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Darwin’s Apostles: The Scientists Who Brought Evolution to the Public

Charles Darwin revolutionized how we think about biology. But his personality did not lend itself to publicly promoting his work. So how did his ideas become so influential? 

It was other scientists of the era who were largely responsible for spreading and popularizing Darwin’s work, according to a new book called Darwin’s Apostles: The Men Who Fought to Have Evolution Accepted, Their Times, and How the Battle Continues.

“For all his genius and time spent observing and writing, Darwin was a very cautious man. And because he was anxious, he did not debate or speak out publicly,” said Professor David Orenstein (Medgar Evers College), who co-authored the book with Abby Hafer. Darwin’s Apostles shows how a group of the famous naturalist’s contemporaries encouraged him and supported his ideas.

The book opens with a dramatic debate on evolution in 1860 at Oxford University, setting the scene for how Darwin’s ideas were received in the 19th century. Darwin himself did not attend, but his book On the Origin of Species had been published seven months earlier, and the debate exemplifies how staunchly the church opposed Darwin’s ideas.

The tale then rewinds, examining the science and thought that led up to Darwin’s work. From there the authors introduce the “apostles”: Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Asa Gray, John William Draper, and Alfred Russel Wallace—in detail. Orenstein and Hafer then bring the reader up to the present with a look at how the world has responded to ideas on natural selection in the 20th century and today.

“Darwin was a nexus for many 19th century naturalists and thinkers and had long correspondences with many influential men and women of his time,” Orenstein said. “He had many ‘apostles’ but we settled on five who really pushed him to publish, who wrote in his defense, and who debated fearlessly for his ideas.”