Part 2 - The Mystery Begins

Did Darwin Understand Species?

According to the history books, when Charles Darwin's best-known work - The Origin of Species - first appeared in 1859 it was an instant success.  Over the next twenty years it went through 6 editions.  But quantity does not necessarily equal quality, as a number of experts have subsequently noted.

Darwin Myth #2: The "Instant Best Seller"

Telling Darwin's story is frequently a task fired more by enthusiasm than by careful research, as witnessed by this extract from the Biology section of the City University of New York, Brooklyn, website:

"[The Origin] became and (sic) instant bestseller.  The first edition sold out immediately, and the next six editions almost as fast."1

The notion that The Origin of Species sold out on the first day of publication has an impressive ring, as long as we assume that all of the copies were snapped up by eager readers.  This is not the case, however.
The modest first printing did sell out on the first day - to the retail trade.  As to subsequent sales, whilst it went into a second printing within a matter of weeks, sales thereafter were steady but nothing like as rapid as the Brooklyn writer would have us believe2:

1st edition November 1859 1,250 copies
2nd edition January 1860 3,000 copies
3rd edition April 1861 2,000 copies
4th edition May (?) 1866 1,500 copies
5th edition August (?) 1869 2,000 copies
6th edition February 1872 3,000 copies

Although the 1,250 initial print run was not inconsiderable, it must be set against the sales of two other books from the same publisher at the same time.  An account of the Franklin Expedition's disasterous search for the Northwest passage in 1845 sold 7,600 copies, whilst the more enduring Self-Help by Samual Smiles, enjoyed a first printing of 3,200 copies.  On this basis the sales of Darwin's book are clearly fairly modest.

On the Origin of ... What? .

Loren Eiseley, for all his doubts, remained intensely loyal to Darwin, and once described the writing of The Origin of Species thus:

"Almost every great scientific generalisation is a supreme act of creative synthesis. ... Such a synthesis represents the scientific mind at its highest point of achievement."3

Other scientists have been less enthusiastic.  Harvard Professor Ernst Mayr, for example, stated that the thinking behind The Origin was "bewildered"4, "hopelessly confused"5, and even went so far as to say that it showed a "lack of understanding of the nature of species"6!

The late Professor George G. Simpson likewise commented in no uncertain terms that: "The book called The Origin of Species is not really on that subject"7.

But one of the most damning analyses of Darwin's work comes from Professor C.D. Darlington, who stated that Darwin:

"... was able to put across his ideas not so much because of his scientific integrity, but because of his opportunism, his equivocation and his lack of historical sense. Though his admirers will not like to believe it, he accomplished his revolution by personal weakness and strategic talent more than by scientific virtue."8

What, then, are we to believe about Darwin's work?
Was The Origin a work of "creative synthesis ... the scientific mind at its highest point of achievement", as Eiseley suggested?  Or was it a "confused" and "bewildered" text which missed its declared target, as Mayr and Simpson claim?

Was Darwin the outstanding scientist, as portrayed in the official histories - or a strictly amateur naturalist, an opportunist, and worse, as portrayed by the evidence?
And either way, if - as many evolutionists now seem to think - the Darwinian version of evolution is practically a dead duck, does any of this really matter?

To answer these, and several other important questions, we must go back to the point from which all good stories start - the beginning.

No Particular Place to Go

Charles Robert Darwin, fifth child and second son of prosperous country doctor Robert Waring Darwin and his wife, Susannah, was born in Shrewsbury on February 12th, 1809.
At first sight Charles seems to have been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.  Yet before he was ten, the family was blighted by a tragic occurrance which deeply affected Charles' life, not just at that particular moment in time, but for the next seventy and more years.

In 1817, when Charles was barely past his eighth birthday, his beloved mother died, leaving Charles in the care of his busy father and his three older sisters.  As we will see in later chapters, this one event became a key influence on Darwin's behaviour throughout his life.

