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Darwin’s Reticence: How on Earth Did the Origin of Species Ever Get Published?

Charles Darwin statue
Photo: Darwin statute at the Natural History Museum, by Alan Perestrello, via Flickr (cropped).

In his 2013 book Darwin Deleted, Peter Bowler speculated about how history might have unfolded differently had Darwin never published On the Origin of Species. Actually, few people realize just how close we came to that. Left up to his own devices, it is doubtful Darwin would have ever published anything like the Origin. This fact should be given much more prominence in any assessment of the scientific value of this infamous work.

Darwin had completed a sketch of his species theory by 1844, but except for instructing his wife Emma to have it published posthumously in the event of his untimely death, Darwin had no intention of publishing this short sketch while he was alive. He knew he needed to accumulate much more evidence to convince skeptical readers of his theory. Though he shared his ideas with Emma, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and a few others, Darwin mostly kept his species work to himself. 

An Exhortation to Publish

In April 1856, during a visit to Down House, Charles Lyell was finally brought into the circle of Darwin’s confidants, and shortly thereafter wrote to Darwin, “I wish you would publish some small fragment of your data [on] pigeons if you please & so out with the theory & let it take date — & be cited — & understood.” Lyell’s exhortation to publish was not well received by Darwin. It put him in a considerable bind. Darwin did not want to risk losing priority, but he feared a short sketch could not do his work justice because as Darwin put it, “every proposition requires such an array of facts.” Publishing a short sketch just did not seem tenable, a point Darwin made clear in a letter to Hooker:

I believe I should sneer at anyone else doing this, & my only comfort is, that I truly never dreamed of it, till Lyell suggested it….I am in a peck of troubles & do pray forgive me for troubling you.

On May 1, 1856, Darwin confided to Hooker, “I begin most heartily to wish that Lyell had never put this idea of an Essay into my head.” On June 8, he reported to his cousin, William Darwin Fox, that he was going ahead with a preliminary essay, but complained, “my work will be horridly imperfect & with many mistakes, so that I groan and tremble when I think of it.” As he wrote, Darwin quickly discovered that he could not condense his material down to the length of an essay, and so he began instead to write what he would call his big book on species.

A Herculean Task

But the big book proved to be a Herculean task that taxed Darwin beyond his capabilities. On November 29, 1857, he reported to Asa Gray:

What you hint at generally is very very true, that my work will be grievously hypothetical & large parts by no means worthy of being called inductive; my commonest error being induction from too few facts.

The following spring, Darwin wrote to his old Beagle assistant Syms Covington:

I have for some years been preparing a work for publication which I commenced 20 years ago….This work will be my biggest; it treats on the origin of varieties of our domestic animals and plants, and on the origin of species in a state of nature. I have to discuss every branch of natural history and the work is beyond my strength and tries me sorely.

Thanks to Wallace, an Unexpected Turn

While Darwin wrestled with whether he would ever complete and publish his big book on species, his life took an unexpected turn when Alfred Russel Wallace’s manuscript from Ternate, laying out a theory of natural selection closely mirroring Darwin’s, arrived at Down House. 

Darwin was close to giving up his priority by helping Wallace get his paper published. If he had, we would speak today of Wallaceism rather than Darwinism. But Lyell had other plans. In collaboration with Hooker, he arranged for Wallace’s paper and a short sketch by Darwin to be read before the Linnean Society. Darwin could follow up with a longer work while Wallace remained immersed in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and Darwin would then receive most of the scientific attention. Lyell’s plan only created more worries, however, for an anxiety-ridden Darwin. 

Origin of an Abstract

Darwin feared that if he published a longer work after having seen Wallace’s paper, it would appear that he was trying to usurp Wallace’s priority. Or worse, that he had plagiarized Wallace. Darwin tried every strategy he could to rationalize not publishing. But not wanting to disappoint Lyell, he forged ahead with an abstract of the big book on species he had been working on, an abstract that became the Origin of Species

As he neared completion of the abstract, Darwin wondered who would publish such a thing. Given Lyell’s involvement in getting Darwin to publish, it made sense for Lyell to approach his publisher, John Murray, on Darwin’s behalf. But Darwin struggled with how to present his manuscript to Murray. He wrote to Lyell:

Would you advise me to tell Murray that my Book is not more unorthodox than the subject makes inevitable. That I do not discuss origin of man. — That I do not bring in any discussions about Genesis &c, only facts, & such conclusions from them, as seem to me fair. Or had I better say nothing to Murray, & assume that he cannot object to this much unorthodoxy.

There was no reason for Darwin to be so concerned about Murray’s opinion of his unorthodoxy. On the strength of Lyell’s recommendation and his familiarity with Darwin’s previous works, Murray offered to publish Darwin’s abstract without even seeing the manuscript, a decision, however, that he may have come to regret.

Once Murray received Darwin’s manuscript, he sent it to Whitwell Elwin, editor of the Quarterly Review, for his opinion. Elwin advised against publication, not on the grounds of the work’s unorthodoxy (as Darwin feared), but due to Darwin’s work being a mere abstract sorely lacking the facts and evidence necessary to support its theoretical propositions. Elwin wrote to Murray:

It seemed to me to put forth the theory without the evidence would do grievous injustice to his views, & to his twenty years of observations & experiment. At every page I was tantalized by the absence of proofs. All kinds of objections, & possibilities rose up in the mind, & it was fretting to think that the author had a whole army of facts, & inferences from those facts, absolutely essential to the decision on the question which were not before the reader. It is to ask the jury for a verdict without putting the witness into the box.

Lack of Evidence — And of Style

Elwin was concerned not only with the lack of evidence presented to the reader, but also with the style of the writing. In contrast to Darwin’s Journal of Researches, which Elwin called “one of the most charming books in the language”:

The dissertation on species is, on the contrary, in a much harder and drier style. I impute this to the absence of the details. It is these that give relief and interest to the scientific outline. — So that the very omission that takes from the philosophical value of the work destroys in a great degree its popular value also. Whatever class of public he wants to win he weakens the effect by an imperfect, & comparatively meagre exposition of his theory.

We don’t know what Murray thought of Elwin’s critical review, but having already offered to publish Darwin’s abstract, he had little choice but to go ahead. For his part, Darwin once again sought a possible off ramp by informing Murray that if after seeing the manuscript he deemed it unlikely to generate significant sales, Darwin would free him from any obligation to publish. 

Of course, Darwin’s abstract did appear, and with every presentation copy he instructed Murray to send out, Darwin sent a letter informing recipients that the Origin of Species is only an abstract, and should therefore not be viewed as a comprehensive exposition of his theory containing all the facts and evidence on which the theory of natural selection is founded, facts and evidence that he never did publish despite expectations of his readers that he would.

We must wrestle much more than we have with the irony that perhaps the most famous and influential scientific treatise in the Western world was viewed by its author as nothing more than an imperfect abstract of a larger work that never saw the light of day. And this abstract only made it into print through an unlikely series of serendipitous circumstances and virtually against the wishes of its author. The Origin of Species has dubious scientific value. The fact that it gets treated as seminal is a clear testament to the artificial and ideological nature of the entire edifice of the evolutionary theory that is built upon it. Even Darwin would be aghast at what the world has made of a mere abstract that he was almost pathologically ambivalent about ever publishing.