5 Common Misconceptions About Darwin

Portrait of Charles Darwin at his home, Down House
Charles Darwin. English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Charles Darwin is celebrated as the mastermind behind the Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection. But some common beliefs about the scientist are grossly oversimplified, and many of them are just plain wrong. Here are some of the most misconceptions about Charles Darwin, some of which you may have even learned in school. 

01
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Darwin "Discovered" Evolution

Darwin's most famous book made him the "Father of Evolution"
On the Origin of the Species title page - Photo courtesy of Library of Congress. Library of Congress

Like all scientists, Darwin built on the research of many scientists who came before him. Even ancient philosophers came up with stories and ideas that would be considered the basis of evolution. So why does Darwin get credit for coming up with the Theory of Evolution? He was the first to publish not only the theory, but evidence and a mechanism (natural selection) for how evolution happens. It should be noted that Darwin’s original publication about natural selection and evolution was actually a joint paper with Alfred Russel Wallace, but after conversing with geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin quickly went behind Wallace’s back to write an abstract and publish his arguably most famous work On the Origin of Species.

 

02
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Darwin's Theory Was Immediately Accepted

Darwin met with some resistance over his Theory of Evolution
Naturalist Charles Darwin. Getty/De Agostini / A. C. Cooper

Charles Darwin’s data and writings were shared in 1858 at the Linnaean Society of London’s annual meeting. It was actually Charles Lyell who assembled Darwin’s work with Alfred Russel Wallace’s published data and got it on the agenda for the meeting. The idea of evolution through natural selection was greeted with a lukewarm reception at best. Darwin had not wanted to publish his work yet, as he was still putting together the pieces to make a compelling argument. A year later, he published On the Origin of Species. The book, which was filled with evidence and postulating about how species change over time, was accepted more widely than the original publishing of the ideas. However, he still met some resistance and would go on to edit the book and add more evidence and ideas several times until he died in 1882.

03
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Charles Darwin Was an Atheist

Charles Darwin was not an atheist
Evolution and Religion. By latvian (evolution) [ CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to popular belief, Charles Darwin was not an atheist. In fact, at one point, he was studying to become a clergyman. His wife, Emma Wedgwood Darwin, was a devout Christian and was very involved with the Church of England. Darwin’s findings did change his faith over the years, however. In letters written by Darwin, he would describe himself as “agnostic” near the end of his life. Much of his change in faith was actually rooted in the long, painful illness and death of his daughter, not necessarily his work with evolution. He did believe that religion or faith was an important part of human existence and never ridiculed or begrudged anyone who wanted to believe. He often was quoted as saying there was a possibility of some sort of higher power, but he no longer followed Christianity and it pained him that he could not believe in his favorite books in the Bible -- The Gospels. The liberal Unitarian Church actually embraced Darwin and his ideas with praise and began incorporating the ideas of evolution into their belief system.

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Darwin Explained the Origin of Life

Life may have begun in hydrothermal vents
Hydrothermal vent panorama, 2600m deep off Mazatlan. Getty/Kenneth L. Smith, Jr.

This misconception about Charles Darwin seems to come from the title of his arguably most famous book On the Origin of Species. Even though that title would seem to point to an explanation of how life started, that is not the case. Darwin does not give any thoughts on how life started on Earth, as that was beyond the scope of his data. Instead, the book lays out the idea of how species change over time through natural selection. While it does hypothesize that all life is related somehow to a common ancestor, Darwin does not try to explain how that common ancestor came into being. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was based on what modern scientists would consider macroevolution and biological diversity than microevolution and the building blocks of life.

05
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Darwin Said Humans Evolved from Monkeys

Darwin didn't say humans evolved from monkeys
A man and monkeys. Getty/David McGlynn

It was a struggle for Darwin to decide whether or not to include his thoughts on human evolution in his publications. He knew they would be controversial and while he had some superficial evidence and a great deal of intuition about the subject, he at first shied away from explaining how humans had evolved. Eventually, he did write The Descent of Man and explained his hypothesis of how humans evolved. However, he never said that humans evolved from monkeys and this statement shows an overall misunderstanding of the concept of evolution. Humans are related to primates, like apes, on the tree of life. Humans are not direct descendants of apes or monkeys, however, and belong to a different branch of the family tree. It would be more accurate to say that humans and apes are cousins to put it in familiar terms.