The year following the death of Susannah, Dr Darwin placed Charles in the most prestigeous of the local educational establishments: Shrewsbury School.  Whatever Darwin senior intended for his son, there is ample evidence that Charles found little to interest him in the school's predominantly classical curriculum.  Indeed, he showed so little sign of applying himself to any serious studies that his father eventually felt it necessary to warn Charles (in his sixteenth year):

"You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and to all your family."

Despite his stern judgement, Dr Darwin retained sufficient hope to send his errant son off to the famous medical school in Edinburgh, but the doctor's faith was soon proved ill-founded.  If he had ever seriously believed that Charles would follow him into the medical profession, he now saw that notion dashed to the ground.
Tiring of his studies, disgusted by the goriness of contemporary surgical methods (truly, by modern standards, more suited to the abattoir than to an operating theatre), and probably convinced - quite rightly, as it turned out - that he would never actually have to work for a living, Charles rejected all possibility of a career in medicine and returned home after completing just one year of his studies in Edinburgh.

Having thus circumvented his father's wishes, Charles soon drifted back into the easy-going life-style of a sporting countryman.  But not for long.  Dr Darwin was not to be so easily put off, and in the face of his father's demands that he equip himself for some kind of professional career, Charles soon took what was to be one of the most important steps in his entire life.
At the start of the academic year, 1828, Charles Robert Darwin become an undergraduate member of Christ's College, Cambridge, studying theology.

Religion - and Natural History

In one sense, Darwin's time at Cambridge was as much wasted as his earlier periods at Shrewsbury and at Edinburgh.  Firstly, he fell in with a group of fellow undergraduates who treated the university as a kind of sportsman's club with vague, and largely irrelevant, intellectual overtones.  Secondly, he gradually abandoned all thoughts of being ordained as a Church of England minister - his erstwhile purpose for taking a degree in divinity.

It is worth mentioning, at this point, that Darwin was by no means the academic incompetent his teachers at Shrewsbury judged him to be.  Despite his lack of commitment, and some bad bouts of 'exam nerves', by opting for a simple B.A. rather than the honours course, Darwin was able to meet the university's academic requirements by January, 1831.  He remained a member of the student body through two further terms only in order to fulfil the residential conditions set by his college.

Somewhat ironically, it was during those last two terms that Charles entered into a friendship which was to be a key factor in shaping his subsequent career - for better or worse.
Enter John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany at Cambridge and, as one might expect, a keen naturalist.  His influence on Darwin lay not only in his ability to communicate his enthusiasm for his field of study, but also because he provided Charles with a link to his dead mother.

Judging by the reminiscences of one of Darwin's early school friends - W.A. Leighton - Charles had learned a rudimentary form of natural history from his mother, who in turn had been influenced in this direction through her closeness to her father, Josiah Wedgewood, a keen amateur naturalist.  Yet the young Darwin seems to have been a less than impressive student.
According to Leighton, Charles once told him "that his mother had been teaching him how by looking into the interior of a blossom he could ascertain the name of the plant.  This greatly aroused my attention & curiosity," Leighton recalled, "and I enquired of him repeatedly how this could be done.  His reply was that he could not remember ..."9

Had the young Darwin (this story relates to the period around the death of Susannah Darwin), truly forgotten his mother's instructions, or had he simply failed to understand his mother's attempt to communicate her own amateurish knowledge?  Or is it possible that this particular story was a fabrication.  As various biographers have noted, the second option is far more likely to be true.  Sir Gavin de Beer, for example, noted that:

"The boy [Darwin] developed very slowly: he was given, when small, to inventing gratuitous fibs and to daydreaming;..."10

And it wasn't only when he was small.  Janet Browne, a respected historian and one of Darwin's many biographers, states of Darwin the schoolboy:

"[he was] much given to idle fancies, laziness, and desperate for the attention of his surrounding peers."11


"Lies-and the thrills derived from lies-were for him indistinguishable from the delights of natural history or the joy of finding a long-sought specimen."12

Anyway, whichever explanation is true, it seems that Susannah was at least successful in planting a taste for natural history which was eventually encouraged into full bloom by Professor Henslow.

