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It was 150 years ago tomorrow

Sgt Darwin.png… Sergeant Pepper… oops, sorry, wrong theme.

150 years ago tomorrow, people suddenly became smart, observant and able to understand the world. Right? Right?

Well, look, I have enormous respect for Darwin, and I think the Origin is a cool and interesting book, but really, no. People were working on understanding the world before Darwin, and in fact Darwin saw what he was doing as very much in the same mould as his scientific mentors and heroes. His ideas have turned out to be, if not quite right, then productive and useful in the progress of science, but measured carefully, Darwin’s theories and ours are not really the same, if you are thinking of the content.

Let us by all means celebrate the man and his achievements. But let us not make him into a demigod, either (nor any scientific hero – if Pasteur discarded 90% of his data, and he did, that doesn’t belittle his contributions to science, and if Mendel made his data fit his model, and he probably didn’t but might have, that doesn’t change one whit the facts of genetics as we now understand them). Darwin did not invent the ball point pen, antibiotics, the iPhone (all hail the Prophet Jobs!), or BLTs, either. What he did is what he did, and more power to him.

What we need to know is that Darwin founded not a theory, or even a set of doctrines, but instead he is the focal point of a series of traditions that converged in his ideas and writings, and which have derived from him. He did not invent biogeography; de Candolle is a good candidate for that. He did not invent natural selection, although he was perhaps the first to think of it as an agent for evolutionary change (excepting Patrick Mathew, who buried his light under a naval architectural bushel). He did not invent genetics (although the term gene comes from his notion of a pangene, and he probably set many people thinking about heredity in a serious manner). He did not give us a mathematical theory; that was William Castle, JBS Haldane, RA Fisher and Sewall Wright, among others to this day.

The Origin acted as a seed in a supersaturated cultural solution. The solution was already set to crystalise, and he came along and made evolution, phylogeny, heredity, dispersal, and other topics respectable. So far from being a “class traitor” as Desmond and Moore make him out to be, Darwin’s bourgeois respectability is what made him effective as a motivator of evolutionary biology, where evolution had previously been seen as politics in naturalists’ dress. He was in many ways more prescient than those who followed him. But had he not lived, had he drowned on the Beagle voyage, as Peter Bowler is presently writing a what-if history, would we have had evolution anyway? Almost certainly. If Owen hadn’t shaken off the shackles of the clergy who ran Cambridge, very likely others would have. But the tenor of the field would have been somewhat different. Here’s how I think it would have played out, based on a discussion with Bowler about his work. Anything original is his.

Common descent/phylogeny might not have developed as early. Heinrich Bronn had given an “evolutionary tree” in 1858, but his mechanism was no different to Buffon’s – the degeneration of types from an original stock; basically evolution was localised and played out on existing potentialities.

Natural selection might not have been seen to be a mechanism of evolution for another fifty years, and when it was, it would not have been in terms of an analogy with artificial selection. Wallace would have been “rediscovered” the way Mendel was, without being all that influential directly. Sexual selection might not have popped up until the mid-20th century or so.

There would have been a much stronger emphasis on developmental biology, coming out of von Baer’s work and later experimental developmental biology in Germany. Evo-devo would have been the first state of the field. Would this have had more experimental support? I doubt it. People tried very hard to get experimental evidence before the synthesis, but were hampered by a set of questions that could not be answered within the existing techniques. The same thing would have been true, I think of developmental biology.

Lamarckism, by which I mean the progressivist view of evolution, not the “acquired inheritance” version that has little to do directly with Lamarck and anyway is set up as a contrast with Weismann not Darwin, would have played an even greater role in people’s thinking than it did. It may still be with us now – we would be trying to figure out how progress occurs out of necessity, rather than it being the rather odd view of people like Conway Morris.

One thing that I seriously doubt, under this scenario, is that it would be seen as a challenge to religion. The reason why Darwin was seen as a modern Epicurus is because he allowed for a creative role for chance. This is a red rag to a bull to theists. Chance is always seen by them as the elimination of order, not as a way to generate it. By the time people discovered that it could be, most likely out of physics (if Boltzmann was not influenced by Darwin, would we still have thermodynamics in the same way? Another what-if), the threat would be seen as coming from that quarter and not evolution.

