Darwin in the Deep Archives

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In honor of Charles Darwin’s 207th birthday today, here’s Asa Gray’s review of The Original of Species, published by The Atlantic in July 1860. It begins:


Novelties are enticing to most people: to us they are simply annoying. We cling to a long-accepted theory, just as we cling to an old suit of clothes. A new theory, like a new pair of breeches, (“The Atlantic” still affects the older type of nether garment,) is sure to have hardfitting places; or even when no particular fault can be found with the article, it oppresses with a sense of general discomfort. New notions and new styles worry us, till we get well used to them, which is only by slow degrees.

When we posted that review in 2011, a reader wrote:

Some historian noted that it is easy to forget that the past was once the future. So what now seems settled history and fact was once speculation and argumentation. What was settled fact then was the Biblical story of creation. Darwin had to argue his way past that, carefully, to build the case for “deep time.” It’s worthwhile reading him to watch the effort.

Another reader looked into the man behind the book review:

I read this wondering who wrote it, impressed with their scholarship, eloquence and objectivity. Then I went back to the top of the page and saw it was none other than Asa Gray, who was one of Darwin’s greatest supporters in the USA [and the most influential botanist of the 19th century]. Cool.

Science writer David Dobbs added:

Gray is a graceful writer and one of the era’s quietest but most fascinating figures. This inspired me to post the story of how Darwin won Gray’s support—not an easy thing, as Gray was a devout Christian.

From another reader who enjoyed Gray’s book review:

I have a feeling I could get lost in the Atlantic’s archives for a considerable period. The language used makes assumptions about the intelligence and erudition of the reader that seems a given to me and yet is all too rare in our dumbed down, 6th grade society. Thank you again.

Another related piece in our archive is “Heart of Darwin,” a 2008 examination by Richard Conniff of “the places in and around London that shaped the naturalist as a young man.”