Did Darwin Suppress his work in the Face of Religious Opposition?

By | October 6, 2010

I appreciate books that argue in favor of Science and the ideals of the Enlightenment against the obstruction of religion and the obscurity of philosophy. Timothy Ferris has written such a book, The Science of Liberty. It promises to be a book well worth our time of close, critical reading. However, Mr. Ferris commits a minor error which I found annoying. In the third chapter of his book, “The Rise of Science,” Ferris refers to Charles Darwin and the delay in publishing his famous work, The Origin of the Species. Ferris classifies Darwin with history’s “martyrs to the cause of science,” such as Galileo, who was coerced by the Inquisition into recanting a few of his early astronomical findings. Ferries writes:

“Every age has produced its own martyrs to science. . . Charles Darwin long suppressed his theory of evolution rather than face the religious indignation that indeed greeted its eventual publication.”

(page 45)

This is a surprising, somewhat annoying statement for some of us who know a little of the history of the writing and publication of Darwin’s great work; taken as an explanation of Darwin’s delay in publishing his great work, it is simply false.

Most students of Darwinian evolutionary theory and the history of science know that Darwin took over twenty years to research, prepare, write, and eventually publish his great work. Students are also aware of the great opposition and hostility that its publication inspired from the religious authorities and from a great part of the intellectual community of the mid-nineteenth century England. Those of us who are familiar with some biographical works, publications and film on Darwin, know that he was aware of, likely apprehensive about, the controversy that his work would trigger. He also lamented that his elimination of a Creator from his account of life’s evolution would have a troubling affect on his wife, Emma, who was a pious Christian. But to my knowledge there is nothing in any reputable biography of Darwin’s life or in any of Darwin’s letters and autobiographical comments for the years leading up to the 1859 publication of the The Origin of the Species which indicates that Darwin suppressed publication of his work because he was reluctant to face the “religious indignation that .. greeted its eventual publication.” The facts, as recounted in such biographies (e.g., The Survival of Charles Darwin, by Ronald W. Clark) and in autobiographical statements and letters by Darwin himself, are that it took over twenty years of intense research and development before he felt he had an adequately grounded theory to present. He did not suppress or delay publication because of religious or political factors; he simply did not feel that his work was ready to do what he hoped to do: make as strong a case as possible for natural evolution of species in the face of centuries of belief in God’s creation of animal and plant species in static, unchanging forms.* As Steve Jones remarks,

“Before Darwin, the great majority of Naturalists believed that species were immutable productions, and had been separately created.”

(page xviii, Introduction to Jones’ book, Darwin’s Ghost).

In short, Darwin faced opposition from variousl camps, not just religious ones; but his delay had nothing to do with his reluctance to fly in the face of such opposition.

Admittedly, Ferris’s remark to the contrary (that Darwin suppressed publication of his work because of religious opposition) is not an important part of the idea that he develops in Chapter 3 (“The Rise of Science”) of his book, namely that science has had its share of “martyrs” and that many significant steps in the development of a naturalistic theories of the world and humans have met with strong opposition from the religious side. But Ferris should have taken more care and not included such a misleading statement about Darwin’s momentous work, and misleading it is, if not outright false.

In his book, Darwin’s Ghost, Steve Jones tells us that in spite of his twenty-year search for evidence, Darwin was so conscious of the gaps in his thesis that he might never have made it public; and that his book is full of apologies:

“To treat this subject at all properly, a long catalogue of dry facts should be given; but these I shall reserve for my future work . . . It is hopeless to attempt to convince any one of the truth of this proposition without giving the long array of facts which I have collected, and which cannot possibly be here introduced . . . I must here treat the subject with extreme brevity, though I have the materials prepared for ample discussion.”

Jones then adds,

“Today’s readers may feel a certain relief that the promised book never appeared. By happy chance, Darwin was stung into publication of a summary of his ideas by an unexpected letter from Alfred Russel Wallace containing the same notion.”


