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Lecture 26

The Age of Ideologies (4): Charles Darwin and Evolutionary Theory

We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to foretell that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups within each class, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species. As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Cambrian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection.

No one doubts that CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882) played a major role in the development of modern science. Thanks to the controversial nature of his theories, Darwin has also played a distinctive role in the growth of modern attitudes and values. But, more than any other scientist, the name of Charles Darwin remains surrounded in controversy. For every biologist who hails him as the founder of modern evolutionary theory, there is an anti-Darwinian who claims that Darwin led modern thought up a blind alley that led directly to the undermining of the traditional values of western civilization. 

Darwin has become an almost mythological figure in the emergence of modern culture. His achievements are shot through with layers of interpretation and misinterpretation designed to influence our judgment of what he did. Even in his own life -- mid-Victorian boom time -- Charles Darwin had become a symbol used by different people for different purposes. To the rationalist, he epitomized the scientist's ability to penetrate areas of knowledge once obscured by religious dogma. For liberals, Darwinism was a conceptual guarantee that things would improve if only nature and society were left develop on their own, and in that respect, Darwinism served as a factor in legitimizing political and economic liberalism.

Extremists on both sides of the debate over The Origin of Species (1859) see it as a battle in the ongoing war between science and religion. Yet, the dust of battle settled remarkably quickly. When Darwin died in 1882 at the ages 73, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, a national hero of scientific discovery. There is little doubt that the acceptance of Darwin as a national hero signified a major transformation of Victorian culture. A truce must have been declared in the battle between science and religion or perhaps evolutionism was uncoupled from its materialist implications. Evolution had, in fact, become a symbol of the Victorians' faith in their own ability to participate in the inevitable ascent of the universe toward perfection.

Many scientists believe that his theory of evolution by natural selection has been triumphantly vindicated, thus providing a basis for the modern attempt to understand the development of life on earth. Historians of science have mounted an unprecedented campaign to reconstruct the process by which Darwin made his discovery. This campaign has developed to such a degree that today it is proper to speak of a "Darwin industry." This is the result of an assumption which specifies that natural selection marks a turning point in the overall development of modern science. But even within this industry, there are biologists who think Darwin's ideas were misguided. They argue that Darwinian evolutionary theory needs to be modified or even abandoned if modern science is to advance at all.

It is clear, then, that even from the perspective of the historian of science, an evaluation of Darwin's achievements requires a a value judgment to be made right from the very start. Outside the world of science, Darwin's name continues to be used as a symbol for religious, philosophical and ideological perspectives. Those who hail Darwin as a hero of discovery are really using him to make point about the value of science, rationalism and expertise in the modern world. Darwinian opponents, on the other hand, are a diverse lot. For fundamentalist religious thinkers, Darwinism still represents the attempt of scientists to turn their backs on God and the word of God. To be sure, anti-Darwinism has also turned into industry. A massive campaign exists to discredit the materialist implications of evolutionary theory. The trial of John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee in July 1925 -- the famous Scopes Monkey Trial -- is one example. It is a distant example, however. Across the Bible Belt of America, fundamentalists still lobby to have the name of Darwin removed from the vocabulary of the high school and college biology class.

All the debates surrounding Darwin point to one thing -- ordinary people do not understand the basic principles upon which Darwinian theory is based. Still other people fear that, thanks to Darwin, we shall lose our respect for creativity and status as moral beings. Their solution is not to replace natural selection with divine creation but with some more purposeful evolutionary process.

Darwinism has always had political implications. The political left still uses the expression "social Darwinism" as a label for any effort to claim that human nature is determined by our biological nature. Conservatives argue that the existing state of society is natural because it reflects our biological character. Socialists, meanwhile, evoke the memory of Darwin and the "struggle for existence" to show that even science can be shaped by its political environment. Darwin, they claim, merely projected the capitalist model of a competitive society onto nature. Meanwhile, conservatives seized the Darwinian model to claim that their values are truly natural.

