Darwin’s Bluff



Tucked away in Charles Darwin’s surviving papers is a manuscript of almost 300,000 words that he never completed. It was his sequel to The Origin of Species. It was the book he had promised would finally supply solid empirical evidence for the creative power of natural selection, evidence he admitted was absent from the Origin, which he repeatedly described as a “mere abstract.” Darwin soon abandoned his sequel, though he never revealed that decision to those who awaited its appearance. The mystery of why Darwin didn’t finish his sequel has never been satisfactorily resolved. In this fascinating piece of historical detective work, Robert Shedinger draws on Darwin’s letters, private notebooks, and the unfinished manuscript itself to piece together the puzzle and reveal an embarrassing truth: Darwin never finished his sequel because in the end he could not deliver the promised goods. His book, begun in earnest, devolved into a bluff.


It is a testimony to the mythical status of Charles Darwin that most of his admirers do not know or do not take seriously the fact that Origin of Species was sold as an abstract of a much longer work. Reviewers of Origin took Darwin at his word and cut him considerable slack when evaluating the case for evolution by natural selection. The promised volume would presumably explain the modus operandi of this mysterious process. However, the promised volume never came, though a hefty manuscript survived its author. Robert Shedinger takes a deep dive into Darwin’s correspondence, as well as the unfinished follow-up manuscript, and concludes that Darwin abandoned the project simply because he couldn’t meet the objections to natural selection made even by broadly sympathetic reviewers of Origin. In addition, Shedinger casts a forensic eye on how scholarly interpretations of Darwin’s life have subtly served to obscure this ultimate intellectual failure. The result is nothing short of a demythologization of modern biology’s origin story. 

Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology, University of Warwick, author of Dissent over Descent

Darwin’s Bluff particularly resonates with me. In 2009, as a card-carrying Darwinist serving as a fossil curator in one of Germany’s natural history museums, I mounted an exhibit showing Darwin’s famous work outweighing the works of his leading modern detractors. To prepare for hard questions from reporters, I decided to give the naysayer books a quick read, books I had been assured were all froth and foolishness. I soon discovered that I had been misled. The arguments in those pages were neither shallow nor illogical. Instead, I came to see that it was actually modern Darwinism that rested on a carefully constructed bluff.

Robert Shedinger’s latest book shows that the bluffing has a long pedigree, stretching back to the master of Down House himself. What emerges from Shedinger’s deep dive into Darwin’s private writings is a picture of a man wracked by doubts and insecurities about his evolutionary theory, but also a man not above a good bluff, one he sold so artfully that he may even have persuaded himself.

Günter Bechly, former curator for amber and fossil insects in the Department of Paleontology at the State Museum of Natural History (SMNS) in Stuttgart, Germany; Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture

Robert Shedinger’s fascinating book explores a puzzling question about Darwin’s career: Why didn’t he ever publish a longer book on evolution by natural selection that he had almost completed? Darwin continually promised his contemporaries that his forthcoming work would provide the evidence he was unable to include in his shorter book, The Origin of Species, which he called an “abstract” of his theory. Through painstaking historical research, Shedinger sheds light on Darwin’s modus operandi and on the shortcomings of his scientific evidence, thus dismantling what Shedinger calls the mythology surrounding Darwin.

Richard Weikart, Professor of History, California State University, Stanislaus; author of Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism

Stung by early reviewers’ resistance to many unsubstantiated conjectures in which his Origin of Species abounds, Charles Darwin announced he would bring out a more detailed sequel to quell the opposition of skeptics. Robert Shedinger shows that this promise was essentially a bluff since the promised book on natural selection never appeared. In the early 1860s, Darwin instead devoted his energies to a botanical study of orchids. He nevertheless hoped that, by describing the exquisite “contrivances” found in orchids, his readers would see in these adaptations the power of natural selection at work. Yet precisely the opposite impression was created. Expressing a common sentiment in a review of the volume, an anonymous reviewer wrote in 1862, “The notion of the origin of species by natural selection, we continue to regard as an ingenious mistake.” Worse, Darwin’s Orchids volume was favorably compared with the Bridgewater Treatises in its supposed contribution to Christian apologetics!

Contextualizing Darwin’s own doubts and insecurities by exhaustively researched reference to his correspondence, Shedinger opposes many accretions of Darwinian hagiography. It would be a sensible step forward, Shedinger concludes, to take Darwin at his word when he wrote in a letter to Asa Gray in 1857, “I am quite conscious that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of true science.” This book is particularly to be recommended to those tempted to view Darwin as an unquestionable Victorian sage.

Neil Thomas, Reader emeritus in Modern European Languages, Durham University (GB);  author of Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design

Robert Shedinger’s accomplishment deserves much attention within my own primary field of the history of science. Historians of Darwin have largely overlooked what Shedinger here demonstrates: The rhetorical success of Darwin’s Origin of Species owed much to the early readers imagining mountains of evidence forthcoming in the much larger book that Darwin promised would soon be finalized and published. The evasiveness of this maneuver is well documented in Shedinger’s analysis of Darwin’s forever unfinished—and evidentially disappointing—“big book” manuscript and his collegial correspondence.

Michael N. Keas, author of Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion

Robert Shedinger’s portrait of Darwin is far different from the reverent hagiographies we’ve come to expect. In accessible, enticing prose—and drawing from more than 260 letters Darwin wrote or received from his contemporaries—Shedinger shows us sides of the man long obscured. Darwin emerges as a striver whose reach exceeded his grasp in his failing to provide ironclad evidence for his famous theory. The candor and penchant for false modesty in his letters peel back the years; we discover a Darwin whose quirks and foibles make him recognizably human. Shedinger’s meticulously researched and carefully argued volume takes the patina off this Victorian legend, opening Darwin to a most appropriate fresh inspection.

Michael A. Jawer, author of Sensitive Soul and co-author of The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion and Your Emotional Type

Why did Darwin call The Origin of Species an abstract? Anyone interested in Darwin’s evolving strategy to roll out his revolutionary ideas in two distinct stages will find here a luscious banquet. Robert Shedinger’s Darwin’s Bluff will shock most readers in every chapter. In my own field of the rhetoric of science, the varied tactics of persuasion employed by Darwin are brought to light. Best of all, as we listen in on his own correspondence, Darwin himself comes alive in ways we never imagined. So, what’s the untold story of Darwin’s abandoned “big book” project? Carve out a few hours and feast on Shedinger’s vivid reconstruction and resolution of this mystery.

Tom Woodward, Research Professor at Trinity College of Florida; author of Doubts about Darwin: A Rhetorical History of Intelligent Design and The Mysterious Epigenome with ophthalmologist James Gills

The adequacy of natural selection to explain evolution and life has been seriously challenged on a number of fronts—from paleontology, biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics to theology, philosophy of mind, and the history of religions. In a minutely researched piece of new scholarship, Robert Shedinger shows us that The Origin of Species was intended as an abstract of a theory that Darwin could never substantiate, and that, more telling still, the confident scientific naturalism for which Darwin is mythologized today is largely a set of rhetorical devices and dogmatic beliefs that add up to a massive bluff with significant negative consequences, particularly with respect to race, gender, scientific inquiry, religious belief, and intellectual freedom. Darwin’s Bluff is the history of science and the study of religion at their best, brought together toward a more nuanced future.

Jeffrey J. Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religion at Rice University; author of The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge

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