Who Were Darwin's Critics?

Accompanies the Viewer's Guide, Chapter 1-A, "The Voyage of the Beagle"

Virtually every scientific revolution has had its critics. The Darwinian revolution was no exception. Indeed, Darwin's theory of evolution--in its contemporary form--still has many vocal critics. For a variety of historical and cultural reasons, the controversy has often been cast as a battle between science and biblical literalism. But Darwin's theory was opposed not only by biblical literalists, but also by a wide variety of religious believers and scientists. In this research project, students will learn about some of Darwin's religious and scientific critics, and why they objected to Darwin's theory.

Learning Objectives
  • Students will be aware that Darwin's theory drew criticism from diverse segments of his society.
  • Students will be aware of some of the historical works about Darwin's life and theory.
  • Students will be able to identify some of Darwin's scientific and religious critics, as well as some of the critics' objections to Darwin's theory.

Have students discuss the scenes about Darwin and Fitzroy. Ask the following questions:

  • 1. What did you think of the scenes that showed Darwin and Fitzroy?
  • 2. Was Fitzroy typical of most people who criticized Darwin?
  • 3. Can you think of any other people during Darwin's time who criticized his views?

Hand out the worksheet on the following page and go over its directions with students.

Who Were Darwin's Critics?

The following people were critical of Darwin's theory of evolution:

Louis Agassiz

Karl Ernst von Baer

John Herschel

Charles Hodge

Fleeming Jenkins

Charles Lyell

John Stuart Mill

St. George Jackson Mivart

Richard Owen

Adam Sedgwick (geologist)

William Thomson (Lord Kelvin)

William Whewell

Samuel Wilberforce



  • Choose five people from the list above and answer the following questions about each:

1. Who is he?

2. What was his occupation?

3. What is he best known for?

4. What were his objections to Darwin's theory?

  • Keep a log of how opponents of evolution are portrayed in Episodes Two through Seven. It doesn't have to be extensive. How does this compare to the diversity of people opposing Darwin's theory during his own time?

You can find information about these people on the Web and in a number of printed books and articles. Here are a few places to look.

On the Web
  • Charles Darwin. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (as published in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin), edited by Francis Darwin.


  • Charles Darwin. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by Francis Darwin.

Volume I : http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2087

Volume II: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2088

  • Charles Darwin. More Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by Francis Darwin and A. C. Seward:

Volume I: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2739

Volume II: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2740

  • Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species, 6th ed.


Other Web sources can be found with the Google search engine (www.google.com). To find Web sites that discuss these people's views of Darwin and his theory, use their names and such keywords as "Darwin" or "evolution" as your search terms. Remember, though, Web pages can vary in their reliability and accuracy. Which pages do you think are most reliable and why?

Printed Sources
  • Peter J. Bowler. Evolution: The History of an Idea. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
  • E. Janet Browne. Charles Darwin: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.
  • Adrian Desmond and James Moore. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
  • Loren Eisley. Darwin's Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
  • Gertrude Himmelfarb. Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1962.
  • David Hull. Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
  • James R. Moore. The Post-Darwinian Controversies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.