24 November 1859: Charles Darwin publishes ‘On the Origin of Species’

Charles Robert Darwin was the son of a wealthy doctor who developed an interest in natural history while studying medicine at Edinburgh University. But it was while studying natural theology at Cambridge that he found his vocation.

His obsession with collecting beetles and the scholarly friends he made at Cambridge eventually led to an invitation to board HMS Beagle for its second survey voyage. A letter from the professor of botany describes his role on the voyage “not as a finished naturalist, but as a gentleman amply qualified for collecting, observing, and noting any thing worth to be noted in Natural History”.

The publication of Darwin’s letters and reports from South America and the Galapagos islands established his reputation as a geologist of real standing. Among his most important findings was that the finches found on different islands were fundamentally similar in shape, but displayed variations in size and claws –  the result, he theorised, of ‘natural selection’.

After returning to England, he married Emma Wedgwood in 1839 and settled with a family in London. He began working in private to develop his ideas on evolution and transmutation while maintaining a career publishing essays and articles.

After nearly 30 years of research, he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life on this day in 1859. It sold out its initial print run within days. By the time of Darwin’s death, the book had gone through six editions.

It is often thought that the time it took for Darwin to publish his great work was due to his fears of backlash from the Church, and it is true that some dismissed the book as heresy; but more liberal religious authorities were able to reconcile his theories with divinity.

What was undeniable was the book’s immediate success both as a scientific text and as a fixture of popular culture.

Also on this day

24 November 1972: the mysterious ‘DB Cooper’ hijacking

Today in 1972, a man calling himself Dan Cooper parachuted from a hijacked Northwest Airlines Boeing 727 with $200,00 in cash. He has never been found. Read more here.