Though his theory of natural selection was revolutionary, Darwin the man, by nature, was not. Born in 1809, he lived at a time when radical politics in Europe had provoked a conservative backlash and desire for stability. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution made change inevitable. New agricultural methods displaced poor farmers and brought great hardship to England's growing population, and many were clamoring for reform. Established elites, slow to accept radical changes, were wary of new ideas that challenged traditional views of the "natural order" and mankind's place within it.
Darwin's grandfather, Eramus, who died in 1802, was more the revolutionary type, with a far-reaching and unfettered mind. He supported the American and French revolutions, wrote erotic verse, and published prolifically on medicine and zoology. In his book Zoonomia he even developed his own version of "transmutation," as evolution was then called. He did not, though, come up with a theory as earthshaking as his grandson would.
Charles Darwin was, in a word, respectable -- and wanted to remain so. He grew up an advantaged, upper-class young man, though with a growing passion for natural history -- not the parson's life for which he was trained. Darwin was invited on the five-year voyage of the Beagle to provide company for the aristocratic young Captain FitzRoy. (The rigid etiquette of the 19th century forbade the captain from dining with his own officers.) Darwin took advantage of the opportunity his travels provided to expand his knowledge of natural history.
Because his theories of evolution and natural selection were sure to disrupt his comfortable relationships with more traditionally minded people -- including his wife, Emma -- Darwin developed his ideas in private. He repeatedly delayed publishing his ideas, dreading the controversy they would generate, for the conclusions that his research had led him to draw were at odds with the dominant belief at the time: that God created all species in their present form, not that they had evolved through natural selection.
No question, many of the more conservative members of the church and the scientific establishment despised On the Origin of Species when it was published in 1859. Darwin was roasted in caricatures in magazines. By contrast, rising young scientific stars embraced Darwin's ideas, and -- in contrast to the myth -- On the Origin of Species was taken very seriously by almost all commentators.
Some "critics" of evolutionary theory claim that biologists try to "cover up" observations that don't square with evolutionary theory. Discuss whether or not that charge can justifiably be leveled against Darwin himself, taking into account his letters, this video, and the following quote: "I ... followed a golden rule that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views that I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer." Darwin, Charles. 1958. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 123. The dialogue between Darwin and FitzRoy about the distribution of birds in the Galapagos highlights a major difference in the way these men thought about the natural world. Discuss that difference and its significance to the growth of scientific understanding. Why does Moore explicitly state, and Richard Owen allude to, the fact that Darwin's theory "jeopardized the standing of a stable society" as it existed in Darwin's time. How could dialogue about the origin of species threaten the social status quo in the late 19th century? Hint: What historical events and socioeconomic trends might have been affected by this kind of thinking? In the drama, Darwin asks a question that biologists 150 years later still find themselves asking when confronted by opposition to evolutionary theory: Why should natural causes be denied as explanations for the living world when similar causes are accepted in physics, astronomy, or even certain disciplines of biology such as medicine?