Evolution Weekend: Darwin: ‘A History of Darwinism’

Darwin the man and Darwin the legacy cannot be easily separated from one another. To understand his expansive work in full context is to know the touch and feel of his everday, and perhaps as importantly understand how the work and life of Darwin affected others, a world. To this end, this section of the Evoltuion Weekend takes a look within to Darwinism, to be further followed in the coming weekend editions with a number of articles by Darwin experts and others from a range of fields covering both subjects of the man and legacy.

Darwin the man and Darwin the legacy cannot be easily separated from one another. To understand his expansive work in full context is to know the touch and feel of his everday, and perhaps as importantly understand how the work and life of Darwin affected others, a world. To this end, this section of the Evoltuion Weekend takes a look within to Darwinism, to be further followed in the coming weekend editions with a number of articles by Darwin experts and others from a range of fields covering both subjects of the man and legacy.

History of Darwinism

Why do we remember Charles Darwin? there are two reasons for celebrating the theory he proposed in his Origin of Species (1859), although they are not connected in the way a modern scientist might expect. Darwin persuaded Victorian scientists (and almost everyone else) to take evolution seriously. He also discovered what we now accept as the best explanation of how evolution works, the mechanism of natural selection. But historians know that the Victorians didn’t welcome evolutionism because they thought Darwin had got the right explanation. In fact the selection theory was rejected by most scientists for 50 years after Darwin published, and only became widely accepted in the early twentieth century.

So why did the Victorians convert to evolutionism, and what happened in the twentieth century to make natural selection seem more plausible? We can explain these developments at two levels, scientific and cultural. there are scientific arguments for evolution that don’t depend on natural selection, and there were major scientific developments in the post-Darwinian period (e.g. the emergence of genetics). But there were also cultural developments that made first evolution and then natural selection acceptable to a wider range of people.

Science before Darwin

Darwin and Genesis

Darwin himself didn’t have to fight a battle over the literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story. The geologists had shown that a recent creation for the earth was implausible long before the Origin was published. High profile public opposition based on a return to Genesis only began in the 1920s, especially in America. It was in 1925 that John Thomas Scopes was put on trial in Dayton, Tennessee for teaching evolution. the “Monkey trial” was ridiculed by scientists and in the liberal press, but marked the start of a Fundamentalist backlash against evolutionism that still continues.

Evolution before Darwin

The basic idea of evolution had been suggested by several writers, including Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and by J. B. Lamarck. Lamarck proposed a mechanism known as the inheritance of acquired characteristics which even Darwin accepted. This supposes that characters acquired by an individual’s efforts (e.g. the weightlifter’s big muscles) are transmitted to the next generation. On this model, the giraffe’s long neck is a product of thousands of generations of animals stretching up to reach the leaves of trees. Lamarckism was widely debated, but the theory was highjacked in the 1820s (just as Darwin was beginning his career) by radicals and materialists, and was rejected by a scientific community still dominated by conservative thinkers.

In 1844 the Edinburgh writer Robert Chambers published his Vestiges of Creation in an attempt to convince the middle classes that progressive evolution is God’s plan of creation unfolding through geological time. He saw social progress as the continuation of natural progress. Chambers’ science was implausible, but Darwin eventually gave his political agenda a more scientific foundation and paved the way for wider acceptance of evolution.

the Origins of Darwinism

Darwin was converted to evolutionism by the results of his voyage on H.M.S. Beagle (1831-36) several years before he discovered the principle of natural selection. there were several key scientific influences on his thinking:


Charles Lyell’s uniformitarian geology suggested that changes on the earth’s surface were slow and gradual, implying gradual changes in species adapting to new environments.

Natural theology

The clergyman William Paley claimed that adaptation revealed design by God, prompting Darwin to focus on adaptation as a natural process.

The Beagle voyage, especially the visit to the Galapagos islands, showed Darwin that isolated populations adapt and evolve in different directions. Several species of finch had evolved on different islands, each with a beak adapted to a different way of feeding. Unless each tiny species was the product of a miracle, populations separated by isolation on the islands had each adapted in their own way. This insight taught Darwin that evolution is a branching process, not the ascent of a ladder of progress toward humanity.