Here Jones refers to a few elements of the long story of how Darwin finally got around to publishing his great work. The facts seem to be that he was developing such a big work that publication seemed a remote event. Eventually he was compelled to put together what he called an abstract of his greater work. Clark writes

“Darwin’s “Abstract” of which he wrote to Spencer in November of 1858 was the result of a series of traumatic events. IN the spring of 1855 he had written to William Darwin Fox: “I am hard at work on my notes, collecting and comparing them, in order in some 2 or 3 years to write a book with all the facts & arguments, which I can collect, for and versus the immutability of species.” The plan then was for something much longer and almost certainly less readable than The Origin turned out to be. At the worst, it could have been a book that would never be finished at all.”

Clark than tells us that

“these prospects were dramatically changed by the appearance on the scene of Alfred Russel Wallace, then in the Far East, to whom “a sudden flash of insight,” as he called it, had revealed a solution to the species problem identical in its main idea to Darwin’s.”

(page 95)

In summary, the story here is not one of delay and suppression because Darwin feared the indignation of religious authorities. The story, rather, is one of a natural scientist who wanted to build the best possible case for his theory of evolution of species, who apparently could not stop accumulating additional evidence for his theory, and who eventually was spurred to publication of an “abstract” of his work by the prospect that Wallace would get priority with his publication of a theory of natural selection. In all works on Darwin which I have studied, including Clark’s very detailed biography ** and account of the events leading up the publication of The Origin of Species, and some autobiographical material and letters by Darwin himself, there is absolutely no reason for concluding that he suppressed publication of his work because he anticipated great religious indignation and opposition.

*If anyone can find information to the contrary (supporting the Ferris remark) in any reputable work on Darwin, I’ll be glad to look at it.

** more biographical information relevant to the subject from Clark:
Clark: “…Wallace’s book was never written. But in September 1855 issue of the Annals and Magazine of Natural History there appeared his paper “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species.” A cautious argument for the evolution of species, the paper maintained: “The following law may be deduced from these facts: –Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.” . . . Wallace’s paper fell short of the theory on which Darwin was working, but there were sufficient similarities in it to alarm Lyell, who wrote to Darwin urging that he should delay no longer in publishing his own findings. . . . . Darwin still dallied, and it was April 1856 before he revealed to Lyell the position that he had now reached. (97) . . Lyle urged Darwin to publish his theory, and his other scientific friends appear to have agreed . . . Surely now was the time for Darwin to start writing. But he still hesitated. “I hardly know what to think, “ he wrote to Lyell on May 3, “but will reflect on it, but it [publication] goes against my prejudices. To give a fair sketch would be absolutely impossible, for every proposition requires such an array of facts. If I were to do anything, it could only refer to the main agency of change – selection – and perhaps point out a very few of the leading features, .. and some few of the main difficulties. But I don not know what to think; I rather hate the idea of writing for priority, yet I certainly should be vexed if any one were to publish my doctrines before me.” (98) . . . He was still anxious that his theory should be presented to the world only when every detail was buttressed by evidence, when all the questions that he knew would be raised could be countered by satisfactory answers. (98-99) But he was also worried about priority. His ideas were farther ahead, and far more detailed, than those of Wallace. But he was only human. . . (99) . . . On May 14, 1856, he noted in his personal journal: “Began by Lyell’s advice writing species sketch,” and on June 10 he told William Darwin Fox that Lyell was strongly urging him to write a preliminary essay. “This I have begun to do,” he said, “but my work will be horribly imperfect & with many mistakes so that I groan & tremble when I think of it.” Once he had begun, the prospects of a “little volume” quickly vanished. “Sometimes, “ he wrote to Fox, “I fear I shall break down, for my subject gets bigger and bigger with each month’s work.” (99)


The Science of Liberty, by Timothy Ferris (Harper-Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 2010)

The Survival of Charles Darwin, by Ronald W. Clark (Random House, New York, NY, 1984)

Darwin’s Ghost, by Steve Jones (Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1999)

Charles Darwin- Autobiography and Letters, (Ed. by Francis Darwin, D. Appleton & co. New York, NY, 1893)

One thought on “Did Darwin Suppress his work in the Face of Religious Opposition?

  1. Firooz R. Oskooi

    Thanks Juan for defending fairness and accuracy in science and perhaps in every endeavor of life. Most inventors and discoverers were God and Truth loving people if not dogmatically oriented which religions had become at that time under the influence of clergy who wished nothing but to protect their position and income!


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