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Why Darwin?

Royal Photographic Society
Charles Darwin, 1868–1869; photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

When I was a student I was enjoined to reject the “Cleopatra’s Nose” theory of history, so called after Pascal’s remark in the Pensées : “Cleopatra’s nose: if it had been shorter, everything in the world would have changed.”1 The intent was not to dismiss biography as a way into the structuring of a historical narrative, but to reject the idea that the properties, ideas, or actions of some particular person were the necessary conditions for the unfolding of events in the world. If Josef Djugashvili had never been born, someone else could have been Stalin.

Despite this injunction, a remarkable amount of the history of science has been written through the medium of biographies of “great” scientists to whose brilliant discoveries we owe our understanding of the material world, and this historical methodology has reinforced the common notion that history is made by outstanding individuals. No respectable historian would claim that if Newton had never been born we would still be ignorant about gravitation. Yet we still refer to the regularities of the behavior of physical bodies as “Newton’s Laws,” the general regularities of simple inheritance as “Mendelism,” and the science of biological evolution as “Darwinism.” Even the famous history of science written by the Marxist J.D. Bernal is a recounting of the discoveries and inventions of individuals.

It would be wrong to say that biography is the sole, or even principal, present pathway into an understanding of the history of science. Certainly since Robert Merton’s founding of modern studies of the sociology of science in his 1938 work on seventeenth-century English science,2 the social milieu in which the problems of science arise and the institutional structure of scientific investigation have been central to our understanding of the history of scientific work. There are, however, occasions on which there are orgies of idolatrous celebrations of the lives of famous men, when the Suetonian ideal of history as biography overwhelms us. For Darwinians, 2009 is such a year.

It is the two hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and because, whether by chance or design, Darwin published his famous work when he was fifty, it is the 150th anniversary of the appearance of On the Origin of Species, It is not clear at what intervals such commemorations might occur. I myself have been a participant in international symposia on the one hundredth anniversary of the appearance of the Origin in 1859 and the one hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s death in 1882, both of which were attended by leading scientists of the time and resulted in commemorative volumes.

Neither of those occasions, however, was marked by the immense outpouring of Darwinalia that has marked the current occasion. On my desk are fifteen works that have just appeared, of which eleven are biographical, including two selections of Darwin’s letters, two books about the Origin, and two books concerned with explicating and commenting on evolutionary biology and its implications; but none deals either with the history of evolutionary thought before Darwin, or in any detail with his contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, the acknowledged independent inventor of the theory of evolution by natural selection, or the socioeconomic milieu in which Darwin and Wallace worked. Beyond these publications there are plans for two dozen commemorative gatherings of scientists, historians, and philosophers, so many indeed that some had to be put off until next year so that busy evolutionists could fit them into their schedules.

Of the books that have appeared this year that are directly related to the history of nineteenth-century evolutionary theory, two are clearly worth attention. One is Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species, which is an excellent short excursion through the origin of Darwin’s book, its argument, its publication, and the controversies it engendered. It ends with an all-too-brief summary of the history of modern evolutionary genetics and the attempts to demonstrate natural selection in action in nature, as well as a quick visit to modern creationism.

These subjects deserve a treatment in extenso while some of the participants or their immediate students are still among the living, perhaps by a collaboration of a sophisticated and knowledgeable historian like Browne with someone in the thick of it. The other work of interest to the reader of the Origin is an annotated text of the first edition, juxtaposing a facsimile of Darwin’s publication with an extensive page-by-page commentary by James Costa. Costa makes use of his experience as a field naturalist and his knowledge of the modern literature of evolutionary biology to illumine many passages in Darwin’s work.

Why do we call the modern theory of organic evolution “Darwinism”? Charles Darwin certainly did not invent the idea of evolution, that is, of the continuous change in time of the state of some system as a fundamental property of that system, or even the idea that a process of evolution had occurred in the history of life. The study of the evolution of the cosmos itself was founded in Kant’s Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science in 1786 and Laplace’s nebular hypothesis of 1796. Sadi Carnot’s second law of thermodynamics, the principle that over time all differences in energy between bits and pieces of the universe decrease, was published in 1824. The idea that the various geological formations observed on earth were not the result of a unique catastrophe or Great Flood, but the consequence of repeated and continual geological processes still going on at present, was postulated before the turn of the nineteenth century by James Hutton and long since accepted by 1859.