The whole point I suppose I'm trying to make is this: the widely differing images of his theory have tended to color our interpretation of Charles Darwin the man. And it is impossible to present a value-free account of a man whose name has come so much to be used as ideological symbol.

The Darwin industry has uncovered and is busy publishing a vast collection of his notebooks and correspondence. The volume of material has actually prevented scholars from attempting a comprehensive account of his life. Overall, the biography of such a creative thinker presents rather severe problems. We need to look at the evidence in order to create a plausible account of how the person gained their insights. Psychologically, we must make the attempt to "get under this skin" of Charles Darwin. We must try to uncover the hidden processes of thought. This entails an understanding of how a man like Darwin interacted with his social and cultural environment. The massive volumes of Darwin's papers now help us to answer important questions and to fill in the gaps. For instance, we can see how his family help to support him, or how his wife served as a sounding board for his ideas. We can also detect how Darwin built up a network of scientific correspondents which supplied him with necessary information.

The fact that Darwin was a scientist whose theory had implications outside the realm of biology means that an assessment of his achievements presents special problems. In the popular mind, scientists make objective studies of nature and come up with actual knowledge. This knowledge, then becomes a permanent contribution to human knowledge itself. Unlike the artist, the scientist produces something whose value is unquestionable.

There is a very controversial issue lying at the heart of Darwin's creation of the theory of natural selection. Critics have argued that the greatest fault of most biographies of Darwin is that they take for granted an orthodox view of the scientist as someone who gains inspiration solely from the factual studies in which he is engaged. For some biographers, Darwin was essentially a biologist. The story of his discovery is the story of those lines of biological investigation which led him to see how the struggle for existence could influence genetic variability by natural selection. Darwin's non-scientific life provided merely the necessary support for his work. In other words, Darwin's "life" could not influence his work any way. Once published in 1859 and after, the theory of evolution by natural selection obviously affected Victorian culture because it undermined religion. The point here is perhaps this: scientific facts can indeed admit of cultural spinoffs. However, culture cannot determine the direction of scientific inquiry.

Historians who criticize this image of science use Darwin as a classic example of how science can be influenced by external factors. They argue that it is simply too much a coincidence that a theory portraying nature as a scene of constant struggle was created in the heyday of Victorian laissez-faire capitalism. Darwin was fully in touch with the social philosophy of his own time. He gained crucial insights from the theory of population growth as presented by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). He projected the competitive ethos of capitalism onto nature and then bent all his observations to fit the pattern. Darwin did not discover natural selection -- he invented it and then sold it to a world that was willing to see its values provided with a natural justification. In other words, when scientists portray Darwin as an objective researcher, they are merely concealing the ideological foundations of science itself. When carried to their extremes, the approach of the scientists and their opponents threaten Darwin's status as a creative thinker. Darwin is reduced to either (1) a recorder of facts, or, (2) nothing more than a reflection of the ideological concerns of his own time. What, in the end, was the impact of Darwin's theory upon Victorian science and thought? What is its legacy to the modern world? The answer depends on our attitude toward the theory of natural selection itself.

Although evolutionary theory was proposed by men other than Darwin in the 19th century, they are frequently dismissed as perverse branches leading away from the main line, a line specifically identified as Darwinian. It is only natural to assume that the theory of natural selection played a major role in shaping the transition from creationism to social Darwinism in the late 19th century. Even critics of Darwin accept this view. They dismiss Darwinism as a confidence trick imposed on the profession by ideological pressure in the age of industrial capitalism. Some cultural historians blame The Origin of Species for a ushering in an age of materialism and the worship of brute force, thus paving the way for the horrors of the 20th century.

The claim that the Darwinian Revolution in science helped to precipitate a major cultural transition also seems to reinforce the view that Darwin was merely a reflection of current ideology. The point behind this view is this: love or hate Darwin, there is no doubt he helped to overturn the Christian world view. But modern historical research   shows that the impact of Darwin's theory on science and culture was a good deal more complex.