So, no creationism. Probably no great angst about teleology from the Christian churches – one thing that people were seriously threatened by was the Darwinian idea that teleology or purpose was not needed any more to explain purposiveness in “organised beings”, i.e., living things. Again, that probably would have come out of physics.

And there still would have been the Holocaust, unless historical contingency prevented antisemitism from taking political power in Europe, which I doubt. There still would have been a communist movement – that was well advanced before Darwin came along.

It’s fun to speculate on a world without Darwin, but since there was a Darwin and he did write the Origin, let us celebrate him, for what he was, and not for what he wasn’t.


  1. Darwin did not invent […] BLTs, either.

    Oh yeah? Explain this one Wilkins!

    Otherwise, very nice essay.

  2. Aaron Clausen Aaron Clausen

    I tend to agree with Gould that while most of the finer detail of Darwin’s theory has either be replaced or at least radically expanded over the last century and a half, what Darwin did accomplish was the formulation of the large-scale structure of evolutionary biology. His accomplishment was giving a framework in which biological research could be directed and new data plugged into.

  3. Having taken some of the standard anti-Whiggish courses in history and philosophy of science, I still don’t have a problem with seeing Darwin as a scientific hero. The rest of your post would stand, but the fact that he wasn’t superhuman and that his work was very contingent on his historical context doesn’t take this away from him. Accepting him as a scientific hero doesn’t oblige us to start thinking that he invented it all and gave people the ability to think.

  4. Mike from Ottawa Mike from Ottawa

    “So, no creationism.”

    Not yet in your timeline. However, at some point the shoe will drop and folk will realize that progressivism in evolution is wrong and then you will get the conflict with such religion as holds that you can see God’s purpose written in nature.

    Your speculation is seems to be built on Darwin’s absence from the evolutionary scene meaning that the element of randomness in variation (within its evolutionary meaning) is also going to be missing. Since the idea that variation is random (i.e. not directed to any long term ends) is true, eventually it and its implications will come out. The the shit hits the fan.

  5. dave souza dave souza

    Thoughtful and interesting. The “seed in a supersaturated cultural crystal” metaphor is splendid, but I think you underzaggerate the significance of Darwin in welding all of his work into a well supported and coherent thesis, and presenting it with the full authority of the eminence in science he had steadily built up from 1836 onwards. He put a lot of time into building his case with a cadre of friends who then took evolution and common descent, though not natural selection, into the mainstream.

    Your speculation about creationism seems wide of the mark: don’t forget the ferocious opposition to ”Vestiges” with its god-ordained progressive evolution. The Fundamentalist–Modernist split would have been a dispute anyway, and a lot of early (1920s) creationist opposition to evolution was to Lamarckian or Spencerian progressivism undermining The Fall, rather than Darwin’s creative role for chance which was at that time commonly set aside in the “eclipse of Darwinism”. What if…

    Having said that, if the politician Bryan hadn’t picked up the idea that German WW1 atrocities arose from “Darwinism” and the youf had to be protected from such wicked thoughts, the U.S. might easily have avoided the blight of ignorance that is still so prevalent. What if… again!

  6. John Wilkins John Wilkins

    I realise that I have failed to give Peter Bowler sufficient credit for this post, so I modified it to do so. This comes out of Bowler’s work in progress, which he gave as a talk in Notre Dame and is writing up. Little of this is original to me. I had a nice dinner with him there, discussing this.

  7. jackd jackd

    I have to agree with dave souza that the rise of Fundamentalism in the USA would still have produced creationism as a doctrine. Further, any version of evolution that includes man’s descent from earlier apes would have been sufficient to inspire the cultural backlash of creationism as a social movement.

    But beyond this nitpick, a fine essay. I’d love to see you and someone else well-versed in the history of evolutionary thought debate Dennett’s “single best idea anyone has ever had” description.

