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Marek Kohn

The Evolution of a Theory

Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin
By Peter J Bowler (University of Chicago Press 336pp 19.50)

What if a young Charles Darwin, stricken with seasickness, had been washed over the side of HMS Beagle on a dark and stormy night in 1832? Peter Bowler's dramatic opening paragraph, complete with a nod and wink to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, sets a scene that would have averted the far higher drama that ensued from the publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species. How would biological science's role in history have differed?

By 1900, Bowler argues, scientifically informed opinion would have absorbed the idea that living forms evolve, without recognising that this happens through natural selection. In fact, as Bowler has demonstrated in his previous work on the history of evolutionary thought, that is pretty much what did happen. Although Darwin's theory of natural selection transformed the understanding of life by turning all eyes to evolution, the subsequent decades saw a successful effort to sideline it in favour of less disturbing candidates for mechanisms of change. People were ready to accept the idea of evolutionary transformation as long as it seemed orderly, progressive and purposeful. Lamarckian ideas, suggesting that individuals could improve themselves through their own striving and then pass on these improvements to their offspring, were a popular alternative. Other theories proposed that living forms were shaped by inner laws that guided change in beneficial directions. Arguments such as these did not confront respectable men with undignified implications about their relationship to monkeys, or threaten to make the universe look meaningless. By the century's end Darwinism was in eclipse, as the biologist Julian Huxley later put it, but the cracks it had made in the foundations of existential belief were beyond repair.

Bowler argues that without Darwin the foundations would have remained undamaged: nobody else would have succeeded in advancing a sufficiently powerful theory of natural selection and establishing it before other thinkers had set different agendas. Although several people glimpsed the principle of natural selection, none grasped or developed it as Darwin did. Patrick Matthew buried it in an appendix to a book about supplying timber for naval shipbuilding; Herbert Spencer, an immensely influential thinker of the day, grasped the idea but found little use for it because it failed to support his vision of progress. The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had the epiphany while seized by fever in a hut on an island in the East Indies, but by then Darwin was more than twenty years ahead of him, and comfortably established in a country house near London. Wallace might have done more with it than Bowler allows. Happy to be regarded as 'more Darwinian than Darwin himself', Wallace remained a champion of selection while Darwin downplayed its significance in the face of criticism. But Bowler is surely right that Wallace was too marginal a character to have established such a radical idea. If natural selection had been left in his hands, it would have been regarded as just another of his many eccentricities. However, Bowler's argument does imply that Wallace's insight was crucial, since it jolted Darwin into getting natural selection onto the table while there was still space for it.

An idea so simple and profound would inevitably have gained its place in the science of life sooner or later. In Bowler's richly stimulating counterfactual history this happens at the same time at which it occurred in real life - between the world wars. The difference is that the biology into which it becomes integrated is more impressed by embryos and less by genes, laying greater weight upon development and less upon heredity. Bowler sees this as a healthy difference in emphasis, and implies that modern 'evo-devo' (evolutionary developmental) biology perceives a truth that is too subtle for Darwinism to discern. This says more about Bowler's attitude towards Darwin's dangerous idea than it does about the science, in which selection theory and developmental biology are complementary partners, not rivals.

He even goes so far as to suggest that Darwin's radical insight 'distorted' the process of scientific development by answering the question of life's variety before everybody else had managed to formulate it. If it had waited its proper time, the ground would have been prepared for it by earlier theories, which were wrong in ways that made them acceptable. Darwin argued for gradual evolution in nature, but the theory he presented was a sudden, disruptive leap. This view of scientific history is compelling where it is persuasive and even more so where it is not. It casts Darwin in the role of a reformer who demands what he believes is right rather than what society is ready to grant - like campaigning for universal suffrage before the abolition of slavery, or for gay marriage before the repeal of laws against gay sex. In Bowler's court of history, Darwin stands accused of being prematurely right.

At the same time, Bowler exonerates Darwinism of the historical evils for which it has been blamed, up to and including both world wars. The counterfactual method justifies itself most emphatically in Bowler's systematic exposition of how theories of racial hierarchy, the identification of might with right, heartlessness towards the poor, eugenics and eventually Nazism had more than enough material to establish themselves without appropriating anything from Darwin except his name. 'Social Darwinism' was not, in fact, Darwinian. Nineteenth-century racial thought seethed with denials of common descent: Darwin's vision of humankind as a single species was a moderating influence.

Bowler's Darwinless history remains persuasive up until the moment when the theory of natural selection finally arrives. At that point, nothing much happens. Natural selection fails even to provoke the Christian fundamentalists, who emerge in the counterfactual history during the same period as they actually did. Bowler suggests that geologists, challenging the literal reading of Genesis, might have been a more salient target for creationist ire. For Bowler, the power of the idea of natural selection arises almost entirely from the methodology, timing and social status of the person who revealed it to the world. While Darwin is recognised as a key historical actor, his idea is not.

Yet natural selection explains the appearance of design in nature without any need for a designer - of creativity in the shaping of life without any need for a creator. Even if science and society had long since accepted evolution, the revelation of how it actually happens would still have shaken them to the core. And it would still have provided a basis for reactions against religion provoked by the rise of the fundamentalists. Even in a world in which Darwin never wrote On the Origin of Species, natural selection would have inspired someone to write The God Delusion.


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Marek Kohn's books include A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination.


John Murray


Royal Literary Fund