It was on this day in 1858 that a paper by Charles Darwin (books by this author) about his theory of evolution was first presented to a public audience. Darwin had actually come up with the theory 20 years before that, in 1837. Back then, he drafted a 35-page sketch of his ideas and arranged with his wife to publish the sketch after his death. Then, for the next 20 years, he told almost no one about the theory. He practically went into hiding, moving to a small town and living like a monk, with specific times each day for walking, napping, reading, and backgammon. He was so reclusive that he even had the road lowered outside his house, to prevent passersby from looking in the window.
Part of his reluctance to share his theory of evolution was that he was not known as a biologist, and he assumed that no one would take such a radical theory seriously from such an amateur. In fact, for most of his early career, he was known as a geologist. He only made his name as a biologist in the early 1850s when he wrote an influential study of the sexual behavior of barnacles.
He was still reluctant to publish his ideas, though, because he didn’t want to create a controversy by offending anyone’s religious beliefs. Atheism was a crime punishable by prison at the time, and Darwin feared that people would object to the idea that God hadn’t created each creature individually. When he finally told one of his friends about his theory of evolution, he said it was like confessing a murder.
But then, in 1851, his oldest and favorite daughter, Annie, died of typhoid, and suddenly Darwin began to worry about the future of all his children. He was terrified that they would all have health problems and that they might not be able to provide for themselves. So, to help assure his children’s well-being, Darwin began writing a book about evolution, which he hoped would become a scientific classic. He had kept notes on his theory for 20 years, but he began to run new experiments to test his ideas. He experimented with seeds in seawater, to prove that they could survive ocean crossings, and he raised pigeons to observe the traits they inherited from their parents.
Darwin often worked on his book seven days a week, and he began to suffer from health problems of his own. He had struggled to complete a quarter of a million words when, on June 18, 1858, he learned that a man named Alfred Russel Wallace was about to publish a paper about a similar theory. In order to get credit, Darwin had to present an extract of his work to a scientific society in two weeks.
Almost the same day he received that news, his household was struck by an epidemic of scarlet fever. His children and several nursery maids came down with the disease. Most everyone recovered, but Darwin’s youngest son, Charles, died. And so it was that Charles Darwin wasn’t even in attendance when his theory of evolution was first presented to a public audience on this day in 1858. He was at home, grieving the death of his son. But his theory would go on to become the basis of all modern biology.