fb-pixel Skip to main content

Charles Darwin’s enduring hold on us

The naturalist’s recently returned notebooks illustrate why he was always destined to be both celebrated and misunderstood.

Charles DarwinLibrary Research

Amid the barrage of Ukraine horrors, many of us stole a microsecond this month to welcome the return to Cambridge University of two missing notebooks that once belonged to Charles Darwin.

The notebooks, from 1837-38, capture Darwin’s first major steps on the intellectual road that eventually led to his theory of evolution. The two tiny books had been reported missing in 2002 from Cambridge’s library. Returned anonymously, they arrived in a pink gift bag containing an archive box; inside that was a plain brown envelope. Accompanying the notebooks was a note that read: “Librarian / Happy Easter / X”

The notebooks’ contents were photographed and transcribed long ago and have been exhaustively studied for decades. So the originals’ value to scholars is strictly iconic. Even so, the hoopla that greeted their return highlights the ongoing public interest in a scientist who died a century and a half ago. And that raises a question: Why does Darwin still compel us so viscerally?

Certainly, the unexpected return of missing papers associated with, say, Galileo, Isaac Newton, or Albert Einstein would generate headlines. But unlike Darwin’s, those guys’ works seem settled business. When, after all, was the last time a pope tried to compel obeisance to Ptolemaic astronomy? Or for that matter, has anyone in recent memory questioned that Newton’s laws of motion or Einstein’s theory of relativity is taught in public schools?


But Darwin still stirs controversy, as much as anything because he remains misunderstood. School boards still debate whether to teach him, conspiracy theorists still weave him into conspiracies, and theologians still argue over the compatibility of evolution with religion. Indeed, his work has been used — and often distorted — by social and political activists on the right and the left ever since “On The Origin of Species” was published in 1859.


Many of the controversial ideas attributed to Darwin actually descend from the British biologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer. A generation younger than Darwin, Spencer founded what by the late 1870s was known as social Darwinism. “Survival of the fittest” was Spencer’s coinage; he used Darwin’s ideas to justify British colonialism and imperialism. For the most part, however, Darwin remained aloof from — even bemused by — Spencer’s thoughts. “With the exception of special points,” Darwin wrote in 1874, “I did not ever understand H. Spencer’s general doctrine; for his style is too hard work for me.”

Darwin’s own politics, in the tradition of his father’s prosperous family and that of his mother’s — the Wedgwoods, the ceramic industrialists — were Whig, liberal, and abolitionist. Over the years, he occasionally donated to reformist causes and charities. But he was never in any fundamental sense an activist. Indeed, after “Origin” triggered controversy, Darwin let others defend his theory in public debates.

Beyond that, the origins of the theory ought to refute any suggestion that a preconceived agenda drove him as a scientist. And the notebooks recently returned to Cambridge bear witness to those very origins.

The entries that fill their pages often refer to questions raised by phenomena he witnessed during his five years of global travels aboard the HMS Beagle when he was fresh out of Cambridge University. For example, he noticed that living creatures differed from one another the most in “countries longest separated.” He maintained a spirit of open inquiry and hesitated to draw firm conclusions; a sort of Joycean scientific interior monologue pervades the text.


Even so, on page 36 of Notebook B, bearing inky witness to where his speculations were headed, Darwin drew his seminal “transmutation diagram.” In that jagged schematic, he depicted a branching system of descent that linked extinct and living species. Species able to adapt to their circumstances, the drawing suggested, would continue to reproduce, whereas those ill suited to their conditions would not.

The "tree of life sketch" in one of Charles Darwin's recently returned notebooks.Associated Press

Darwin anticipated the controversy this idea would cause and its likely consequences for himself and his family. He thus balked at publishing his theory. “I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it,” he later reflected. “In June 1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory in pencil in 35 pages.” Indeed, only after his mentor, geologist Charles Lyell, reminded him that a rival naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, was postulating essentially the same theory and thus might upstage him did Darwin finally publish “On the Origin of Species.”

By then, however, the cautious scientist had hedged his bets. After writing — and then declining to publish — that 1842 abstract, Darwin left detailed instructions for his wife, Emma, to arrange for its publication in case he died unexpectedly: “If, as I believe that my theory is true & if it be accepted even by one competent judge, it will be a considerable step in science.”


Author and historian Tom Chaffin’s latest book is “Odyssey: Charles Darwin, the Beagle, and the Voyage That Changed the World.”