“An accursed evil”: Darwin’s Struggle to Write “On the Origin of Species”

Jeffrey Kaye
16 min readFeb 13, 2024

Having sat on the results of his evolutionary researches for nearly two decades, Darwin decision to finally write a book on the subject was not as straightforward as many might think

Today is Charles Darwin’s 215th birthday. On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, when Darwin was 50 years old. After a period of extraordinary scientific creativity in his late 20s, after returning to London from the five-year circumnavigation of the HMS Beagle, a period that included his working out of the theory of evolution via natural selection, Darwin did not publish on the subject of evolution for the next 19 years. Why?

There are a lot of reasons. As part of my dissertation research into Darwin’s life, I looked at that question as well. As a treat for my readers (I hope it’s seen that way), I’m resurrecting a selection of that old work of mine (written in the mid-1990s, with only a few editorial changes). Hopefully, readers will tolerate, if not enjoy, this deviation from the usual fare on this blog.

I had often thought of publishing this work, but the vicissitudes of establishing myself as a psychologist, raising a family, and other matters, pushed the Darwin work off my personal agenda. I’m posting a portion here, partly as a tribute to Darwin on his birthday, but also because I think it speaks to the difficulties adherent to living out one’s personal dreams in a complex world, considering the sociological, economic, cultural, and personal pressures that steer our lives, often in ways that we don’t always understand.

As the selection below begins, Darwin has completed his years’ long task of studying and classifying barnacles. He undertook the work because he sorely felt his lack of credentials in biology. The lack of such professional recognition meant, he felt, that his work on biological evolution would never be accepted by the academic elite and scientists. Once he completed the barnacles job, the question of publishing his evolutionary ideas rose before him again….

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In November 1854, Darwin accepted a prestigious position on the council of the Royal Society, and then, later that winter, moved the entire family to London for a month. The visit was practically a debacle. His children became terribly ill, and a close scientific acquaintance, the kind of younger scientist Darwin thought would be a supporter whenever he finally published on evolution, suddenly died at age 39. Still, Darwin’s presence at the Royal Society represented his commitment to take more interest in and remain close to London scientific circles. He spent his 46th birthday at a rare party given by Lyell’s brother-in-law, Leonard Horner.

Charles Lyell was the most famous geologist in the world at that point, and had been a mentor and supporter of Darwin’s scientific career. While he suspected Darwin’s “transmutationist” heresies, he overlooked them and in many ways, Darwin had been seen up to this point as one of Lyell’s more prominent disciples.

Shortly after his return to Down from London, Charles began two projects directly related to his studies on the proof of organic evolution. He began keeping pigeons, in order to study the heritability of their physical and behavioral variations. He also initiated a study of seed dispersal, as he was troubled with problems concerning the geographical distribution of plant life, an important topic in his analysis of how evolution via natural selection occurred. The seed project soon began to overwhelm him with its difficulties, and he feared a repetition of the barnacle job, in that it threatened to become a years long research project in and of itself. Such a project would swallow up most of Darwin’s time, leaving him farther than ever from the completion of his chosen life’s work, the scientific proof of evolution by natural selection. This is not what he wanted at this point in his career.

Even more disturbing, the complexity of the data Darwin was collecting and analyzing for a future work on evolution began to overwhelm him. In March 1855, Darwin told his cousin William Darwin Fox that he doubted “whether the subject will not quite overpower me” (Burkhardt & Smith, 1989, v. 5, p. 294).[1] When, later that same spring, the seed experiments began to go awry, Darwin complained to Hooker, “All nature is perverse…. I am getting out of my depth” (p. 326).

Even a year later, in March 1856, shortly after Charles turned 47, he confided again to Fox that he still feared a breakdown, “for my subject gets bigger & bigger with each months work” (Burkhardt & Smith, 1990, v. 6, p. 58). A sense that time was growing short loomed over the entire project. Darwin was very self-conscious about growing older, and despite all his work, he still did not feel ready to begin writing his hoped-for book on species.

