Charles Darwin is known worldwide as the original developer of the Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection. Much is revealed about Charles Darwin’s life and work, and a lot more is assumed by people who have not studied him in any way beyond superficially knowing “he came up with the idea of evolution”.
So many myths and legends have cropped up since his death that it is difficult to disentangle fact from fiction. Here are some of the most common misconceptions.
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.
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.
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.
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 himself virtually an atheist; while another understands him as saying that he adopts some harmless 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.”
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.
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.