darwin.gif (49307 bytes) The Trial of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin ( 1809-1882) is best known for his theories about the evolution of species, which challenged prevailing notions views of evolution. Darwin's work challenged not only biblical interpretations of creation, as well as the Lamarckain view that various traits were passed from one generation to the next, but were the result of an organism's experience in the world, rather than through natural selection. Darwin made his initial observations during his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle to South America.  His most important data about the variations among species were gathered on the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America. Returning home with his findings, Darwin spent many years refining his theories about natural selection, at last rushing his book, On the Origin of Species (1851), into print in 1858 when he realized that his colleague Alfred Russel Wallace had arrived independently at very similar conclusions.

Following the appearance of On the Origin of Species, Darwin was attacked from several directions at once. In addition to Christians who believed Darwin was attempting to overthrow their faith, his work was challenged by other scientists with a vested interest in different interpretations of evolution, and by average people who bridled at the notion that they were somehow descended from lower organisms, most recently monkeys.

A painfully shy man, Darwin was unwilling to defend his work in the rough and tumble of public debate that attended the publication of On the Origin of Species, and later the The Descent of Man (1871). Instead, Darwin's defense was taken up primarily by another British scientist, Thomas Huxley, sometimes known as "Darwin's Bulldog. Huxley's most famous defense of Darwin came in a celebrated debate with Samuel Wilberforce, during which the Archbishop asked Huxley on which side of his family he was descended from apes. Huxley responded by saying that he was not ashamed to be descended from apes on either side. What would be worse would be using ones intellectual gifts to obscure the truth. By the time these debates took place, a large share of the British population was literate and media attention to Darwin's ideas meant that exchanges such as the one between Huxley and Wilberforce excited great attention among the general public.

To be sure, Darwin still stands accused by many of attempting to undermine Christianity. During the trial phase of our work on Darwin your task is to determine whether by advocating his theories on evolution, Darwin was challenging Christian belief, intentionally or unintentionally. Remember, you must deal with the evidence from the 19th century, not evidence from the 20th. In other words, as an historian, it is your task to place Darwin and the debates about his work in their proper historical context. Moreover, your task is not to decide whether or not Darwin's theories are right or wrong. Instead, you need to analyze the debate they engendered at the time.