The rear of Down House in the Kent countryside, the home of Charles Darwin over the last forty years of his life. (Photo: English Heritage)

During these years Darwin remained decisively committed to the importance of family. The children at home were intimately informed about the progress of their father’s research. He was most happy when all the children were at home, even as he feared for their future in an “old burthened country, with every soul struggling for existence” (Burkhardt & Smith, 1990, v. 6, p. 55). By the time Darwin was 47, having had seven children, with two others lost in infancy and childhood, he said about his children that “one gets, as one grows older, to care more for them than for anything in the world” (p. 56). And, as if to highlight the sentiment, Emma became pregnant again that very year, although this was almost certainly an unplanned pregnancy.

The early years of Darwin’s middle age were marked by a widening circle of social and scientific acquaintances. He joined the upper-class pigeon-breeders’ Philoperiston Club only weeks before his 47th birthday. There were also new responsibilities shouldered, whether it was as treasurer to the Down Coal and Clothing Club, or as reviewer of papers for the council of the Royal Society. The extent of Darwin’s activities at this time belies his image as an invalided recluse for all the years he lived at Down.

Besides his English associates, Darwin initiated contact at this time with naturalists and scientists all around the world. One of the naturalists with whom he corresponded was Alfred Russel Wallace, then doing field work in Borneo. Wallace’s solution to the problem of species’ geographical distribution would entail an independent discovery of the mechanism of natural selection. This discovery would exacerbate both developmental and internal conflicts Darwin was having during the early years of his middle age, a struggle that centered around what to do about publishing his theories.

Alfred Russel Wallace, from London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company (active 1855–1922) — First published in Borderland Magazine, April 1896 (Source: Wikipedia, public domain)

Even as he turned 47 years old, Darwin remained content to gather more data in order to refine his theory of evolution. He did not feel ready to go public with his ideas. He did inform a larger group of acquaintances privately about his project — and received largely censure in reply — but he did not consider setting his findings down on paper until Charles Lyell decisively intervened. Lyell was a famous geologist and proponent of scientific uniformitarianism, the idea that natural processes that can be observed now have always (or nearly always) been in effect.

Lyell had also taken on the role of Darwin’s mentor in the years after Charles’s return from the long Beagle voyage. When Lyell visited Down in mid-April 1856, Darwin finally explained to his mentor his full theory of natural selection. — Imagine! He had kept the theory a secret for approximately twenty years from the man who most supported him in scientific circles! — Lyell was aware that Wallace, at least, was working on similar problems, and seemed to be concerned about establishing scientific priority for his disciple’s views. He also thought that with Darwin’s theories published, he could critique them in a future edition of his major work, Principles of Geology, and therefore possibly be able to control the debate over evolution.

In the end, Darwin could not abide by Lyell’s suggestion for a quick essay or pamphlet on natural selection. His ambition, as well as his sense of scientific integrity, chafed against the format of a simple sketch. After a few months, Darwin had decided, in the middle of his 47th year, to write the full book he had envisioned. It was a momentous moment for him, for he had to accept the role of an iconoclastic innovator. The planned multi-volume work was to be titled “Natural Selection.”

On one hand, Darwin seemed fully confident in the future success of his ideas, and the certainty that they would revolutionize natural science. But on the other hand, he still felt keenly his own scientific isolation, in addition to a lingering sense of dilettantism. “I shall have little sympathy from those, whose sympathy alone I value,” Charles complained (Burkhardt & Smith, 1990, v. 6, p. 236). Both his emotional and physical health fluctuated. With Emma suffering through a difficult pregnancy, Charles leaned even more for support upon his friend at Kew Gardens, Joseph Hooker.

