The World Reacts

Part of the Darwin exhibition.

(c) Wellcome Library London


The Origin of Species caused a sensation, not only in Britain but around the world. Politicians made speeches, clerics preached sermons, poets wrote poems. Everyone had an opinion. The book sold out of stores the first day; the country's largest circulating library made the Origin a selection; commuters read it on the train. Darwin's publisher rushed 3,000 more copies into print right away.

Scientific reaction was equally intense. Some of Darwin's mentors were shocked or scornful: Astronomer John Herschel called natural selection "the law of Higgledy piggledy." But many younger men were full of praise--biologist T. H. Huxley announced he was "ready to go to the stake" in Darwin's defense. Darwin, weary from the effort of writing the book and his worry about the response to it, left its public defense to others. Huxley, in particular, relished the combat. And in a surprisingly short time, the storm passed--at least for scientists. Evolution by natural selection became part of their language, integral to scientific work.