Origin of the Species

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray, 1859.

From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

Even the "objective" field of science is not beyond the reach of the censors. After all, science is advanced and interpreted by human beings, capable of highly subjective actions and thoughts. Treating one area in which the subjective can clash easily with the objective, the cases discussed here each demonstrate the struggle between religious beliefs and scientific theory.

The 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species unleashed a controversy that resonates even today. In presenting a revolutionary theory of evolution, the British naturalist challenged the biblical creation story and provoked the ire of detractors who accused him of "dethroning God." Darwin based his text on his own observations and scientific study of the natural world, concluding that "descent with modification" was responsible for the "survival of the fittest." Despite the surrounding controversy, On the Origin of Species remained uncensored in the United States all the way into the 1920s, when high school curricula started to incorporate the theory of Darwinian evolution.

Evolution Trial

Nelson, Wilbur A. "America's Evolution Trial." [1925] 25 pp.

From the Papers of Wilbur Armistead Nelson.

Wilbur Armistead Nelson, former state geologist of Tennessee and professor of geology at the University of Virginia, was called to be an expert witness at the 1925 Scopes Trial, a lawsuit born out of the Tennessee law which made illegal the teaching of evolution in public schools. Instigating the trial, John Scopes, a science teacher from Dayton, Tennessee, procured the legal services of defense lawyer and agnostic Clarence Darrow and the support of the American Civil Liberties Union in order to defend the right to teach Darwinian evolution. Scopes was found guilty of violating state law, but his conviction was overturned on a technicality. Ultimately, the Tennessee law remained on the books until 1967, when the Supreme Court declared it in conflict with the First and Fourteenth Amendments. On display here, Nelson's twenty-five-page commentary on the trial ends with the reflection, "Perhaps the world will learn something from this." Nonetheless, the teaching of evolution in public schools continues to be challenged in this country, occurring as recently as 1999 in Kansas.


Copernicus, Nicolaus. Copernici Nicolai Torinensis De Revolvtionibus orbium. Libri VI. Basel, 1566.

In the mid-sixteenth century, Polish astronomer Copernicus argued that the earth orbited around the sun, which was located at the center of the universe. This theory, pronounced "dangerous to the faith" by Pope Paul V, challenged the longstanding belief that the earth was the center of the universe. Despite its 1543 printing, On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres did not make it onto the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books until 1616. The controversial text most likely escaped immediate suppression because the editor of the book replaced Copernicus' original preface with an unsigned preface claiming that "these hypotheses need not be true nor even probable." This altered state of the preface has also brought into question the authenticity of the book's dedication to Pope Paul III. Copernicus, who died shortly after the text was published, never knew of the changes or the controversies. However, when Galileo finally confirmed the heliocentric theory of the universe in the seventeenth century, the Catholic Church charged the astronomer with heresy, imprisoned him, and forced him to make a public renunciation of his findings.