Bowler, Charles Darwin
Peter Bowler’s study Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence intends to give an accurate portrait of the ideas of the nineteenth-century naturalist within their historical context, while also correcting certain misconceptions and myths. To a certain extent, Bowler is writing a recognizable type of work — a history of science that emphasizes twentieth century notions about the history of science, namely that new ideas do not emerge from nowhere and are immediately accepted neither by the scientific community nor by the general public. If Bowler’s title sounds like this is a straightforward biography of Darwin, it is worth noting that his real purpose is to place Darwin in a greater context, whereby his ideas seem less radical — and more related to pre-existing schools of thought — than they have frequently been portrayed. The only radicalism, perhaps, is the way in which Darwin’s theory ultimately undercuts complacent Victorian notions about progress.
The chief misconception that Bowler approaches in this biography is that Darwin was the first, or only, person to propose a theory of evolution. In point of fact, Darwin’s theory emerged after a long process of speculation about various facts that had become unavoidable but remained unaccountable according to existing scientific paradigms (about geology especially). Bowler gives a rather useful summary of the basic objections to seeing Darwin as some sort of lone genius who emerged with his idea wholly devoid of historical context; as Bowler points out, Darwin’s specific intellectual context even included (for fans of his theory) a nod in the direction of heredity, by way of his own grandfather:
â€¦[O]pponents of Darwinism have always complained about the one-sidedness of the assumption that Darwin’s was the first real theory of evolution. In 1879 the novelist Samuel Butler, who had conceived a violent distaste for the theory of natural selection, published his Evolution, Old and New to argue that Darwin was by no means the first to advance a theory of evolution. Butler pointed out that a number of earlier naturalists had openly suggested natural processes of organic change. These included the French biologists Georges Buffon and J.B. Lamarck and Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, whose Zoonomia of 1774-6 had contained a chapter on transmutation. In 1844 the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (actually by the Edinburgh writer Robert Chambers) had generated a public outcry with its suggestion that mankind had emerged from the lower animals. Writers more sympathetic to Darwin have always conceded that some earlier statements on evolution were made, but argue that no pre-Darwinian naturalist was able to generate widespread support for the idea. (Bowler 18)
What is important to note about these earlier theorists — Buffon, Lamarck, Erasmus Darwin, and Robert Chambers — is that they were indeed responding to facts that seemed to demand some sort of explanation in the face of the existing paradigm. For example, the existing paradigm held that species were immutable: even Darwin himself held this idea at the time he boarded the Beagle. The extent to which this now-superseded scientific notion was regarded as gospel by the scientists of Darwin’s time (including Darwin himself) is revealed in a rather shocking letter that Bowler quotes. The letter was written by Darwin to a colleague, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, in 1844: in it, Darwin claims
I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a ‘tendency of progression’ ‘adaptation from the slow willing of animals’ & c — but the conclusions I am led to are not widely different from his — though the means of change are wholly so — I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends. (Bowler 96-7)
The rhetorical shock of this letter should make it clear that Darwin did not feel it was easy to challenge the existing scientific orthodoxy — he compares his belief that species are “not immutable” to “confessing a murder” — but it is also worth noting that evolutionary ideas were also in some disrepute because the version that had been advanced by the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was, by Darwin’s time, largely regarded as “nonsense.” It is important to note, however, that Lamarck believed in evolution: the only disagreement between Darwin and Lamarck was therefore about the mechanism whereby evolution occurred. Bowler acknowledges this crucial deep influence in his account of Lamarck:
It was Lamarck who sketched in the outlines of an evolutionary compromise that would deeply influence the young Darwin. Lamarck suggested that instincts are, in effect, learned habits that have been followed for so long that they have been converted into hereditary instincts. The inheritance of acquired characters works for mental functions as well as physical structures such as the giraffe’s neck. (Bowler 182)
Lamarck believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics: in his view, the giraffe must have evolved from an animal with a much shorter neck that was perpetually straining to reach leaves, and the “slow willing” that Darwin refers to would indicate that over time these animals basically acquired their long neck through effort.
Darwin by contrast had developed his notion of how the mechanism of evolution worked as early as the tentative 1844 letter to Hooker quoted above, even if the full exposition would still wait another fifteen years until the publiciation of On The Origin Of Species. Darwin’s proposed mechanism was “natural selection”: this is the notion that in large populations of animals variations exist, and the competition for resources among those populations inevitably means that some variations are more successful than others at surviving and reproducing. The neck of the giraffe is no longer a Lamarckian story about the willpower of earlier proto-giraffes stretching to reach tasty foliage on the highest branches — natural selection instead turns this into a story about an extremely large population of proto-giraffes in which variation in neck length occurs, and a competition for resources in which the ability to reach the tasty foliage on the highest branches becomes the crucial element for survival and reproduction. Thus over the course of generations, nature ends up selecting the longer-necked animals as better adapted to environment, these reproduce more successfully, and over time the animal develops a giraffe’s neck. What is crucial to note is that Darwin arrived at this conclusion through a combination of empirical evidence obtained during his travels on the Beagle, and a synthesis of existing scientific work that had (recently at the time of his theorizing) challenged the existing scientific orthodoxy.
