Acceptance of the Evolution Theory in the Victorian Era

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

How was Darwin’s theory of evolution accepted in the Victorian Era? Was the idea of natural selection accepted as easily as the theory of evolution? Would it be right to portray Darwin as the most controversial scientific thinker ever? Where there other thinkers who speculated on evolution before Darwin? Read on to find answers to these questions.

Image of Queen Victoria of Britain.
Queen Victoria of Britain. She reigned from 1837 to 1901 (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Victorian Era – Firm Belief in Progress

Darwin’s idea of evolution was influenced by two sources of authority that gained significance, namely the authority of science and the authority of progress. The Victorian Era brought sweeping changes to Britain and was marked by the authority of science replacing the authority of literal reading of holy texts or theology. The philosophers of this era considered utility and progress as the essence of a new enlightened age. The people who were initially known as natural philosophers began to be called scientists during this period.

The other interesting attribute of Darwin’s turning point was that the revolution had two distinct stages: the conversion of the Victorian world to evolutionism and the revival of the natural selection theory in modern times. While the theory of evolution was accepted rather easily by Victorian society, the acceptance of the idea of natural selection came after nearly half a century.

Learn more about Darwin and the Origin of Species.

Precursors to Darwin in the Victorian Era

Darwin acknowledged the fact that there were many philosophers previously who had thought on similar lines to him and he included their names in an appendix in the later editions of his Origin of the Species. One among them was Darwin’s grandfather, who in 1794 had documented that all animals developed new characteristics, which continued to improve over time.

Since the early 1400s, the authoritative word on the natural world came from scriptures. In the Christian world, God created everything in six days: heavens and earth, day and night, skies, seas, and land, all the creatures and then man and woman. In the 1650s, a bishop even worked backwards on time spans mentioned in the scriptures to find the date of creation and pinned down the precise date as October 23, 4004 B.C. According to the traditional theory, creation took place at one go and the organisms on Earth were ideal types, unchanging. But, quite a few thinkers of the Victorian era questioned this version of fixed creation and put forth the concept of transmutation or arising of new species.

Painting of the French zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, French zoologist
and precursor to Charles Darwin.
(Image: Charles Thévenin/Public domain)

In 1815, French zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck argued that evolutionary changes could happen when creatures adapted to a new environment. These desirable changes could be passed on to their offspring, causing permanent adaptations. Lamarck cited the giraffes as an example, who according to him, stretched their necks out further and further to reach remote leaves on trees and these characteristics had been passed along over time. 

Another advocate of evolution as a theme before Darwin was French philosopher Denis Diderot, the editor of the Encyclopédie. According to him, the world was constantly changing and organisms originated, flourished, and faced extinction over millions of years. According to Diderot, this was a continuous process that took its own course without a creator. This included human beings who had evolved over millions of years and became unrecognizably new. Such views were against the teachings of the church and a threat to the deeply religious values of the Victorian era. Hence, they found a very guarded expression in the Encyclopédie even as natural philosophers or scientists were finding fossil records of creatures such as dinosaurs which no longer existed. Thus, there was also increasing evidence to suggest that the world was constantly changing.

Learn more about inheritance: Darwin’s missing link.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Change Theory

Naturally, the question arose about how these changes happened. There were two schools of thought – Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism. While the catastrophists argued that earth was largely shaped by sudden, disruptive and violent events, the uniformitarians debated that the world changed slowly, in a uniform, constant manner. This debate raged but gradually, even the most conservative of the Victorians came to accept the idea that continuous evolution took place in the natural world.

As the Victorian era placed emphasis on the idea of progress, the concept of evolution gained acceptance in the society at large. In essence, Darwin provided a powerful insight into what propelled evolution and proposed the idea of natural selection, where nature chose the traits that would adapt for survival. Though Darwin’s contemporaries accepted the idea of evolution as a form of progress, the acceptance of natural selection did not come that easily. This was because Darwin suggested that natural selection was more of a random process than a predetermined blueprint of progress. It was only about 50 years later that scientists could agree with the Darwinian viewpoint and created Darwinian synthesis or modern genetics.

Learn more about the many origins of species.

Common Questions about the Theory of Evolution in the Victorian Era

Q: What is the Victorian era?

The Victorian era was named after the British queen Victoria whose reign lasted from 1837 until 1901. Society in this era firmly believed in progress and hence it was one of the golden eras of Britain’s history. It was marked by sweeping progress in Britain and established Britain as the most powerful empire of the world.

Q: What was the Victorian concept of achieving progress?

The Victorians were attracted to the idea of achieving progress through personal efforts. This was evident when Samuel Smiles’s book, Self-Help, published in 1859 outsold Darwin’s book many times over in their lifetimes.

Q: Was Darwin’s theory beneficial to the people of the Victorian era?

Darwin’s theory of evolution changed the way Victorians thought. His theories gave the people more freedom to explore and accept science, which often contradicted the views of the church.

Q: Who came up with the concept of Catastrophism?

Catastrophism was originally suggested by the French zoologist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) in 1810 to explain large geological and biological changes in the Earth’s history.

Q: What is Darwinism?

Darwinism is the theory of Charles Darwin on biological evolution. He proposed that all species adapt and survive through the process of natural selection.

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Victorian Britain