Artificial Selection

The animal breeders showed Darwin that populations exhibit random variation from which useful characters can be selected.

Social Metaphors

Thomas Malthus’ principle of population-expansion convinced him there must be a “struggle for existence” in which the fittest variants survive and breed. Natural selection or the “survival of the fittest” offered a new explanation of how the giraffe got its long neck: in each generation those individuals born with longer than average necks had survived and reproduced. Note the social input here — Malthus’ theory was a product of free-enterprise capitalism, based on the assumption that society consists of competing individuals. Darwin showed that individual struggle will generate progress (or at least better adaptation). If he could put an optimistic spin on Malthus, this idea of “progress through struggle” would be just what the middle classes were looking for in their search for an ideology stressing the benefits of effort and initiative.

Wallace, the Co-discoverer

Darwin was eventually persuaded to publish his idea when Alfred Russel Wallace developed a similar idea independently. But Wallace was twenty years behind Darwin, and his thinking on evolution never overlapped completely with Darwin’s.

Victorian Darwinism

There was much initial opposition to the Origin from religious thinkers and from some scientists. But it was soon overcome, and by the 1870s most educated people accepted evolutionism. Why was there such a rapid change in scientific and public opinion?

Darwinism in Science

In science, the general idea of evolution helped to explain a number of facts, including the relationships between species, their geographical distribution, and the trends shown in the fossil record. But what about natural selection? This was more problematic — most scientists thought it was an interesting new idea but they were not convinced that it was the main driving force. Even T. H. Huxley — known as “Darwin’s bulldog” — didn’t accept natural selection. What modern biologists see as Darwin’s most original insight was ignored by many early evolutionists. the theories they did accept — including Lamarckism — tell us a lot about the wider public reaction to Darwin. Most scientists, like most ordinary people, wanted evolution to be a purposeful, progressive force — mere “trial and error” was not enough.

Evolution and Humankind

Evolution was accepted as part of the ideology of progress. Religious opposition was strong at first, especially over the presumed link between humans and an animal ancestry. Asked to decide whether man was an ape or an angel, the Conservative politician Disraeli declared “I am on the side of the angels.” But this level of opposition soon died down (until revived in the America of the 1920s). Evolution was accepted by the middle classes because it was seen as a progressive driving force in nature and society. The human race, as the highest product of evolution, was now at the cutting edge of progress toward higher things.

Social Darwinism

But what about the “struggle for existence,” with its apparently harsh implications? the Victorians welcomed Darwin’s emphasis on struggle because they saw it as the stimulus to individual and racial progress — and justified racial prejudice and oppression — this is “social Darwinism.” The belief that societies and individual human beings develop in a manner consistent with the principles of biological EVOLUTION proposed by Charles DARWIN, i.e., that survival of the fittest enables only superior people to gain wealth and power. Social Darwinism has been used to justify IMPERIALISM, But it was not just a question of struggle eliminating the unfit. Many scientists and social thinkers were Lamarckians, including Herbert Spencer, the philosopher who coined the term “survival of the fittest” — widely regarded as the greatest social Darwinist. Struggle forced individuals to improve themselves as well as weeding out the few totally unfit to survive, a view that many would see reincarnated in the modern British equivalent to Reaganism, by Margaret Thatcher. The original social Darwinism was as much Lamarckism as Darwinism.

Social Darwinism is an ideology, although Social Darwinists tend to try to make believe it’s scientific.
Social Darwinism was of course the ideology of the Nazis, as well as of laissez-faire capitalism (also called libertarianism – quite a misnomer). Capitalists are quick to reject any comparison of them to the Nazis, saying they are rather opposites because of the difference in one area (“the size of government”), but the fundamental Social Darwinism is common to both: while the Nazis proclaimed the superiority of the Aryan race and actively engaged in the destruction of people deemed inferior – and justified this with pseudo-scientific theories – ideological capitalists have an equally pseudo-scientific concept of “natural rights” which in effect denies the right to life to those who can’t sustain themselves under the rules of their “free market” (similar to the Spencer quote above) – they rely on those pseudo-scientific rationalizations to justify their capitalist system the consequences of which (starvation, exploitation, child labour etc.) have been evident in many countries in the past as well as today. The Nazis’ criteria was race, the capitalists’ criteria is economic productivity – in both cases, survival of the fittest is the name of the game. Unfortunately, Social Darwinist thinking is still all too prevalent in the United States.

