Even before Charles Darwin is born, a handful of naturalists in England and France--including Comte de Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, among others--publish books promoting the idea that species are related by descent. But no one can explain convincingly how evolution works.
1802: A Watch, a Watchmaker
In Natural Theology, or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, William Paley argues that just as the workings of a watch are evidence of purposeful design by a watchmaker, complex living organisms are evidence of design by an intelligent Creator.
1859: Darwin's Origin
Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species, putting forward his theory of evolution by natural selection.
1860: The "Great Debate"
Based on his belief in special creation, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce leads an attack on Darwin's theory at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Oxford University Museum. Two of England's most influential scientists, Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker, fiercely support Darwin's work. Both sides claim victory.
1863-1871: Humans, Too
Thomas Huxley's Evidence on Man's Place in Nature, and Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man explicitly apply evolution to humans.
1850s-1920s: Social Darwinism
Social theorists begin to apply Darwin's theory to human social institutions, claiming that governments should allow the "fittest" in societies to succeed and the "unfit" to decline. Ultimately this thinking leads some to espouse eugenics, in which the state intervenes in human breeding to create a "superior race." Darwin distances himself from this thinking.
1882: Death of Darwin
Charles Darwin dies and is buried with honor in Westminster Abbey, a few feet away from Sir Isaac Newton. Darwin's funeral is attended by England's leading politicians, scientists, and clergy.
1925: Scopes "Monkey Trial"
In the United States, Tennessee makes it a misdemeanor for public school teachers to teach evolution, and 24-year-old biology teacher John Scopes is tried for violating the law. The trial pits state's attorney William Jennings Bryan against defense attorney Clarence Darrow--and gives the issue global visibility, galvanizing evolution proponents.
1948: Public School Shift
The U.S. Supreme Court bans religious instruction in public schools, noting that "the First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere."
1960s: Teaching Evolution in Schools Reaffirmed
Tennessee repeals the act that prohibited teaching evolution in schools and gave rise to the Scopes trial, while the U.S. Supreme Court rules that an Arkansas law that prohibited the teaching of evolution is in violation of the First Amendment.
1981-1982: Intelligent Design-Creationism
Some U.S. proponents of creationism begin to promote the idea of Intelligent Design, maintaining that complexity in living organisms is evidence that life was created by an "intelligent designer."
1996: Pope John Paul II
Stating that evolution is "more than a hypothesis," Pope John Paul II proclaims that there is no essential contradiction between evolutionary science and Catholicism, a view that is later debated by some Catholic leaders.
2000-2002: Public Opinion
In the United States, a public opinion poll reveals that 57% of Americans say they believe in or lean toward creationism, although many of these do not identify themselves as "creationists." The results are consistent with those obtained in similar polls over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, in England Darwin is once again given a public place of honor--this time, on the 10-pound note.
2004-2005: Parents Challenge School Board in Court
The Dover, Pennsylvania, school board rules that high school biology teachers must read a statement to students alleging "gaps" in Darwin's theory and advocating Intelligent Design as an alternative explanation. Seeking to block the requirement, 11 parents take the school board to court.
2009: Darwin Bicentennial
Two hundred years after his birth, Charles Darwin and his scientific theory of evolution by natural selection still have an enormous influence on the modern world.
The Darwin Manuscripts Project at the Museum Learn more here.