Charles Darwin’s Publisher Didn’t Believe in Evolution, but Sold His Revolutionary Book Anyway

The famed naturalist and conservative stalwart John Murray III formed an unlikely alliance in popularizing a radical idea

Charles Darwin, left, and his conservative publisher, John Murray III, right. (Photo illustration by Meilan Solly; source material from Wikimedia Commons)
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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.

Murray caught the attention of historian Sylvia Nickerson, who contributed a chapter on him to the 2019 book Rethinking History, Science, and Religion: An Exploration of Conflict and the Complexity Principle. “The religious implications of Origin of Species put Darwin and Murray at odds,” she writes. And while Murray agreed to publish the book, he did so “despite the objections of his conscience.”

The Troubled Gatekeeper

The book business was in Murray’s blood. His grandfather (also named John Murray) founded the company, and under his son, John Murray II, it became one of the most influential publishing houses in the country, issuing works by Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving and Lord Byron. When the company passed to John Murray III, he embraced the family business with enthusiasm but had a more conservative outlook than his predecessors, Nickerson says. In addition, Murray also published the Quarterly Review, a conservative periodical established by his father.

Publishers like Murray wielded significant power as “moral gatekeepers” who decided which ideas were “fit” for public consumption, Nickerson says. They controlled who could rock the boat—and how hard they could rock it. “There were certain views that were acceptable in Victorian society and other ideas that weren’t,” says Nickerson. “And part of Murray’s job, as a publisher, was to make judgments about what ideas were acceptable for his audience.”

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. Yet in describing the evolution of life without reference to God, the volume struck some readers as radical and disturbing. Nickerson writes that Murray, though he agreed to publish it, “harbored doubt about his role in promoting a Godless view of nature.”

“Murray wasn’t necessarily a church-going guy,” says Nickerson, an independent scholar who recently completed her Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. Rather, she sees Murray as a staunch conservative who fretted over Darwin’s impact on English society. “He was the sort of person who was comfortable with Tory rule, with Anglicanism. He wanted these building blocks of English society to remain.”

Murray respected Darwin and rarely confronted the naturalist directly. But even as he supervised the publication of Darwin’s books, he commissioned negative reviews of those same works and would go on to publish his own anonymous anti-evolution treatise. Occasionally, his concerns rose to the surface. After reading Darwin’s 1871 manuscript for The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex—a book that dealt more directly with human evolution than Origin had—he warned Darwin that his book will make readers “prick up what little has been left of them of ears—& to elevate their eye brows.” He also expressed concern that a discussion of animal procreation, perhaps too explicit for some readers, ought to be “toned down.”

“It’s Got All This Evidence in It”

Although Origin didn’t directly tackle the question of human evolution, its description of nature—in which plants and animals evolve according to natural law, without divine guidance—made some readers uncomfortable. (The book made no mention of God, except for a one-off reference to a “Creator,” added in the second edition.)

However, the idea of evolution was not new. Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had written about it in the 1794 book Zoonomia. The book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published in 1844, provacatively speculated on how species, including humans, had changed over time, drawing comparisons to the evolution of the earth and the solar system. Vestiges was “more obviously controversial” than Origin, says Aileen Fyfe, a historian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and it helped to pave the way for Darwin’s book. “Vestiges got people talking about the notion of evolution,” Fyfe says, even if it “didn’t necessarily convince them that it was true.” Origin was taken far more seriously. “It’s got all this evidence in it—pigeons and barnacles and finches—all of this evidence that Darwin had been amassing for the last 20 years.”

Murray, himself an amateur geologist with a degree from the University of Edinburgh, recognized Darwin’s skill as a naturalist. Murray’s father had published Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which greatly influenced Darwin. Lyell in turn understood the significance of Origin and urged Murray to publish the new book. That view was not unanimous within Murray’s publishing house: An Anglican minister named Whitwell Elwin, who worked as an editor, called Darwin’s ideas “revolting”; he said Origin was plagued by an “absence of proofs” and recommended that Murray reject it.

More significant to Murray as a publisher was Darwin’s track record for writing engaging narratives. Darwin’s account of his travels aboard the HMS Beagle was a hit when it was printed in 1839, and Murray oversaw a new edition of the book in 1845 that sold nearly 6,000 copies. Murray agreed to publish the Origin, sensing it would attract a wide audience. He was right. The first printing, of 1,250 copies, sold out immediately in November 1859.

A Peculiar Partnership

Even so, Murray could not keep his objections in check. He commissioned a review of Origin for the Quarterly Review from one of Darwin’s harshest critics, Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford. Later, Murray would set down his critique in his book Scepticism in Geology, and the reasons for it. Murray wrote that “the world we inhabit, so beautiful, so pregnant with every gift which can contribute to man’s progress, prosperity, and happiness” could hardly be the “unfinished” work of its Creator; he dismissed the notion that the world might be “capable of improvement... undergoing material change day by day.”

With the publication of The Descent of Man in 1871, Murray again was torn: He oversaw its publication but gave Darwin’s opponents full reign to disparage the book. In Quarterly Review, a Catholic biologist named St. George Mivart derided The Descent of Man for espousing a “radically false metaphysical system.” (Nickerson describes the review as “unhinged.”) Elwin despised the new book just as he had loathed Origin. He felt certain that “the theory of the descent of man from the beasts will disappear” as soon as a “really eminent naturalist appears” to put Darwin in his place.

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.

Another factor may also have kept the Murray-Darwin partnership afloat despite Murray’s discomfort: social class. Darwin was a university-educated “gentleman,” a quintessential member of England’s upper classes with a house in the country and an inheritance from his father. In other words, he represented exactly the sort of people Murray sought to publish.

“Murray wouldn’t have published Darwin’s book if Darwin had been some kind of working-class radical,” says Nickerson. “But Darwin was not that man. He may have been radical, but he was also a gentleman, and Murray catered to gentlemen.”

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