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June 26, 2012 2:22 PM   Subscribe

How were the ideas expressed in The Origin of Species received among country people and laypersons in Victorian England?

I'm guessing the book was expensive to acquire, either via a lease from a bookseller or at a university library (?). Also, it's not exactly an easy read. How, then, would the Household Words-reading crowd and, further, illiterate and uneducated people, have a) heard about the ideas expressed in The Origin of Species and b) reacted to them? Would, for instance, they read sensational newspaper articles on the subject? Would they have heard about the idea of evolution via word of mouth? Would the ape/man connection be made at all, considering The Descent of Man came out years later? Just how big of a deal was this in popular culture, and how much did it shift the zeitgeist at the time? Eg. if I were a scullery maid, would I even know about this? What about a farmer? How far up the social ladder would you have to go in Victorian culture for Origin of Species to have made a difference in 1859?
posted by Miss T.Horn to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Reading clubs existed at the time, where working people would chip in to purchase books, and have them read aloud in groups. By all accounts, it was popular with working folk.
posted by Jehan at 2:25 PM on June 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd venture to say that those who were already interested in evolution would likely have been familiar with the work of fellows like Erasmus Darwin (Charles's grandfather), Saint-Hillaire, and perhaps especially Lamarck, who was especially influential. That is to say that the idea of evolution (of a sort) would not have been new to them, and this seems as though it ought to have tempered their reactions. Or maybe made them more partisan yet.

I don't have anything specific to offer you on the on-the-ground effects of The Origin among laypersons, but do recollect that while plenty of people had plenty to say about it, there were no clean divisions among the religious or scientific communities.
posted by mr. digits at 3:11 PM on June 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

One supposes, also, that it's possible that some laypersons heard about Darwin's theories through the Whigs... at the time theories of nature were considered germane to politics, and the supposition that the least dignified particles could become veritable powerhouses represented a bottom-up movement of power. This may have appealed to the lumpen proletariat especially.
posted by mr. digits at 3:18 PM on June 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just on this: "Also, it's not exactly an easy read."

By the standards of the time (1860 - 1870) it's not too bad, if a bit dry & convoluted in parts. Certainly, anyone who was capable of reading science- & social-based fiction of the time - Verne, Dickens, Chambers' "Vestiges …", Huxley's regular lectures and popular articles etc. - could have handled it, simply by skipping over the more difficult bits where he gets bogged down over-explaining things

Later editions are actually worse in this respect, as he re-worked parts in response to various criticisms. The first edition is a thing of mid-Victorian simplicity and style.
posted by Pinback at 3:55 PM on June 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

(Oops - should read '… science- & social-based fiction & non-fiction

Apologies to Chambers & Huxley ;-)

posted by Pinback at 4:23 PM on June 26, 2012

There was little initial reaction upon the reading. Publication of the book in 1859 was limited to 1,250 copies. The reactions were different between the masses in Germany, France, England, The US, etc though mostly to do with the philosophical/epistemological inertia of the location. For the most part, I'd imagine many people learned of or about the theory through meetings/discussions/arguments/debates in front of an audience. Much like the "climate change" debates, or the "is there a god" debates you can find organized by socratic clubs on college campuses every year...
posted by pwb503 at 4:28 PM on June 26, 2012

It's important not to underestimate working-class intellectual culture: there was a lot of investment in reading rooms, clubs, etc., which accompanied the invention of what became university extension. Many working-class men in particular prided themselves on being autodidacts. Jonathan Rose finds that by the early twentieth century, many working-class men would at least have known who Darwin was (193).

We tend to overestimate Darwin's immediate effects. In terms of seismic shocks (if you'll pardon the pun...), evolutionary theory was not up there with geology. Those who have studied Darwin's reception history--e.g., Alvar Ellegard, Peter Bowler, David N. Livingstone--have found that initial response was excited and mixed, to be sure, but not necessarily catastrophic. Livingstone in particular points out that even evangelicals were capable of integrating Darwin into their thought. (On the Catholic side of things, John Henry Newman told a friend that he had no problem with Darwin's conclusions whatsoever.) The current historical consensus appears to be that things got more heated in the early twentieth century.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:45 PM on June 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh! You really want to read Irving Stone's The Origin!

Much shorter answers gleaned from the well-researched book: Darwin was widely read among certain circles. His works (much bigger than one book) were expensive to publish and buy (because they had color pictures) but that cost was reduced when you remember that his works were published over quite a few years. His ideas were hotly debated among some (mostly academic) circles, while somewhat accepted in others (and not an entirely new idea with Charles Darwin, which I did not know before reading this book!). When each book was published papers around the world would produce book reviews, which were inevitably followed by "letters to the editor" -- but mostly scholarly replies.

(Also, the book is worth reading because it details how he started with geology and how certain sciences were just not recognized at that time; a bit of the weirdness that Darwin married his cousin, considering what he was proposing; and also the curious, and a bit fragile, person that was Darwin. Not nearly as well-written as Stone's The Agony and Ecstasy, though, but well done.)
posted by Houstonian at 5:29 PM on June 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also on books, I think Mr Darwin's Shooter goes into the public response to the theories, though I can't recall how much.
posted by Kerasia at 5:48 PM on June 26, 2012

I'm guessing the book was expensive to acquire

Only sort of. This is the nineteenth century we're talking about, not the seventeenth or even the eighteenth. The functional monopoly of royal copyright had been broken almost a century earlier, and printed books were already starting to become commodities rather than high-margin, low-volume undertakings.

The first edition was priced at fifteen shillings according to Wikipedia (about £457 in 2010 money) which is a hefty sum, but 500 of these (almost half) were apparently acquired by Mudie's Library, which operated on a subscription model. This would have enabled a large number of people to read it relatively quickly for a much more affordable cost.

But that's just the first printing. The thing went through six printings by 1872, three of which were before 1861, so it was selling pretty quickly. And the last printing was only 7s 6d, which was only £182.00 in 2010 dollars. Still expensive, but much more affordable. This was the sort of thing that a reading club could far more readily acquire.

Pedantic point: Household Words ceased publication on May 28, 1859, a few months before the November 24, 1859 publication of Origin.
posted by valkyryn at 6:40 PM on June 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

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