Thomas Henry Huxley, 1880 (Source: Wikipedia, public domain)

As Darwin went over his materials once again, following an outline not too different from that envisioned in his initial 1842 and 1844 private sketches of the subject, he made subtle but important changes in his theory. There was a new emphasis on inherent variability, on the relativity of good-enough adaptation, and the addition of a principle of divergence as a corollary to natural selection.

Meanwhile, Darwin struggled with the meaning of what he was about to do. He agonized over his own quest for fame, as well as his continuing fear that writing the book would be too much for him. He also had qualms over the amount of time and energy the project required. Months after Wallace’s theory was announced, necessitating a switch in strategy from a very large multi-volume compendium on the subject of evolution and natural selection to the writing of a shorter book-length abstract, Darwin, then aged 49, told Hooker, “It is an accursed evil to a man to become so absorbed in any subject as I am in mine” (Burkhardt & Smith, 1990, v. 6, p. 174).

Even as Charles turned 48, Emma was arguing with her husband that he was so overwrought he should return to Malvern’s spa for a dose of water treatment. But Charles was reluctant. He worked persistently at his manuscript. He travelled to London to further the career of his young protégé, John Lubbock. When he did finally return to hydropathy for relief, in April 1857, it was at Moor Park, not Malvern. Moor Park was much closer to home than Malvern was.

After a week, Darwin was feeling better. “I can walk & eat like a hearty Christian,” he wrote to Hooker, “& even my nights are good…. I have not thought about a single species of any kind, since leaving home” (p. 377). But back home in May, he was already sick again, telling Hooker, “I fear that my head will stand no thought, but I would sooner be the wretched contemptible invalid, which I am, than live the life of an idle squire” (p. 403).

Distracted also from scientific work by concern for his children’s health — there was a diphtheria outbreak in the neighborhood — and by disputes among his friends, at times Darwin wished he could sunder all relations, all affections. “A scientific man ought to have… a mere heart of stone,” Charles told his scientific correspondent Thomas Huxley later that summer (Burkhardt & Smith, 1990, v. 6, p. 427). By autumn, he told his cousin Fox, “A man ought to be a bachelor, & care for no human being to be happy!” (p. 476). Charles remained especially dependent upon Emma’s care and love. A few months after he turned 49, Darwin offered to take over the care of the children in order that Emma might have a rest.

Darwin continued to work away at what he felt would be a gigantic magnum opus on evolution. Scientific problems kept arising. He worked obsessively, such that his frequent correspondent, his cousin Fox, remonstrated him for his perpetual overwork. Meanwhile, Darwin had tentatively sent a chapter of his work to his botanist friend, Hooker. He was immensely pleased when Hooker, who was still averse to accepting evolution as a theory, much less natural selection, told Darwin his new work was scientifically formidable.

Darwin wrote to Hooker:

“You would laugh, if you could know how much your note pleased me. I had firmestconviction that you would say all my M.S. was bosh, & thank God you are one of the few men who dare speak truth. Though I shd. not have cared much about throwing away what you have seen, yet I have been forced to confess to myself… if you condemned that you wd. condemn all — my life’s work — & that I confess made me a little low — but I cd. have borne it, for I have the conviction that I have honestly done my best.” (Burkhardt & Smith, 1991, v. 7, p. 102).

On June 18, 1858, Darwin received an extraordinary package in the mail. It was a letter and a manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace. The manuscript was entitled, “On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type.” Darwin read it and dashed off a note to Lyell. He told him to read Wallace’s manuscript, and added:

“Your words have come true with a vengeance that I shd. be forestalled… if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters.