At this point we come to the story of how Darwin came to be aboard the Beagle.
Whilst some accounts may seem to imply that Darwin was the automatic choice for the job, versions vary to such an extent that I hesitate to label it as part of the Darwin Myth.  The following version is taken from Chapters in My Life, by Leonard Blomefield who, as we shall see in a moment, was particularly well placed to know what really happened:

"The appointment arose in this way.  Dean Peacock, at that time Fellow of Trinity College, was intimate with Captain Fitzroy, and was applied to by the latter, as to whether he could not find some one among the Cambridge men, who would be fit and willing to accompany him in his voyage in the capacity of Naturalist.  Peacock immediately thought of Henslow and myself.  Henslow, however, being a married man with a family, was not disposed to go under his then circumstances, - (though earlier in life no doubt he would have caught at such an offer gladly) - and he tried to persuade me to go instead.  I hesitated; and, after a full day taken to consider my decision, I also declined, as well on account of my being engaged in parish work - as Vicar of Swaffham Bulbeck - which I did not think it quite right to quit for a purpose of that kind, as on account of my judging that I was not exactly the right person, either in point of health or other qualifications, - to offer myself for the situation.  We then agreed (Henslow and self) that Darwin, in all respects, would be a fit man to go, and on his assenting, his name was at once sent up to Capt. Fitzroy, and the appointment was confirmed."13

Leonard Blomefield, by the way, was the name adopted in later life by the one-time Leonard Jenyns, who subsequently worked on the study, classification, etc. of the fish specimens.brought back by Darwin from that voyage.

Whilst Darwin's enrolment at Christ's College was clearly an important step in his life, some biographers have argued that his time aboard the survey ship Beagle was a vital turning point.  And so it was.  Yet the reasons why this particular period was to loom so large in his life are almost certainly not the reasons referred to in the 'official record'.

The Birth of the Myth

Peter Bowler puts the matter quite succinctly in his biography of Darwin:

The voyage of the Beagle is often presented as a watershed in Darwin's career, an experience which effectively converted him to evolutionism and thus shaped all his later thinking.  Darwin himself encouraged this view when he wrote in the Autobiography 'The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career.'14 ...
The scholars of the 'Darwin industry' have been forced to battle against the mythological character acquired by the voyage in order to reconstruct the true story."15

According to the Darwinian Myth, the five year voyage of the Beagle, between 1831 and 1836, was important for Darwin in two respects:

  • Firstly, because during his trips ashore Darwin was introduced to a wide range of totally unfamiliar plants and creatures, thus broadening his outlook and exercising his wits in a way that would have been almost impossible had he remained in England all of his life
  • Secondly, because the long periods at sea supposedly gave Darwin ample time, as ship's naturalist, to sort, study and ponder upon the many specimens which he collected during his trips ashore - thus leading to his development of the hypothesis which lies at the heart of The Origin of Species
So runs the legend which has survived for over a hundred years.  First the evidence, then the questions and study, and finally the birth of Darwin's evolution hypothesis.  So much for the legend.

It is certainly true that the voyage of the Beagle introduced Darwin to a world that differed, in nearly every respect, from the English countryside with which he was so familiar.  But this is quite different from saying that it totally surpassed his previous knowledge.
During his time at Edinburgh, Darwin had taken lessons in taxidermy with a black servant who had once accompanied the naturalist Charles Waterton during his travels in South America.  This fact is all the more significant when we remember that Darwin had been much impressed by von Humboldt's description of his journeys through South America, as set down in: Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent.
Darwin once asked a friend to tell von Humboldt: "I never forget that my whole course of life is due to having read and re-read as a youth his Personal Narrative"16.  Is it likely that the young man who felt this way would miss the chance of discussing the "new continent", at length, with someone who had actually been there?

