Exploring the uneasy relationship between Charles Darwin and his skeptical publisher

charles darwin
Credit: Bettmann/Corbis

Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution shook up Britain’s Victorian establishment upon the release of On the Origin of Species, the 1859 bestseller that made Darwin a household name and changed the course of scientific history. Far less famous, however, is Darwin’s publisher, John Murray III. Though he ushered Darwin and his theory of natural selection into the public sphere, Murray was a man of his times who was deeply concerned about the implications of Darwin’s theories and, behind the scenes, even fought against them.

Despite its modern reputation for generating controversy, Origin was neither overtly political nor antagonistic toward religion. Most of Darwin’s volume is nitty-gritty natural history, with two of its fourteen chapters dealing with the geographical distribution of species and two more with geology.

Related article:  Past decade taught us how wrong we were about human evolution, including when our ancestors left Africa

Strained as their relationship may have been, Murray published 11 of Darwin’s books in all, through 150 editions. Whatever Murray’s objections to Darwin’s ideas, he surely had one eye on the bottom line. Readers lined up to purchase Darwin’s books, and Descent would go on to outsell Origin. Both author and publisher “had discovered that Darwin’s name on a title page would sell books,” Nickerson writes.

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