The story of Charles Darwin is quite well known to many interested in evolution (I am surprised there is not a children’s book version of it somewhere), and often the standard story given as to why he delayed coming forth with his ideas is that he feared the socio-religious implications of it. Indeed, depending on what you read or what documentary you see, Darwin may never have published if it wasn’t for Wallace’s postulation of similar ideas or he is shown as constantly ill and worried by his ideas. The idea has become so entrenched that the story itself seems to evolve, the implications of evolution weighing down so heavily on Darwin that it’s surprising he didn’t spontaneously combust from the pressure. Some new research presented in the new issue of Nature, however, suggests that Darwin did not fear religion and made his ideas fairly well known among family and friends, thus he wasn’t not on the verge of a heart attack trying to keep his ideas under wraps.
While I do not think that religion necessarily prevented Darwin from coming forward with his ideas, I think he did worry about it and he would be concerned about coming forward with an idea many would consider heretical, especially with the likes of Richard Owen still about. I agree with others that while he was indeed concerned with religion, he also had to make something of a name for himself in biology and show that he was to be taken seriously (hence, 8 years spent on barnacles), else he might likely be dismissed as someone who did not receive “proper” scientific training. We must also remember that Darwin was well aware of the stumbling blocks that evolution faced and some questions that had yet to be fully answered, and if left to research and further ruminate on the idea without threat of being upstaged, perhaps he wouldn’t have published for even longer still (in science, if you keep picking at it, it may get better). I also have to say that I enjoyed David Quammen’s tongue-in-cheek observation that Darwin was much like the barnacles he studied (traveled abroad as a youth only to cement himself in Down House for the rest of his days), suggesting that perhaps Darwin spent so much time on barnacles because something resonated with him about them.
Darwin books are a dime-a-dozen these days, and it may be likely that at some point (if not already) there is more traditional dogma about his life than fact. I do not say this to underwrite historians who have studied his life, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the public idea of who Darwin was really matches up with true history. I honestly can’t say, but it was amazing to look upon his effects and notes not so long ago in the American Museum of Natural History. Before then I respected Darwin, but he was just another name in a history book; I appreciated his work but knew little about the man. Gazing upon his notes, however, I started to feel a resonance with a man I’ll never meet, sharing Darwin’s “fever for the tropics” he felt in his youth for one thing. Regardless of why Darwin published when he did, the facts are that he forever changed science, and the revolution that On the Origin of Species began still has yet to fully come to fruition, and neither Darwin’s fears nor courage can take away from such a momentous achievement.