By the time of the appearance of the Origin, the physical sciences had become thoroughly evolutionary. Living beings were not seen as an exception. In 1769, Diderot had his dreaming philosopher d’Alembert wonder what races of animals had preceded us and what sorts would follow. He provided the motto of evolutionism as a worldview: “Everything changes, everything passes. Only the totality remains.” Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, in his epic The Temple of Nature of 1803, invokes his Muse to tell “how rose from elemental strife/Organic forms, and kindled into life,” and the Muse completes the evolutionary story by telling him that even “imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,/…Arose from rudiments of form and sense.” By the younger Darwin’s time, the idea of organic evolution had become a common currency of intellectual life. Two years before the publication of the Origin, Herbert Spencer argued for a belief in organic evolution on the basis of the agreed-upon universality of evolutionary processes:

It is now universally admitted by philologists that languages, instead of being artificially or supernaturally formed, have been developed. And the histories of religion, of philosophy, of science, of the fine arts, of the industrial arts, show that these have passed through stages…. If, then, the recognition of evolution as the law of many diverse orders of phenomena has been spreading, may we not say that…evolution will presently be recognized as the law of the phenomena we are considering?

If Darwin (and Wallace) did not invent the idea of evolution or its application to the history of life, then at least it might be claimed that they invented a natural historical theory of the cause of that evolution. But they were not the first to do so. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, in a succession of works between 1801 and 1809, provided a biological theory of adaptive organic evolution based on the supposed inheritance of changes acquired by organisms in the course of their individual lives. The example often cited is the roughly six-foot increase in the length of giraffes’ necks from their ancient origin as deer-like animals. If giraffes in any generation stretched their necks, even slightly, to feed on leaves higher up in trees, and if that slight increase in length were passed down to their offspring, then over many generations the cumulative effect would be the extraordinary shape of the modern giraffe.

Lest the sophisticated readers of TheNew York Review of Books regard this as a hopelessly outmoded nineteenth-century view of biology, it should be pointed out that until about fifteen years ago a neo-Lamarckian institution affiliated with the University of Paris, the Laboratoire d’Évolution des Êtres Organisés, carried out scholarly research on evolution that took seriously the possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

The Darwin-Wallace explanation of evolution, the theory of natural selection, is based on three principles:

1) Individuals in a population differ from each other in the form of particular characteristics (the principle of variation).

2) Offspring resemble their parents more than they resemble unrelated individuals (the principle of heritability).

3) The resources necessary for life and reproduction are limited. Individuals with different characteristics differ in their ability to acquire those resources and thus to survive and leave offspring in the next generations (the principle of natural selection).

It seems amazing that two naturalists could independently arrive at the same articulated theory of evolution from a consideration of the characteristics of some species of organisms in nature, their geographic distribution, and their similarities to other species. This amazement becomes considerably tempered, however, when one considers the social consciousness and economic milieu in which the theory arose, a milieu marked by the rise of competitive industrial capitalism in which individuals rose in the social hierarchy based, presumably, on their greater entrepreneurial fitness.

Darwin’s maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, started life as a potter’s apprentice and rose to be a member of the circle of new Mid- land industrial magnates along with James Watt, James Keir, and Matthew Boulton. While the nineteenth-century theory that some rose and some fell in society depending on their personal strengths and weaknesses is often referred to as “social Darwinism,” we would be much more in agreement with historical causation were we to call Darwinism “Biological Competitive Capitalism.” The perceived structure of the competitive economy provided the metaphors on which evolutionary theory was built.

One can hardly imagine anything that would have better justified the established social and economic theories of the Industrial Revolution than the claim that our very biological natures are examples of basic laws of political economy. How else are we to explain the immediate and continued commercial success of Darwin’s books? The entire first edition of 1,250 copies of the Origin was immediately snapped up by booksellers. The expectation of public interest is revealed by the fact that a circulating library took five hundred copies.3 The sixth edition, only thirteen years later, sold 11,000 copies. One cannot understand the origin and the immediate success of the Origin outside of the social and economic setting in which it was conceived, nor have historians of science ignored the question. The pages of the Journal of the History of Biology have certainly not been devoid of papers on the subject. Yet what we have been provided with in 2009 is biography and annotations on the Origin, Perhaps it is time for a socioeconomic analysis of our own preoccupations.

  1. 1

    Le nez de Cléopâtre, s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé,” See Pensées (Paris: Gallimard, 1977), fragment 392, p. 243.

  2. 2

    Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England (H. Fertig, 1938).

  3. 3

    I am indebted to Janet Browne for telling me about the circulating library.

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