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Was Darwin Wrong?
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Was Darwin Wrong? @ National Geographic Magazine
By David QuammenPhotographs by Robert Clark

The work of the 19th-century English naturalist shocked society and revolutionized science. How well has it withstood the test of time?

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Evolution by natural selection, the central concept of the life's work of Charles Darwin, is a theory. It's a theory about the origin of adaptation, complexity, and diversity among Earth's living creatures. If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science, and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that it's "just" a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is "just" a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory. Continental drift is a theory. The existence, structure, and dynamics of atoms? Atomic theory. Even electricity is a theoretical construct, involving electrons, which are tiny units of charged mass that no one has ever seen. Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact. That's what scientists mean when they talk about a theory: not a dreamy and unreliable speculation, but an explanatory statement that fits the evidence. They embrace such an explanation confidently but provisionally—taking it as their best available view of reality, at least until some severely conflicting data or some better explanation might come along.
The rest of us generally agree. We plug our televisions into little wall sockets, measure a year by the length of Earth's orbit, and in many other ways live our lives based on the trusted reality of those theories.
Evolutionary theory, though, is a bit different. It's such a dangerously wonderful and far-reaching view of life that some people find it unacceptable, despite the vast body of supporting evidence. As applied to our own species, Homo sapiens, it can seem more threatening still. Many fundamentalist Christians and ultra-orthodox Jews take alarm at the thought that human descent from earlier primates contradicts a strict reading of the Book of Genesis. Their discomfort is paralleled by Islamic creationists such as Harun Yahya, author of a recent volume titled The Evolution Deceit, who points to the six-day creation story in the Koran as literal truth and calls the theory of evolution "nothing but a deception imposed on us by the dominators of the world system." The late Srila Prabhupada, of the Hare Krishna movement, explained that God created "the 8,400,000 species of life from the very beginning," in order to establish multiple tiers of reincarnation for rising souls. Although souls ascend, the species themselves don't change, he insisted, dismissing "Darwin's nonsensical theory."
Other people too, not just scriptural literalists, remain unpersuaded about evolution. According to a Gallup poll drawn from more than a thousand telephone interviews conducted in February 2001, no less than 45 percent of responding U.S. adults agreed that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." Evolution, by their lights, played no role in shaping us.
Only 37 percent of the polled Americans were satisfied with allowing room for both God and Darwin—that is, divine initiative to get things started, evolution as the creative means. (This view, according to more than one papal pronouncement, is compatible with Roman Catholic dogma.) Still fewer Americans, only 12 percent, believed that humans evolved from other life-forms without any involvement of a god.
The most startling thing about these poll numbers is not that so many Americans reject evolution, but that the statistical breakdown hasn't changed much in two decades. Gallup interviewers posed exactly the same choices in 1982, 1993, 1997, and 1999. The creationist conviction—that God alone, and not evolution, produced humans—has never drawn less than 44 percent. In other words, nearly half the American populace prefers to believe that Charles Darwin was wrong where it mattered most.

To print the whole National Geographic story, click here.

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Maneuver through the series of images that kept photographer Robert Clark organized in the field.

Why is Darwin's theory of evolution so hard to accept for so many people?  What do you believe?

to the early 1900s when a prospector in Alaska dug up these woolly mammoth tusks.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Where do you bury someone like Darwin, a man who admittedly had lost his Christian faith and declared himself an agnostic?  When he died on April 19, 1882, his family planned to bury him in the local churchyard beside the graves of his children. Some of Darwin's countrymen, however, had other ideas and quickly began lobbying leading scientists and members of government to come together and ask the dean of Britain's Westminster Abbey to allow Darwin to be buried there. The dean, Reverend George Granville Bradley, responded that his "assent would be cheerfully given," and so Darwin, the agnostic, was buried in Westminster Abbey on the afternoon of April 26. Darwin's old friend, botanist Joseph Hooker, was among the pallbearers, as were Alfred Russel Wallace, the young naturalist whose writings had pushed Darwin into publishing his own theory, and James Russell Lowell, the United States' ambassador to Britain. In a part of the Abbey known as Scientists' Corner, Darwin lies a few feet from the burial place of Sir Isaac Newton and next to that of the astronomer Sir John Herschel. It was Herschel that Darwin referred to in the introduction of The Origin of Species as the great philosopher who coined the phrase "mystery of mysteries" to describe the change of Earth's species through time.
—Patricia Kellogg
Did You Know?

Related Links
This interactive and entertaining website is a companion to the PBS series on evolution. Explore Darwin's life and the theory he proposed, find resources for teachers and students and a library of additional resources.
The Writing of Charles Darwin on the Web
This site claims to be the most extensive collection of Darwin's writings ever published and includes The Origin of Species and other books, volumes of letters, and articles published in periodicals.  Although the site appears to come from the British Library, it is produced by a historian affiliated with Cambridge University.
Exploring Constitutional Conflicts: The Evolution Controversy
A fascinating look at both sides of the issue from a University of Missouri law professor.  Includes links to websites supporting evolutionist theory and creationism.
More about Darwin himself than about evolution, this entertaining site offers great detail about Darwin's life and science in the late 1800s.  It includes a long list of links.
Center for Science and Culture
This website presents the non-Darwinist and non-creationist point of view known as intelligent design, which holds that the universe is the product of intelligent thinking.
Answers in Genesis
A very large young-Earth creationist website. Although most material is in English, it includes pages in ten Asian and European languages.
The Talk.Origins Archive
This website is built around essays and articles addressing the evolution/creationism controversy from a mainstream science viewpoint.  Lots of links to websites on both sides of the issue.
National Center for Science Education
The NCSE is a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Robert Clark
Preview the diverse work of this award-winning photographer at this site, which includes photo galleries, a short biography, and more.

The National Academies
This organization provides a committee of experts in all areas of scientific and technological endeavor and gives independent, objective advice on critical international and national issues.


Browne, Janet. Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Vol. 1. Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Browne, Janet. Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Vol. 2. Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. John Murray, 1859. (Modern editions are available from many publishers.)
Desmond, Adrian, and James Moore. Darwin. Michael Joseph, 1991.
Eldredge, Niles. The Pattern of Evolution. W. H. Freeman and Company, 1999.
Larson, Edward J. Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. Modern Library, 2004.


NGS Resources
Chapman, Matthew. "Islands of the Fittest." National Geographic Traveler (April 2003), 46-57.
Lange, Karen E. "Wolf to Woof." National Geographic (January 2002), 2-11.

Benchley, Peter. "Galápagos: Paradise in Peril." National Geographic (April 1999), 2-31.
Plage, Dieter, and Mary Plage. "A Century After Darwin's Death, Galápagos Wildlife Under Pressure." National Geographic (January 1988), 122-45.
Gore, Rick. "Seven Giants Who Led the Way." National Geographic (Sept. 1976), 400-7.
Villiers, Alan. "In the Wake of Darwin's Beagle." National Geographic (October 1969), 449-95.
Peterson, Roger Tory. "The Galápagos, Eerie Cradle of New Species." National Geographic (April 1967), 540-85.
Johnson, Electa, and Irving Johnson. "Lost World of the Galápagos." National Geographic (May 1959), 680-703.


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