On Nov. 24, 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, and changed how the world thought about the beginning of humankind. The radical book is responsible for our current understanding of where human beings fit into the timeline of life on Earth (with early ancestors such as “Lucy,” pictured above, providing one of the many missing pieces of the puzzle), but its publication only came after decades of quiet work.
Darwin first gained notoriety after working as an unpaid botanist on the HMS Beagle, a ship which traveled around South America in the first half of the 19th century. His scientific writing and field research — especially from the Galapagos Islands — later garnered him prominence among scientific circles in London. He parlayed that recognition into a career in science, publishing zoological and geological studies following his voyage on the Beagle. Darwin’s decision to publish these texts came with a number of risks, however: being Victorian England in the mid-1800s, the crown wasn’t known for accepting science that challenged the beliefs of the church. One account even says that Darwin feared that his thoughts would result in his execution, not unlike the fates that befell Copernicus and Galileo some hundreds of years before.
Out of fear of public reprisal, Darwin waited decades before he published Origins. In fact, it was only after another scientist began publishing papers with similar ideas that he decided to introduce his Beagle findings to the public. Once released, Origins generated strong opinions which resulted in several public debates and the book’s banning in certain places. It likewise generated beliefs that Darwin himself was an atheist, even though that was untrue. Said Darwin, “I have never been an atheist. This grand and wondrous universe seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God.”
While his theory of natural selection marked a paradigm shift in science, some of its elements uncomfortably complemented existing racist and imperialist attitudes. The second part of the title—The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life—is often left out in the sanitized histories of Darwin we see today, but Darwin believed that natural selection applied to people just as much as it did to animals. The related science of eugenics—which aimed to eradicate various inherited disabilities in humans by manipulating their genetic make-up through selective breeding—has been forever tainted by its association with the Nazis, and even staunch segregationists in the American South. With that in mind, it’s no wonder the part about the preservation of the favored races is usually left out. Meanwhile, his theories on natural selection have become the backbone for everything from the modern theory of evolution to cellular biology.