in the early 19th century, there was a very popular theory of evolution proposed by Catholic scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. However, Darwin took a slightly different approach than Lamarck, suggesting that entirely different species could share a common ancestor, a so-called branching model, rather than a “ladder” model that was so popular in some scientific circles before.
In another example, fifteen years prior to Darwin’s published work, building somewhat on Lamarck’s work, there was Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Published in 1844 originally anonymously, it talked of ideas like “stellar evolution” – that stars change over time – and “transmutation,” that species change from one form to another.
Later, Darwin would cite Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in the first edition of On the Origin of Species, then again in the sixth edition, when he praised the book for its forward thinking,
In my opinion it has done excellent service in this country in calling attention to the subject, in removing prejudice, and in thus preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views.
Myth #4. Scientists across the world largely dismissed Darwin’s theories initially.
Sure, some did not agree with Darwin’s theories, including Charles Hodge who was among the first to associate Darwinism with atheism, “If a man says he is a Darwinian, many understand him to avow him- self virtually an atheist ; while another understands him as saying that he adopts some harm-less form of the doctrine of evolution. This is a great evil.”
But many praised, agreed, and admired Darwin and his findings, as exemplified by this glowing statement (from Wilberforce), “a beautiful illustration of the wonderful interdependence of nature—of the golden chain of unsuspected relations which bind together all the mighty web which stretches from end to end of this full and most diversified earth.”
Additionally, this anonymous review appeared on Christmas Eve 1859 in the Saturday Review, “When we say that the conclusions announced by Mr. Darwin are such as, if established, would cause a complete revolution in the fundamental doctrines of natural history.”
Myth #5. Darwin coined the term “survival of the fittest.”
During this era of Victorian scientific study, nothing was written, studied, or read in a vacuum. This was certainly the case when Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which he did after reading Darwin’s thoughts on evolution. Freely admitting that this was based on Darwin’s theories, he wrote in his 1861 book Principles of Biology, “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr Darwin has called natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”
Returning the favor, Darwin gives credit to Spencer for providing a much more “accurate” and “convenient” phrase to his own principles, writing in the sixth 1872 edition of On the Origin of Species,
I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the Survival of the Fittest is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.
Myth #6. Darwin was an atheist.
Confronted with these questions while he was still living, he passionately denied being an atheist in correspondence, letters, and even his own autobiography. Instead, he said, “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. – I think that generally … an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” As a scientist, he was smart enough to know not to draw conclusions when the data was lacking. In that same letter, he also admits that his “judgement fluctuates.” Even one of the greatest scientists in history was flummoxed by the question of God and a greater presence.
There is also a myth out there that he recanted evolution on his deathbed and “returned” to Christianity. This is not true and, beyond creating a dichotomy where one didn’t necessarily exist in Darwin’s mind, has been denied several times by Darwin’s descendants. To Darwin, religion and evolution weren’t mutually exclusive. This brings us to our final myth.
Myth #7: From the beginning, it has been almost universally evolution vs. creation.
While certainly the likes of the Church of England and certain other religious groups had issues with Darwin’s theories, largely centered around the timetables involved (millions of years, rather than less than about 6,000 years), this type of religious contention was hardly the norm initially, with the “creation vs. evolution” battle being more of a relatively modern widespread phenomenon. (This is similar to the relatively recent Big Bang vs. Christianity battle, when in truth it was a Catholic priest, and probably the greatest scientist of the 20th century you’ve never heard of, who came up with the theory that would evolve into the Big Bang. Ironically, it was initially rejected out of hand by many scientists precisely because it seemed to correlate strongly with Christian views of the origin of the universe. Many scientists accused the priest in question of allowing his religious views to cloud his scientific judgement, despite that his ideas were backed by a whole lot of mathematical and scientific evidence, resulting in Albert Einstein declaring, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I ever listened,” after hearing the priest’s lecture on the topic.)
Back to evolution, in truth, many among the clergy saw no problems with Origins of the Species, and the debate among various branches of Christianity over the idea of evolution often mirrored the types of debate going on in secular circles. Some major Christian groups even simply abstained from taking an official stance- this was something for science to figure out if there was validity in the theories, as it didn’t inherently contradict many religious views. For instance, the Catholic church never banned the work, unlike so many other works they felt even hinted at going against established Catholic doctrine. (See: Galileo and Why He was Convicted of Heresy)
More recently, many popes have discussed the topic, including Pope Pius XII who stated that there was no conflict between evolution and Catholicism. Even more recent than that, Pope Francis noted in 2014:
[God] created beings and allowed them to develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one, so that they were able to develop and to arrive and their fullness of being. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time at which he assured them of his continuous presence, giving being to every reality. And so creation continued for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until it became which we know today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the creator who gives being to all things… The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.
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- It ain’t necessarily so … – The Guardian
- HUMAN EVOLUTION FROM DARWIN TO DOVER: WHAT A LONG STRANGE TRIP IT’S BEEN by Louise Mead – Smithsonian
- Darwin, C. R. to Wallace, A. R. 5 July  – Darwin Correspondence Project
- On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin – Project Gutenberg
- Lamarck, the Founder of Evolution His Life and Work – Project Gutenberg
- Vestiges of the natural history of creation – Archives.org
- Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation – Wikipedia
- What did Darwin believe? – Darwin Correspondence Project
- The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, Volume 8
- Charles Darwin – Wikipeida
- Wilberforce, Samuel. 1860. Review of “On the origin of species” – Darwin Online
- The Principles of Biology By Herbert Spencer – Archives.org
- The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin – Archives.org
- The Literary and Cultural Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe edited by Thomas F. Glick, Elinor Shaffer
- The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or, The Preservation of … By Charles Darwin
- On the Origin of Species – Wikipedia
- Darwin, C. R. 1872. The origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life – Sixth Edition – Darwin Online
- Ten Myths about Charles Darwin – Oxford Journal
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