“I shall at once write [Wallace] & offer to send to any Journal. So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed. Though my Book, if it will ever have a value, will not be deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of the theory.” (p. 107)

In one of the great coincidences in the history of science, Wallace had worked out the concept of natural selection in the jungles of the Malay Archipelago just as Darwin was preparing his long book on the subject. The crisis then precipitated by Darwin’s loss of scientific priority found its solution via the intervention of Lyell and Hooker, who saw to it that both Darwin and Wallace’s essays were jointly published in a scientific journal. But, crucially, Wallace’s paper forced Darwin to reassess the value of his work, and he decided its importance was not diminished by Wallace’s discovery. Charles understood that the significance of his own contribution lay in the multifaceted discussion of the theory’s application. When the joint Wallace-Darwin papers were presented at the Linnean Society, their effect was minuscule; Darwin had reckoned correctly. Through mature reflection, he knew that the theory had to be demonstrated, not merely asserted.

Perhaps Charles could suffer the difficult loss of priority, the loss of a portion of his dream, because he was then also recovering from the very recent death of his youngest son. His daughter, Henrietta, too had just caught diphtheria. Most importantly for Darwin, the crisis over the Wallace events proved that, as he was about to enter upon a new and ominous period of his middle age, he could count upon the love of his wife, the friendship of Joseph Hooker, and the cautious backing of his mentor, Lyell. Perhaps this is why his double loss — of scientific priority and of his youngest son — did not destroy him.

Darwin’s perseverance against tremendous pressures, illness, and catastrophic loss, is not easy to analyze. Darwin himself thought that energy of mind, steadiness, and ability to sustain rigorous and long-continued work were his peculiar strengths. It appears to me that Darwin was able to contend with much strife due to the stability of the life structure he constructed during his 30s and 40s. In this, Darwin may have been very prescient in choosing a wife who could provide immense emotional support over the years (even though she was quite religious and Charles was not).

Cropped and rotated version of Image:Origin of Species.jpg, which is off the title page and the facing page of the 1859 Murray edition of the Origin of species by Charles Darwin. (Via Wikipedia)

Within a month of the Wallace events, though feeling old and weak, Darwin began preparing an abstract of his earlier, larger planned book. He entitled the new manuscript “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.” In his later book, The Descent of Man, Darwin would make quite clear that all the races of men were of one species, a topic that was then still considered unsettled. While Darwin found value in the work he did, he still feared few would recognize its importance.

With the publication of Origin of Species in Darwin’s 50th year, Charles achieved, seemingly in one leap, a preeminent position in the scientific world. Yet his accomplishment was the result of long-prepared, gradual development during the years of early adulthood, mid-life transition, and initial middle age. Furthermore, the composition of the book was difficult, and Darwin more than once sought rest and hydropathic treatment at Moor Park spa.

Darwin believed that he worked from an instinct for truth, but the pursuit of his dream of scientific accomplishment almost overwhelmed him. Even as he was finishing Origin, Charles fretted that his entire life’s work had been for nought. At an extreme, he thought he might be insane. More than once, he told his friends how he longed to finish his “accursed” book, after which he could be “free” (see Burkhardt & Smith, 1991, v. 7, pp. 247, 270, 326, 328). He felt in his 50th year that, with the publication of Origin, his career had come to an end. The book had “half killed” him (p. 350). Yet, at other times, Charles also called his book “my child” and felt “infinitely pleased and proud” of it (p. 365).

Lyell was helpful once again, this time in procuring a publisher. But Darwin realized very well that his book would be “one long argument” against anti-evolution theorists such as Lyell himself (Burkhardt & Smith, 1991, v. 7, p. 278). Accordingly, Darwin fervently hoped that his former mentor would be converted to evolution and natural selection. “Remember that your verdict will probably have more influence than my Book,” Charles told him (p. 329).

Darwin, uncertain of surviving a perilous future in scientific circles, and unwilling, perhaps, to surpass Lyell’s accomplishments, fervently wished that the latter would accept evolution. Darwin knew that with the publication of his book, he was abandoning his former teachers and many naturalist friends. Neither was he sanguine about the response of his early mentor John Henslow, botany professor at Cambridge, to transmutationist heresy. Charles was resigned to Henslow’s disapprobation. (Henslow died in 1861, and never was a major critic of Darwin’s work on evolution.)