Having said that, we must allow that personal experience has numerous advantages over mere 'armchair travel'.  Which brings us back to the question: "Just how big a part did Darwin's experiences during the voyage of the Beagle play in the formation of the famous evolutionary hypothesis?"

Here, at least, there can be no argument.  Or so you might think.  But let's turn back for a moment to Darwin's own comment: "Without the making of theories there would be no observations."  If we were to take Darwin at his word then we find ourselves asking how he could possibly have made any observations at all on the subject of evolution unless he already had a theory (or at least a hypothesis) when the Beagle first set sail, since it is clear from this quote that Darwin did not believe that observations could, of themselves, generate a theory.

If this seems like mere word play it is worth noting that, as late as 1836 - after his return to England - it appears that Darwin was still half-inclined to believe that species changed, one into another, not gradually but per saltum - by sudden leaps.

Darwin Myth #3: It Happened At Sea

In complete contradiction to popular myth, it wasn't until 1837, when Darwin began to work on what he called "the species question", that he began to record the ideas which would eventually form the basis for The Origin.

In other words, if Darwin began to work on the evolutionary hypothesis whilst still at sea, it certainly wasn't conscious.  As we shall see later, it was actually at some time during the nine months after the Beagle returned to England that Darwin rejected his earlier views, did a major about face, and began to work on the idea of gradual transitions between species involving step-by-step changes under the directing influence of natural selection.

The confusion, as we've already seen, was in no small part due to Darwin himself.  As John and Mary Gribben explain in their latest work on Darwin:

"... he devised a plan so cunning that even Machiavelli would have been proud of it.  During 1845, Darwin worked on a second edition of his successful journal of the Beagle voyage, and added new material to the descriptions of the living things he had seen in South America.  These new passages look innocuous enough in themselves.  But as Howard Gruber pointed out in his book Darwin on Man (Wildwood House, London, 1974), if you compare the first and second editions ... you can locate all the new material ... string it together to make a coherent 'ghost essay' which conveys almost all of Darwin's thinking about evolution [in 1845].  It is quite clear that this material must have been written as that coherent essay, then carefully chopped up and inserted into the journal."17

The Mystery Deepens

But why the change?
Why did Darwin reject the per saltum hypothesis?
Why did he so readily accept the gradualist hypothesis?
And how did he arrive at the idea that natural selection was a central factor in this process?

These questions are absolutely fundamental to an understanding of Darwin's work on evolution, and we might reasonably expect to find the answers in his notebook for the year 1837 (Darwin was, after all, almost fanatical about preserving such material.)  But they aren't there.  Because some fifty pages are missing from that particular notebook, their departure marked only by two cryptic notes on page 1:

"All useful pages cut out.  Dec. 7/1856/."
"(and looked through April 21, 1873)."18

What on earth are we to make of this?
A man who treasured everything he wrote as though it were gold dust cuts "All useful pages" from a single twenty year old notebook, and then keeps them safe and sound for (at least) another twenty years.  Is there not something very strange in such behaviour?

Why did Darwin feel it necessary to remove those particular notes?  Certainly there are pages missing from some of his other notebooks, but only the odd page or two, here and there.  Nowhere, but nowhere, else did Darwin ever remove a block as substantial as the pages missing from the notebook for that crucial year.

I have been informed that "many commentators think these pages were included verbatim in The Origin".  Perhaps I'm being obtuse but I can see no element in this 'explanation' which would warrant or require the physical removal of the pages from the notebook.

The questions raised by such odd behaviour are numerous, and very, very relevant to his subsequent reputation.  That is to say, it is hard to think of a non-suspect reason for his action.  After all, if the cut pages were preserved so long after their removal then clearly they had substantial significance, for Darwin at least.  Why did he wait nearly two decades before removing them?  Indeed, why remove them at all?
What was so important about these jottings that led Darwin to refer to them as "useful pages"?  And why was he moved to read them through again nearly 40 years later?

