The Scientific Credibility of Charles Darwin

During his lifetime (1809-1882), Charles Darwin received many accolades from his scientific contemporaries. What many do not realize, however, is that Darwin also was criticized frequently by prominent scientists of his day.

It is readily acknowledged by historians that for many years the British naturalist was not accepted for induction into the prestigious French Academy of Sciences. In 1872, an attempt was made to get Darwin voted into the Zoological Section of the Academy, but only fifteen out of forty-eight members voted for him. A prominent member of the Academy explained the decision:

What has closed the door of the academy to Mr. Darwin is that the science of those of his books which have made his chief title to fame—the Origin of Species and still more the Descent of Man—is not science, but a mass of assertions and absolutely gratuitous hypotheses, often evidently fallacious. This kind of publication and these theories are a bad example, which a body which respects itself cannot encourage (Moore, 1962, p. 196).

Six years later, the tide of opinion had turned, and Darwin was elected into the Botanical Section of the Academy. He confessed great surprise, since he had made his name in zoology first. He wrote his friend Asa Gray: “It is rather a good joke that I should be elected to the Botanical Section, as the extent of my knowledge is little more than that a daisy is a Compositous plant and a pea a Leguminous one.”

The Academy’s resistance shows that Darwin’s supposed triumph was neither immediate nor universal.


Moore, Ruth (1962), Charles Darwin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)


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