The Impact of the Theory

The success of the publication of On the Origin of Species was followed by harsh criticism; while the specialists were concerned with technical matters – such as the process of natural selection, for instance –, most of the criticism focused on the issues that Darwin had intentionally chosen to ignore, such as the origins of the human race, its connection to apes, and the role of God. 

“Is man an ape or an angel?”

— Benjamin Disraeli,

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, 1864

The theory is so comprehensive that it can move in different directions and reach different fields. Outside of the field of biology, Darwin has many enthusiastic readers. In Freud’s theory, for instance, the presence of the psychological apparatus can be explained exactly by the fact that man is part of a history of nature in which heredity is an accepted fact, and the relationship with the environment is problematic. 

The influence of Darwin can also be seen in language and philosophy. It is based on Darwin and Cuvier that Foucault conceives the idea of the archeology of Humanities, arguing that man is philosophically and epistemically born at the transition from the natural history of the Classical Age to the biology of the Modern Age.

“Dictionaries tell us that ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ are extreme and incompatible concepts, and, by so defining them, they incite us to choose one side, excluding other alternatives, as if there could not be room left for solidarity and the meeting of minds.” 

— José Saramago

Os Escritores perante o Racismo, 1996

The most relevant debate on the theory of evolution took place in June, 30th, 1860, at Oxford University, between the British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley and his main opponent, the bishop Samuel Wilberforce.

Huxley was Darwin’s chief supporter in England. He gave emphasis to the scientific approach in his struggle to free science from the bonds of the religious orthodoxy, speaking on behalf of a new class of scientists – younger specialists who belonged to the Enlightenment School of that time. 

The scientific body of the Church of England, on the other hand, was one of the institutions that reacted against the theory of evolution. It is said that the bishop Wilberforce was the one who covertly requested Huxley to tell the audience whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he descended from the apes.

Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his fierce support of evolution, might have said that “he would not be ashamed of having an ape as an ancestor, but rather of having connection to a man that used his gifts to obscure the truth”, in reference to the bishop. 

“Truth is the daughter of time and not of the authority, but wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”

— Galileu Galilei

The impact of the theory in Brazil

The Archives of the National Museum – a scientific periodical –, describe three types of evolutionism that became well known in Brazil after the publication of On the Origin of Species: the spencirian, the haecklian and the darwinist. The latter is better represented by the National Museum traveler-naturalist, the German Fritz Muller.

Apart from the institutional disclosure of the theory, The People’s Conference in the neighborhood of Glória also contributed to the spread of Darwin’s theory. The event, which was largely publicized in the press, was seen as an encounter of scientific and literate sociability that contributed to the popularization of science. Relying on the support of the doctor Miranda Azevedo, these events led to the spread of the likely simian origin of man in the light of the concept of social darwinism.

The eugenics movement

After the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin witnessed the misinterpretation of his theory, especially when it was extended to the social context. The eugenics movement is one of the results of these missuses: “a gross application of the principle of selection-elimination to human social groups”. The movement was based on the theory of the evolution of species. However, it was also influenced by Lamarck’s ideas, which supported that the genetic heritage was shaped by the environment and that developed abilities could also be passed on to other generations. In regard to this, English eugenicists Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton – Darwin’s cousin –, believed they could offer a shortcut for the development and improvement of the human species.