    • John Wilkins John Wilkins

      I don’t see why. Creationism is a particular response to the modernism implicit in the way Darwin’s theory of evolution was used to promote, among other things, secularism and eugenics. If that hadn’t happened, while fundamentalism may have arisen as a form of antimodernism, especially in response to Higher Criticism (which didn’t depend on anything Darwinian), creationism would not have arisen at all. You’d still be dealing with antimodernist fundies, but not, I think, anything remotely like creationism otherwise.

  8. I’m gradually working my way through Jonathan Israel’s mammoth Enlightenment Contested and have just been reminded that arguments about fossils were upsetting believers a long time before Darwin set pen to paper. Assuming that anti-modernist movements would have emerged (or more accurately continued to emerge) after Darwin’s time even in the absence of Darwin, isn’t it likely they would have reacted strongly to any attempt to assert the natural origin of species? Also, isn’t it likely that naturalistic theories of evolution, however derived, would get picked up by secularists and used for ideological purposes? To judge by history, geology and natural selection are problematic for traditional forms of Christianity and useful for radicals and rationalists.

  9. chris y chris y

    Surely, had Darwin not existed, in 1858 Wallace would have written directly to Lyell (who knew of his work) or Hooker directly; they would have arranged for him to publish; Huxley would have contacted him, and off we go.

    The question of how soon somebody would have come up with sexual selection is moot, but I doubt if it would have taken long. Probably Huxley.

    As Prof. Wilkins says, Darwin acted as a seed in a supersaturated cultural solution, but there would have been other seeds. after 150 years, I doubt if we’d notice the difference.

    • John Wilkins John Wilkins

      The fun thing about what-if history is that so long as you can give a plausible account, there is no way to decide who is right or wrong. But given Huxley’s disregard for selectionist accounts, I seriously doubt he’d have come up with sexual selection. Maybe a botanist like Hooker might have.

  10. dave souza dave souza

    Wallace was of course partly inspired by Darwin’s Beagle book: not sure if the mechanics institute had the second (1845) edition, but it seems likely that he saw it with the clues that were added suggesting transmutation.

    Sexual selection seems not to have been much accepted, even being forgotten after Darwin’s death and only revived in the 1970s, according to Vandermassen: Sexual Selection p, 11.

    Once again, though Darwin’s theory presented a harsh materialism going beyond earlier ideas, that aspect was generally rejected until the modern synthesis. The creationist response, and indeed eugenics, were in relation to mendelian ideas, orthogenesis and progressive (Lamarckian) evolution as much or more than to natural selection. The fear of materialism and disruption to a divine social order lay behind the response to Vestiges,. While the early fundamentalists were largely persuaded by the scientific weight behind evolution, and accepted the Schofield bible’s day-age concept, Bryan in particular pushed them to anti-evolution as a new crusade after their success with prohibition. Both “Might makes right” and ideas of biological struggle for existence (de Candolle and Malthus) predated Darwin, and in Germany Darwinism supported Bismarck’s movement against church dominance, after it had already started. Thus German generals might well have cited non-Darwinian evolution to support their aggression, as they arguably did, and Bryan would have reacted to that.

    The modern YEC creation science movement that has had so much effect since 1960 was based on Adventist opposition to old earth science as much as to evolution, though arguably that was seen as a weapon to attack slow evolution as well as a belief of the prophetess Ellen White in itself.

    None of it’s simple, but what if.. stories are always questionable as history. Now, if Bowler’s writing in the style of The Man in the High Castle, that will be a fascinating read….

  11. Ben Breuer Ben Breuer

    Boltzmann?? Since I’m writing on a Viennese guy who knew Boltzmann socially (two postcards, obit kept as cutout), I’m interested in the relationship. Any quick sources?

    Also, on Darwin the human: apart from all the science (ahem!) he seems like a genuinely nice guy, with just minor flaws (if any; given his time). Which makes the attempted character assassinations in some corners (crevasses?) quite displeasing.

  12. Not Darwin Not Darwin


    I’m all about creationism. Darwin’s theories are all bullshit to me.

  13. cc cc

    of course Darwin is not a demigod, HE IS GOD!

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