This is an excellent short article by Janet Browne (the Janet Browne who wrote the best biography of Darwin I’ve read, Voyaging(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) and The Power of Place(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), both well worth reading) that discusses the reception of the theory of evolution by his contemporaries, and acknowledges the invaluable assistance of Huxley, Hooker, Gray, and Lyell. One important point is that opposition to his ideas was not driven by the crude Biblical literalism that we encounter so much today, but a more general conflict with a more enlightened religion that found no place for a personal god in a world where life was the product of rather callous and impersonal forces, and of course, with a religion that was a force for controlling people’s minds.
Scholars nowadays agree that The Descent of Man offered a far-reaching naturalistic account of human evolution but did not change many minds. The people who already accepted evolution continued to believe. Those who did not continued to disbelieve. Few readers wished to shrink the gap between mankind and animals quite so dramatically, however. If these ideas were accepted, wrote the Edinburgh Review, the constitution of society would be destroyed.
A lot of people seem to want to argue that it’s just fundamentalism that’s a problem—but that’s only one narrow aspect of the problem that’s common in the US. It was not a major issue in 19th century Britain.
(via Thoughts in a Haystack)