Reaction

So Darwin finally took the plunge, pushed to it by the arrival of a real competitor. He finally took his chances and announced his real position to the world. Still, he tried to be as inoffensive as possible. His style remained modest, even at times apologetic. (He was criticized for calling it "my theory," and perhaps in response changed it to "the theory" in later editions.) His most glaring concession was to leave humans completely out of the mix, only once making the suggestion that the same principles could be true for humans as well.

This reticence did not reflect his frame of mind. In his private communications he clearly stated his view that humans were not separate from other organisms in undergoing this process. In his public writings he remained polite. He opted for diplomacy, not publishing facts he had collected about humans because: "I thought that I should thus only add to the prejudices against my views." At the same time, his own opinions of man and nature were firm: "Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble and I think truer to consider him created from animals." And, "Let man visit Ourang-outang in domestication, hear expressive whine, see its intelligence when spoken [to], as if it understood every word said—see its affection to those it knows,—see its passion and rage, sulkiness and very extreme of despair; let him look at savage [Fuegan], roasting his parent, naked, artless, not improving, yet improvable, and then let him dare to boast his proud pre-eminence."

While the announcement and readings of Wallace's and Darwin's essays at the Linnean society proved anticlimactic and nearly invisible, the release of Darwin's Origin was not. The book sold out its first printing of three thousand books, and a second printing was quickly set up. Public and critical reaction was dramatic; opinions were, as expected, polarized.

Opinions were not divided entirely on religious grounds— there was not a division between a creationist viewpoint and a Darwinian one. Partly this was due to the scientific erosion that had already occurred in the foundations of the "special creation" theory. Darwin was not the only one who had had problems reconciling what the biological world looked like and what people could imagine a logical and sensible creator would do. So this time the idea of changing, mutable species was not dismissed out of hand. There was a scientific need for this kind of explanation, and scientists and the public were ready for it. Interestingly enough, a few religious leaders were also ready.

There was polarization on social and political grounds, as well, although it was harder to predict. Some despised his theory on the grounds that it set up life as an essentially cutthroat and warlike existence; in Darwin's world, life was nothing less than a constant, bitter struggle to survive, pitting creature against creature. Early on, some pointed out the theory had laissez-faire implications. Darwin was amused by one quote: "I have noted in a Manchester newspaper a rather good squib, showing that I have proved 'might is right' and therefore Napoleon is right and every cheating tradesman is right." On the other hand, social reformers who used Malthusian theory to push for contraception and education found its premises sensible. His brother Erasmus's companion, the social writer Harriet Martineau, was delighted with the work.

But the book never met with the scalding dismissal that Chambers's Vestiges or Lamarckian theory had. Whether he had planned it consciously or not, Darwin had prepped his public well. He had successfully built a reputation among his peers as a respectable and respectful scientist. The public's image of Darwin, based on his popular book about the voyage of the Beagle, was of a pleasant and self-effacing man, and he had done nothing in twenty years to tarnish that image. The scientific establishment knew him as respectful (he had done nothing to upset them, but had instead joined in all their prejudices) and hardworking—he had worked for eight years to complete a comprehensive and widely admired monograph of barnacles. In addition, as a landowner he had played a generous and responsible role in his community, even at times mimicking the role he had anticipated when he studied for the clergy. All of this combined gave him a public image of being a man who would not announce such dreadful ideas merely for shock value. In the minds of the public, if Darwin believed something, he must have had a very good reason.

At the same time, Darwin had carefully cultivated allies, many of them young and ambitious. To them the status quo of a theocracy in control of science was oppressive. It was their agenda to upset it, so Darwin knew they could be depended on to disturb scientific and public sensibilities with little compunction, making his points forcefully while leaving him completely out of the fray. He had assiduously befriended these people, both professionally and personally. He wrote to them, soliciting their aid for samples and results, and flattered them by begging their opinions. He put them up at his house, tying them to him for more than just intellectual matters.

Now, it was time for a little payback. With his theory, he was handing them an invaluable weapon—a new idea certain to meet with rejection, revulsion even, and at the same time strong enough to stand up to malicious scrutiny. It is hard to imagine that he could have implemented a better public relations campaign, had he planned it or not.

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