The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VIII. The Literature of Science

§ 53. Darwin

By far the most important event in the history of biology in the nineteenth century was the publication, in 1859, of The Origin of Species. This statement might be strengthened, for the publication of this book changed the whole trend of thought not only in biology, not only in other sciences, but in the whole intellectual outlook of the world. There were, of course, many British evolutionists before Darwin, amongst whom may be mentioned Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, Wells, Patrick Matthew, Pritchard, Grant, Herbert—some of these writers even hinted at natural selection. Above all, Robert Chambers, whose Vestiges of Creation remained anonymous until after his death, strongly pressed the view that new species of animals were being evolved from simpler types.

During the incubatory period of Darwin’s great work, as Alfred Newton has remarked, systematists, both in zoology and botany, had been feeling great searchings of heart as to the immutability of species. There was a general feeling in the air that some light on this subject would shortly appear. As a recent writer has reminded us;

  • In studying the history of Evolutionary ideas, it is necessary to keep in mind that there are two perfectly distinct lines of thought.… First. The conviction that species are not immutable, but that, by some means or other, new forms of life are derived from pre-existing ones. Secondly. The conception of some process or processes, by which this change of old forms into new ones may be explained.
  • Now, as we have seen, the first of these lines of thought had been accepted by many writers. Darwin’s great merit was that he conceived a process by means of which this evolution in the organic kingdom could be explained.

    After his return from the voyage in the “Beagle,” and after a short residence in London, Darwin, in 1842, settled at the village of Down in Kent, and here it was, he says, “I can remember the very spot on the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me.” The “solution” was “natural selection by means of the survival of the fittest.” Darwin had written out his views so early as 1842, but he had confided them only to a few, and were it not for a strange coincidence, they might have remained in manuscript even later than 1858.