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Evolution Webcast: Explore “The World Before Darwin”

Travel back in time to visit “The World Before Darwin,” courtesy of a free webcast lecture with Everett Mendelsohn, emeritus professor at Harvard University. Mendelsohn explored the milieu in which Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” 150 years ago, reveal its other evolutionary thinkers, and shed light on skeptics from the worlds of religion and...

Travel back in time to visit “The World Before Darwin,” courtesy of a free webcast lecture with Everett Mendelsohn, emeritus professor at Harvard University.

Mendelsohn explored the milieu in which Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” 150 years ago, reveal its other evolutionary thinkers, and shed light on skeptics from the worlds of religion and science.

By Brian Handwerk

Special contributor to NatGeo News Watch

Charles Darwin’s evolutionary ideas shook up the scientific world when On the Origin of Species appeared 150 years ago–but just what was “The World Before Darwin” like?

Everett Mendelsohn, emeritus professor at Harvard, explored that question in a free, live webcast broadcast earlier this evening from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Listen to the lecture>>

When the 19th century dawned most Europeans believed that all of Earth’s species had been created by God and, as part of God’s grand design, arranged into a rigid hierarchy topped by humans.

everett mendelsohn_picture.jpgBut Mendelsohn explains that society had begun to shift during the decades before Darwin’s book was published in 1859. Political and industrial revolutions had unfolded, traditional religious orthodoxies were being unsettled, and science was also shifting with the times.

“By the time Darwin wrote there was a readiness to accept the basis of the theory,” Mendelsohn said. “It was [really] opposed at the religious end, and by some I’d call scientific fundamentalists, who are those committed to a scientific creationist view of a great design in nature.”

Photo of Everett Mendelsohn courtesy Harvard University

Evolution Before Darwin

Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck penned an embryonic theory of evolution in his 1809 “Zoological Philosophy,” which influenced Darwin. In 1844, Robert Chambers anonymously published “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,” which was short on sound science but “Darwin’s argument at the core,” Mendelsohn said in an interview.


Darwin had already developed his own theory in simple form as early as 1837, just a year after his return from the legendary Beagle voyages. That year he expressed the possibility in a notebook that “one species does change into another.”

But Darwin painstakingly gathered data for his sure-to-be controversial theory for another two decades–and was almost beaten to the punch.

In 1858 Darwin received a letter from naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace had collected specimens in the Amazon and islands of Southeast Asia and developed his own theory of evolution–which had striking parallels to Darwin’s, though Darwin had written the core of his own idea long before and shared it with some select colleagues.

“I never saw a more striking coincidence,” Darwin wrote to his friend the eminent geologist Charles Lyell in June, 1858. “If Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract!”

Fear of preemption finally spurred Darwin to take his own views to the public.

“On the Origin of Species” exploded onto the scene and sold briskly–but not everyone was a fan.

Monkey Business at Oxford

The book sparked a now-legendary June, 1860 debate at the Oxford University Museum involving Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker and others.


Legend holds that Wilberforce asked Huxley whether he traced his descent from a monkey through his grandfather or grandmother’s line. Huxley is said to have responded that descent from a monkey would carry no shame, unlike descent from a gifted man who used his talents to hide the truth.

The botanist Hooker reported to his friend Charles Darwin in a July, 1860 letter that the room was crammed with perhaps a thousand people.

“The battle waxed hot. Lady Brewster fainted, the excitement increased as others spoke–my blood boiled.”

How a British satirist saw Charles Darwin in the 19th Century

Darwin himself was sensitive to the continuing and sometimes spiteful attacks on his book. “But the effect on me is that I will buckle on my armour & fight my best,” he wrote to Asa Gray in May, 1860.

By his death in 1882, Darwin’s well developed argument and overwhelming evidence had won that fight and convinced most of the scientific community that the evolution of species was a reality–leaving the world after Darwin a much different place than it once had been.

Darwin: Live on the Web


“The World Before Darwin” is the first of a free webcast lecture series in which some of the world’s top scientific minds will tackle evolutionary topics.

Later speakers will include Jonathan Weiner (October 7) and Sean Carroll (November 4) on “On the Origin of Species” itself, and E.O. Wilson on the future frontiers of evolutionary biology (November 24).

The series was organized by a group of volunteer Darwin devotees who also hope to rally 1,000,000 users to a Facebook group ( celebrating this year’s 150th anniversary of “On the Origin of Species.”


Darwin Facebook campaign:


Darwin Devotees Make “Father of Evolution” Facebook Superstar

Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life joined a Facebook group devoted to the celebration of this year’s 200th anniversary of the birth of the “Father of Evolution,” Charles Darwin. Now the organizers of the Facebook group are hoping hundreds of thousands more will sign up to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Darwin’s famous book, On the Origin of Species.


Darwin resources:

Darwin’s First Clues (National Geographic Magazine)

Was Darwin Wrong? (National Geographic Magazine)

PHOTOS: 7 Major “Missing Links” Since Darwin (National Geographic News)

“Instant” Evolution Seen in Darwin’s Finches, Study Says (National Geographic News)

Darwin’s Secret Notebooks (National Geographic Channel)

PHOTOS: How Do Species Evolve? (National Geographic News)

The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online

Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin Digital Library of Evolution

The Charles Darwin Trust

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn