Darwin’s “Delay”

Most people interested in the literature on Darwin are aware that he alighted on his theory of natural selection a short time after returning from his five-year Beagle voyage in 1836 (Sulloway 1982). It is rather less well-known that during the first decade following his return he produced a large body of work not directly related to his evolutionary theory: Journal of Researches of the Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle (1839 and revised in 1845); five volumes of Zoology of the Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle (1840‑1843), which he edited; three volumes of the Geology of the Voyage of the Beagle (1842‑1846); and numerous papers and reviews (Richards 1983, pp. 46-47).

Darwin started jotting down notes on the “transmutation of species” in 1837, and, following his encounter with Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population in September in that year, realised he now had “a theory by which to work” (Sulloway 2006, p. 118). Having completed the bulk of his immediate writing commitments and researches in geology, in 1842 he wrote a brief sketch of his evolutionary theory which he developed substantially and completed in 1844. As Rebecca Stott observes, at that stage this amounted to no more than “a hypothesis; an idea in embryo” (2003, p. 81). However, Darwin set this aside for another decade, giving rise to much speculation about the delay in publishing his evolutionary ideas. Joseph Carroll writes: 

Virtually every commentator on Darwin’s career broaches the question, ‘Why the delay?’ If Darwin had a book-length ms. prepared in 1844, why did he wait another fifteen years before publishing his book? One common answer to the question is that he delayed because he was afraid to publish – afraid to offend the public, afraid to endanger his social and professional position, afraid even to upset his wife. (Carroll 2003, p. 45) 

Carroll goes on to note that this view appears in its most extreme form in the highly influential biography Darwin (1991) by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, who also attribute severe bouts of Darwin’s chronic gastrointestinal disorder to anxieties about the potential public reception of his evolutionary theory. Carroll proceeds to dispute the now widely-held view, noting that

It fails to register the difference in the quality of argument between a lightly and not very coherently sketched outline, on the one side, and a dense, comprehensive, tightly woven fabric of argument on the other… Darwin [in 1844] did not yet know enough, and had not thought enough, to produce the definitive work his theory had the potential to produce. From 1844 to 1859, the efforts that went into Darwin’s studies on geology and natural history, and particularly his work on barnacles, enabled him to master entire fields of information in respect to which, in 1844, he was but a novice. In addition to his published work, over those years he collected an immense quantity of information – of facts accompanied by analytic reflection – that were slated for publication in the big species book… There was no “delay,” only a protracted preparation. (pp. 45-46)

Implicit in Carroll’s comments is that Darwin was well aware that if his theory was to have any hope of convincing a wide range of people it had to be buttressed by a huge array of corroborating factual information and woven into a cohesive overall argument. He could have added that few people realise the full extent that Darwin’s illness hampered his work. After a few hours on his writings in the morning, he customarily had to rest for the remainder of the day, and there were periods when he had to cease working altogether for weeks on end, occasionally undertaking “water cures” at health resorts. His diaries and letters show the deleterious effect this had on his work, e.g.:

I will give you statistics of time spent on my Coral volume, not including all the work on board the Beagle. I commenced it 3 years and 7 months ago, and have done scarcely anything besides. I have actually spent 20 months out of this period on it! and nearly all the remainder sickness and visiting!!! (Darwin to Emma Darwin, May 1842).

Again, during the years he worked on his major barnacles study he reported:

I have lost for the last 4 or 5 months at least 4⁄5 of my time, & I have resolved to go this early summer & spend two months at Malvern & see whether there is any truth in Gully & the water cure: regular Doctors cannot check my incessant vomiting at all.— It will cause a sad delay in my Barnacle work, but if once half-well I cd do more in 6 months than I now do in two years. (Letter to Richard Owen, 24 February 1849.)                                                                                                                                 

But why venture on the barnacles studies in 1846 in the first place? The explanation can be found in his response to a comment by his friend Joseph Hooker, directed at another naturalist, which he took personally: “How painfully (to me) true is your remark that no one has hardly a right to examine the question of species who has not minutely described many” (Letter, 19 September 1845). Robert Richards writes:

In 1846 he began an eight‑year study of barnacles, resulting in four volumes completed in 1854. The barnacle project seduced Darwin. He initially planned merely to do a little study of one species and ended up investigating the whole group of Cirripedia. His work on barnacles has been singled out as both a necessary stage in preparation for the Origin of Species and a significant cause of its delay. (Richards 1983, pp. 46-47)

Desmond and Moore acknowledge:

So barnacles were not totally irrelevant to his evolutionary work. In fact, as he proceeded, he began to uncover the most extraordinary proofs of his notebook speculations. […] He called in specimens from far and wide…[…] To be definitive a monograph would have to embrace fossil barnacles as well…It was dogged, grinding work. The modern species had to be dissected, the fossils disarticulated or sectioned. He was inundated with so many species that the labour became exhausting and the smell of spirits nauseating. (Desmond and Moore 1991, pp. 341-343)

In addition to the immense amount of painstaking work required for a comprehensive study of barnacles, there were the lengthy periods lost to illness:

Finished packing up all my cirripedes. preparing Fossil Balanidae distributing copies of my work &c &c.— I have yet a few proofs for Fossil Balanidae for Pal: Soc: to complete, perhaps a week’s more work. Began Oct. 1 1846 On Oct. 1st. it will be 8 years since I began! But then I have lost 1 or 2 years by illness. (Personal Journal, 9 September 1854)

The Darwin specialists John van Wyhe and Frank Sulloway also take the view that there was no “delay” in the sense promoted by Desmond and Moore. In an article devoted to this issue, van Wyhe writes:

By re-examining the historical evidence, without presuming that Darwin avoided publication, it can be shown that there is no reason to introduce such a hypothesis in the first place… A fresh analysis of Darwin’s manuscripts, letters, publications and the writings of those who knew him intimately shows the story to be quite different from one of a lifetime of  avoiding publication… In fact, Darwin hardly veered from his original plans for working out and publishing his species theory in due course. Finally, it will be shown that, contrary to common belief, Darwin did not keep his belief in evolution (or transmutation as it was then known) a secret before publication in 1858–59. (van Wyhe 2007, p. 178)

 Similarly, Sulloway writes:

Far from being a “closet evolutionist,” as Desmond and Moore claim, Darwin told a dozen of his closest friends about his evolutionary ideas. His twenty-year “delay” in announcing his theory of natural selection was not really a delay. Darwin used this time advantageously to bolster his arguments for evolution, and especially to resolve some of its weakest links. (Sulloway 1996, p. 246)

 Carroll expands on this:

The Notebooks reveal that Darwin had gained the essential insights of his work two decades before it was published, and the essays of 1842 and 1844 demonstrate that he was already at that time able to give a coherent exposition of the basic theory of descent with modification by means of natural selection. What then, if anything, did Darwin gain through waiting for fourteen years before writing the final version of his work? There were three main forms of gain: (i) vastly more detail both in apt illustration and in considered inference, (2) an extended compositional process that resulted in an extraordinary density, coherence, and clarity in the exposition; and (3) one new idea, or at least a latent idea rendered explicit and available for development. The process of composition consisted of alternating phases of expansion and condensation, of filling in details and then of abstracting and summarizing. The one new idea is described in Darwin’s Autobiography. He explains that there was one basic problem he had not adequately formulated in I844 – the problem of “divergence” or branching speciation, as opposed to linear descent. (Carroll 2003, p. 38)

I’ll give the last word to Alfred Russel Wallace, who, in a generous tribute to Darwin, recognised the vital importance of Darwin’s having published their theory in a meticulously comprehensive form rather than as an ingenious speculation:

As to the theory of “Natural Selection” itself, I shall always maintain it to be actually yours & your’s only. You had worked it out in details I had never thought of, years before I had a ray of light on the subject, & my paper would never have convinced anybody or been noticed as more than an ingenious speculation, whereas your book has revolutionized the study of Natural History, & carried away captive the best men of the present Age. (Letter to Darwin, 28 May 1864.)


 Carroll, J. (2003). Introduction. In C. R. Darwin, On the Origin of Species. First edition (1859), edited by J. Carroll. Broadview: Ontario, Canada: pp. 9-87.

Darwin, C. R.  The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online. Edited by John van Wyhe.

Desmond, A. and Moore, J. (1991). Darwin. London and New York: Michael Joseph

Richards, R. J. (1983). “Why Darwin Delayed, or Interesting Problems and Models in the History of Science”, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, vol. 19 January 1983: 45-53.

Stott, R. (2003). Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History’s Most Spectacular Breakthrough. London: Faber & Faber.

Sulloway, F. J. (1982). Darwin’s Conversion: The Beagle Voyage and Its AftermathJournal of the History of Biology, vol. 15, no. 3 (Fall 1982): 325-396.

Sulloway, F. J. (1996). Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives. London: Little, Brown and Company.

Sulloway, F. J. (2006). Why Darwin Rejected Intelligent Design.  In J. Brockman (ed.), Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design  Movement, New York: Vintage Books: pp. 107-125.

Wyhe, J. van (2007). Mind the Gap: Did Darwin Avoid Publishing His Theory for Many Years?  Notes & Records of the Royal Society (2007), 61: 177-205.

February 2011

About the Author

Allen Esterson has also written articles on books by Walter Isaacson: Walter Isaacson, Einstein, and Mileva Marić, and Patricia Fara: Scientists Anonymous, and on the PBS co-produced documentary “Einstein’s Wife”: Einstein’s Wife: Mileva Marić. In addition to his book Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud, he has written several journal articles on Freud.

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