Darwin was barely ready to shoulder the responsibilities which his lonely scientific opposition would incur. Retreating to yet another water cure in Ilkley, he was joined by Emma and the children. Meanwhile, Charles was very dependent upon the approval and support of Hooker, Lyell (up to a point), and, increasingly, the young scientist Thomas Huxley. But it was Lyell who mattered most to Darwin, and the latter alternately argued and pleaded with the old geologist to accept the theories propounded in Origin. In the midst of this crisis, Darwin kept injuring himself repeatedly, hurting his ankle, his writing hand, and suffering repeated outbreaks of boils and rashes.

As for Lyell, he never was able to “go all the way” with evolutionary theory in general, or natural selection in particular. The disappointment Darwin felt on this score led to a partial estrangement in his relationship with his former mentor, and increased Darwin’s sense of embattlement in the first years after the publication of Origin.

When the full critical assault against Darwin’s theory got underway, Origin had been in the bookstalls almost a year. Charles was turning 51 years old, and confused about what to do with the rest of his life. He was reticent about engaging with polemics with his scientific opponents. When Huxley offered to undertake the defense of Origin in the pages of the magazines and journals, Darwin was very grateful. He even egged Huxley on, especially as they shared an opponent in the powerful superintendent of Natural History at the British Museum, Richard Owen.

In the scientific conflict with the powerful Owen, Darwin found access to his anger and aggression. He learned how to hate. It helped that he could hate, because he suffered from self-loathing. Over and over in his letters, Charles describes himself as “odious” or “arrogant” or “egotistical” (Burkhardt & Smith, 1991, v. 7, pp. 409, 457; v. 8, p. 141). In Owen, Darwin may have found a shadow figure. He often criticized aspects of Owen’s personality that he found egregious in himself.

For instance, Charles castigated Owen for his obsequiousness before the aristocracy, and for his slavishness to the court of public opinion. While these are not manifest traits in Darwin’s own personality, he struggled through much of his adult life around issues of satisfying his social superiors, and was especially sensitive to public opinion. We can infer that what Darwin found so awful about Owen — the latter’s propensity to bend his scientific integrity to the dictates of social approval — was an internal struggle within Darwin’s character as well.

When Darwin’s theory began to divide the scientific world into warring camps, he suffered greatly for the destructive forces he believed he had unleashed. When, a few years later, the disputes degenerated into personal attacks over plagiarism among even his closest friends, the inner conflict Darwin suffered paralyzed him. But as he turned 51, Charles felt supported enough by Lyell, Hooker, Huxley and a few others, that he was willing to undertake a campaign for the support of his ideas. He was also trying to find a way he might continue his scientific work.

On one hand, Darwin wished to finish the mammoth task of documenting the facts that had been presented in Origin as only an abstract of a treatise. This would mean many years spent on a multi-volume book, essentially a rewrite of the earlier omnibus manuscript, Natural Selection. On the other hand, Charles wanted to make new discoveries, and to remain a natural scientist. His work on the book which would become Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication, the companion volumes to Origin, was stalled again and again, as Charles found himself incapable of applying himself to the task. Instead, he looked to new objects of study — orchids, insectivorous plants, and the sexuality of flowers — in order to find suitable projects with which to apply his dream of scientific discovery.

Footnotes

[1] The references to Burkhardt & Smith in this post are to various volumes of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, published by Cambridge University Press (1985–2023), which were edited by Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith. At the time I wrote this material, this was the most comprehensive, scholarly, and accessible reference available for Darwin’s letters. Today, all the letter are online and accessible at Cambridge University’s fantastic resource, the Darwin Correspondence Project. The final volume of the printed work, number 30, was published last year. Hence all the quotes I use from Burkhardt & Smith in this article can be found at the DCP. (Later editions of the Correspondence sometimes had different editors.)

Note: This article was first published at my Substack blog, Hidden Histories, under the same title.

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