Darwinism and Racism

The same point can be made about those who applied Darwinism at the level of race. Natural selection was seen as merely a negative process weeding out the less successful forms produced by a purposeful upward trend. the German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel welcomed the subordination of “less advanced” races, which he saw as relics of earlier stages in the advance from the apes, preserving a child-like mentality. His ideas have been linked to the subsequent emergence of Nazism, and there can be no doubt that evolutionism offered many opportunities for those who wished to see the white race as the pinnacle of progress. Yet Haeckel adopted a Lamarckian view of the origin of races, while the Nazis were uncomfortable with the evolutionary view of human origins precisely because it proclaimed a common origin for all races. they wanted no blood relationship between Aryans and the inferior types. Evolutionism was widely applied to develop an ideology of struggle, but Darwinism as we know it today was only one component of Victorian — and later — right wing values.

Post-Darwinian Developments

The early twentieth century saw a backlash against Victorian Darwinism, although many aspects of the ideology of progress were adapted to the modern scientific and social environment. Developments in science have focussed attention on heredity and brought the theory of natural selection to the fore. But outside science there has been a polarization of views, especially on the question of human nature, some social thinkers welcoming the new Darwinism while others reject it.

Evolution without Darwin

The most extreme reaction against Darwinism is the Fundamentalist return to the Genesis creation story. But some evolutionists reject the Victorian emphasis on struggle. Many early twentieth-century thinkers insisted that the Victorians had been blinded by the ideology of competition. Nature was not dominated by struggle, and progressed by developing increasing levels of cooperation. the author Samuel Butler dismissed Darwinsm as a “nightmare of waste and death,” while the playwrite Bernard Shaw wrote that if the selection theory were true “only fools and rascals could bear to live.” their revulsion is shared by many modern opponents of the selection theory who find its emphasis on trial and error impossible to square with the development of purposeful structures. Butler and Shaw both saw Lamarckism as the most plausible alternative — but in the 1920s Lamarckism was eliminated from science by modern genetics.

the Rise of Genetics

Darwin’s theory was surprisingly modern except in his ideas about variation and heredity. the notion of the unit gene was popularized soon after 1900 and showed that characters are inherited as undiluted units. Lamarckism was discredited because the genes cannot be influenced by the body carrying them. After some controversy, it was realized that genetic mutation provided a new explanation of the random variation that Darwin saw in every population. With Lamarckism gone, the genetical theory of natural selection emerged in the 1930s and 40s, explaining adaptive evolution in terms of the changing genetic composition of populations. Many biologists now regard the synthesis of Darwinism and genetics as the only plausible explanation of evolution.

Genetic Determinism

The development of genetics coincided with a strongly articulated social policy based on the view that heredity determines human characters. In the early twentieth century, many countries (not just Nazi Germany) had policies to restrict the breeding of the “unfit,” often by compulsory sterilization. Artificial selection replaced natural selection in the human population — the social policy known as eugenics. But who decides which characters are desirable? After the brutal ravages enacted by the Nazi regime was beaten back, eugenics went underground, but our modern fascination with genes as the determinants of human characters may be reintroducing itself to the mainstream through the back door.

The most controversial aspect of modern Darwinism links the genetic determination of human character to natural selection as the explanation of behavioural instincts. Richard Dawkins and others insist that natural selection explains not only the devleopment of animals species, but also the development of the human mind. Sociobiology, based on what Dawkins calls the “selfish gene”, accounts for animal behaviour in terms of genetically programmed instincts shaped by natural selection. Many Darwinians insist that this programme can be applied to human behaviour: we are what our genes determine us to be. Most social scientists resist this, arguing that the human brain (admittedly developed by evolution) has acquired a capacity to learn from experience so strong that it overrides all but the most basic biological instincts. Unlike the nineteenth-century version, modern “social Darwinism” really is based on Darwinian natural selection, coupled with a strong (but highly controversial) faith in the power of the genes to determine human nature.

Peter J. Bowler is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the Queen’s University of Belfast.

Author: Peter J. Bowler

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