There are many varieties of 19th century evolutionism, none of which correspond to modern Darwinism. The metaphorical war between science and religion has proved to be misleading. So, the image of a Darwinian Revolution is a myth created by modern Darwinists, a myth which has gone largely unchallenged. The fact is that Darwinian theory remained controversial throughout the last half of 19th century. Darwin's theory was really an anomaly that his contemporaries were unable to come to grips with.

Darwin was ahead of his time -- his more radical proposals were taken seriously only after biology had been transformed by the genetics of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884). It is important for us to be clear about the revolutionary nature of Darwin's theories as they are understood by the modern biologist. The essence of natural selection is Darwin's suggestion that evolution is guided solely by the interaction between the population and its environment. The more or less random variation of animals and mankind forms the raw material upon which natural selection works. Natural selection involves the survival and reproduction of those species which have inherited a variation which gives them an edge over others in coping with the environment. The better adapted individuals survive and breed more readily. Over a long period the adaptive features spread throughout the whole population and the average character of the species changes. The crucial assumption is that the individual variation upon which natural selection works is random. In other words, there is no force that compels any species to progress along the preordained hierarchy of complexity -- there is no evolutionary ladder that all species must ascend. Evolution, then, is an open-ended process -- there is no single goal.

With such a model of evolution, it is impossible to pick out one modern species -- like the human race -- and say that it is the goal toward which the whole process has been working. It is precisely this open-ended and non-progressive aspect that Darwin's opponents have found unacceptable. 19th century Darwinians paid lip service to the idea of natural selection but they preferred to believe that evolution was guided toward the progress of mankind. The real source of opposition to Darwin then, was the objection to the idea that evolution could be an open-ended trial and error process. Opponents wanted evolution directed toward a future goal. In this context, it is possible to argue that what we now perceive to be the core of Darwinism was not taken up by his contemporaries.

So, we have encountered two interpretations of Darwin. Either Darwin converted the world to evolutionism because the arguments in The Origin of Species were convincing or, he succeeded because he merely reflected the ideological concerns of his own day. There are really two Darwinisms: the Darwinism appropriate for the Victorian era and the Darwinism appropriate for the 20th century. We need to ask a series of fundamentally new questions. This is especially so in regard to Darwin's interaction with his contemporaries. To what extent had 19th century science and culture begun to move toward the evolutionary viewpoint of The Origin of Species? To what extent did Darwin's skill at presenting his theory to a scientific and public audience rest upon his willingness to adapt his language and metaphors to the values of his own time? Why did Darwin's name become a symbol for progressionist evolution if modern biologists regard his theory as undermining the whole logic of progress?

A meaningful life of Charles Darwin should attempt to answer some of the questions we have raised here. We cannot describe the discovery and publication of his theories in a vacuum as though its value were little more than self-evident. Darwin's work -- the work of anyone -- can only be understood in the context of the historical period in which it is developed.

When Darwin died in 1882 the theory of natural selection was almost universally accepted by scientists. When it became absorbed into the ideology of progress, the general idea of evolution became one of the dominant themes of late Victorian thought. Darwin had become a cultural symbol, the figurehead of a major intellectual development. But the late 19th century saw an eclipse of Darwinism -- many scientists set themselves up in opposition to the theory of natural selection. The Victorians had some problems with natural selection because they could not accept the idea of undirected evolution. The balance was tipped in favor of exploring the general concept of evolution but most of Darwin's followers decided that there had to be something more purposeful than natural selection in control.

The 20th century has perhaps become pessimistic. With this in mind, the open-ended nature of natural selection has become easier to embrace. To blame the loss of our own religious faith on Darwin is too harsh. After all, like most of his contemporaries, Darwin struggled to see a cosmic purpose in evolution that would preserve at least some traditional values. As an event in intellectual history, Darwin and the Darwinian revolution belongs firmly in the 19th century. The problems that beset our own times are products of the circumstances that led western civilization to reject the faith in progress -- the ideology of progress -- that Darwin did so much to create. What, then, should we take Darwinism to mean?

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