The account of Darwin’s empirical evidence is, at this point, extremely familiar. Even Bowler concedes that “the story of how his discovery of the different finches inhabiting the Galapagos islands convinced him of the reality of transmutation has been told over and over again” (Bowler 49). The simple answer here was that Darwin was able to discover — and confirm, with the help of more skilled taxonomists in Britain examining the various specimens Darwin had collected — that there were different species on different islands in the Galapagos in which the differences were relatively minute. Yet these minute differences were clearly fine-tuned to adapt to the minute differences in environmental conditions on the separate tiny islands. The Galapagos were important to Darwin because, to some extent, an isolated archipelago provided a sort of natural laboratory: it is easy to assume that virtually all life on these remote islands had arrived there by a series of unlikely accidents in which organisms (like the famous tortoises of the archipelago) had traveled from the mainland and reproduced and colonized the islands. Yet this difficulty in traveling from the continent to the islands, and also from island to island, led to noticeable differences in the populations of each islands. Darwin noted that the beaks of the finches on individual islands seemed — somewhat implausibly by the scientific theories of the time — to be precisely tailored to the available food sources on whichever island housed that species. As Bowler notes, this led him ultimately to the conclusion suggested by the idea of natural selection: “it was Darwin alone who decided that the resemblances between the species he had discovered in the Galapagos and in South America were so close they must imply community of descent.” (Bowler 78). In other words, each of the individual species of finch must have had a common ancestor — a proto-finch that had arrived on the archipelago from the mainland, presumably — in which the sparse available food sources became the environmental factors that selected for characteristics in the finch, eventually altering the finches over time into divergent species. This, in essence, was Darwin’s account of the mechanism whereby evolution occurred — the “simple way” referred to in the 1844 letter to Hooker — and the evidence that had persuaded him of it.
It is crucial to note, however, that Darwin’s arrival at this conclusion was not only difficult — although the 1844 letter to Hooker (which compares it to confessing a murder) demonstrates he had arrived at it fifteen years before the publication of Origin in 1859 — but also, as Bowler makes great effort to demonstate, achieved in response to other science of the time, most particularly geology. In the first half of the nineteenth century, geologists had been particularly active in developing a body of knowledge that required some sort of interpretation: as Bowler notes, “In the course of the half-century from 1800 to 1850, the modern outline of the fossil record had been put together, revealing the ascent of life from primitive fish and invertebrates through the Age of Reptiles to the Age of Mammals and the world of today.” (Bowler 19). Beyond this expansion of knowledge, though, at the time of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, geology itself was in the midst of a paradigm shift between two rival views of the earth: catastrophism, which was the notion that the earth’s surface was the result of a single catastrophic event (like a flood) which left mountains and valleys and so forth in its wake, and the more-recently proposed uniformitarianism. The uniformitarian view had been put forth by the English geologist Charles Lyell, who suggested that the earth’s surface was the result of a much longer and slower process of erosions, earthquakes, glaciation, and other smaller events that eventually resulted in the observable variations of geological features. Bowler summarizes thus Darwin’s reading of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which advocated the rival uniformitarian view in which all elevations and subsidence’s of the land were due to the accumulated effects of observable causes such as earthquakes and erosionâ€¦.Evidently Lyell’s arguments took some time to convince Darwin but the Concepcion earthquake played a decisive role. (Bowler 61)
In other words, Darwin had to actually witness an earthquake — and see the sort of changes it wrought upon the geographic surface — in order to accept Lyell’s thesis. Because the chief objection to Lyell’s thesis had been the amount of time it would require to create such variations on the earth — the processes described by Lyell would clearly require millions rather than thousands of years, which contradicted the widely-accepted view of the earth’s actual age — once Darwin had accepted Lyell, he had accepted a much longer view of natural history, in which processes could play out over millions rather than thousands of years.
The final point we must consider, though, in terms of how Darwin’s theories played out in the mainstream of Victorian conceptions of science and of history is the notion of progress. Progress was a crucial assumption, as it conformed to the notion that the position of humans on earth was special. Yet in terms of evolutionary thinking, progress is more readily associated with the earlier work of Lamarck and Robert Chambers, both of whom suggested humans had emerged as a form of biological progress from lower forms of animals. Natural selection — despite the uses to which it would be put by so-called “Social Darwinists” — actually offers no such support for the idea of progress. Indeed Bowler indicates Darwin’s own “need to see evolution as a branching tree rather than a ladder of progress” (Bowler 57). The Galapagos finches do not imply a straining upwards toward some kind of ideal finch — instead they indicate a number of different responses to different conditions, and a sort of scattering of the idea of progress.
Bowler’s work thus corrects misinterpretations of Darwin and situates him completely within his historical context. Darwin is seen as having emerged from earlier evolutionary thinking — like that of Lamarck and Robert Chambers — with a crucial difference in terms of the mechanism whereby it occurred. Darwin’s proposed mechanism emerged from his own observations of natural phenomena — not only the finches of the Galapagos, but the Concepcion earthquake which persuaded him of the plausibility of Lyell’s uniformitarian view of geology. By accepting Lyell, Darwin accepted the possibility of a process that took millions of years — something that previous evolutionists like Lamarck (who seemed to suggest that a giraffe could evolve in the amount of time that has been required for human beings to take a single dog species and artificially select its features to create dogs as radically different as an Irish Wolfhound and a Pomeranian) had not considered. But in discarding the shorter time frame of Lamarck and Chambers, Darwin also discarded (crucially) the idea of progress: natural selection instead becomes a long-term, impersonal, non-goal-oriented, and largely random process whereby small variations and mutations could produce different species. It was the idea of progress that Darwin’s Victorian contemporaries found most challenging, and the general result was a misinterpretation of the fundamental nature of his theory of natural selection in order to preserve a belief in progress. In reality, Darwin believed in no such thing.
Bowler, Peter. Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.
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