And last, but definitely not 'least', what was the final destiny of those missing pages?
Did Darwin himself finally destroy them at some time between 1873 and his death in 1882?  Were they destroyed by some other hand after his demise?  Or are they, just conceivably, still in existence somewhere, concealed for reasons known only to their owner?

Were it not for the excellent research carried out by Professor Eiseley, the fact that these notes are (apparently) lost beyond recall - together with a number of equally important letters - would be little more than just another fathomless historical curiosity.  In the light of Eiseley's findings it provides a whole new beginning to our assessment of Charles Darwin and his involvement with the evolutionary hypothesis.  A story to which I have, with respect, added a conclusion which even Eiseley overlooked.


  1. From Charles Darwin: Biography, Part Three in Meet Brother Gregory, Professor John Blamire.
    Brother Gregory seems to have taken the hint - I can no longer find this claim or even this page on the CUNY site.
  2. Figures are taken from URBANOWICZ ON DARWIN, Dr Charles F. Urbanowicz.  Web document at, with additional information from the Chronolgy in The Portable Darwin, D.M. Porter and P.W. Graham.  Penguin Books, New York:1993. pp.xxi-xxii
  3. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X, Loren Eiseley. op. cit. pp.5-6.
  4. Animal Species and Evolution, Ernst Mayr.  Harvard University Press:1963.   p.13.
  5. ibid.  p.484
  6. ibid.  p.12
  7. This View of Life, George G. Simpson.   Harcourt, Brace & World, New York:1964.  p.81
  8. Darwin's Place in History, C. D. Darlington.  Oxford University Press, Oxford:(1959)  p.57 (Details to be confirmed)
  9. Charles Darwin "A Man of Enlarged Curiosity", Peter Brent.  Heinemann, London:1981.  p.24.
  10. Chapters from My Life, Leonard Blomefield (late Jenyns).  Private publication, Bath:1889. p.55.
    An HTML copy of the comments on Darwin can be found at - - with links to JPEG images of the original text.
  11. Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed).  John Murray, London:1887. Vol. 1. p.61 and Autobiography, p.76.
  12. Charles Darwin: The man and His Influence, Peter Bowler.  Basil Blackwell, Oxford:1990.  p.49.
  13. Charles Darwin "A Man of Enlarged Curiosity", Peter Brent.  Heinemann, London:1981.  p.98.
  14. Darwin (1809-1882) in 90 minutes, John and Mary Gribbin.  Constable, London:1997.  pp.33-34.
  15. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X, Loren Eiseley. op. cit. p.91.
    It is somewhat ironical that the matter of the missing pages was brought to Eiseley's attention by Sir Gavin De Beer.  Sir Gavin was a leading British pro-Darwinist, yet he appears to have had no idea of the possible significance of the removal and 'loss' of this vital evidence.

Go to other sections

Part 0 - Introduction
Part 1 - Metaphors and Myths
Part 3 - All At Sea
Part 4 - He Who Hesitates ...
Part 5 - Last Days
Part 6 - Without Reference ...
Part 7 - The Missing Link
Part 8 - Going Public, Maybe
Part 9 - ... Father to the Man
Part 10 - Mr Wallace, Mr Blyth ...
Part 11 - ... and 'Mr' Lyell
Part 12 - The Final Frontier

Appendices - The full text of Blyth's papers from 1835-37
Appendix A - The Varieties of Animals - Part 1
Appendix B - The Varieties of Animals - Part 2
Appendix C - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 1
Appendix D - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 2
Appendix E - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 3
Appendix F - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 4
Appendix G - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 1
Appendix H - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 2
Appendix I - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 3
Appendix J - Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 4

This paper was written and produced by Andrew J. Bradbury