Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought

Everything you ever wanted to know about Darwin’s life, labors, and legacy is here. Check back throughout the week–the Darwin festivities aren’t over!

The ancient Greeks were not evolutionists (Essay 1, “Origins and the Greeks”). It was not that they had an a priori prejudice against a gradual developmental origin for organisms (including humans) but that they saw no real evidence for it. More importantly, they could not see how blind law – that is to say, natural law without a guiding intelligence – could lead to the intricate complexity of the world, complexity serving the ends of things, particularly organisms. This need to think in terms of consequences or purposes, what Aristotle called “final causes,” was taken to speak definitively against natural origins.

It was not until the seventeenth century – what is known as the Age of the Enlightenment – that we get the beginnings of evolutionary thinking (Essay 2, “Evolution before Darwin”). This could have happened only if there was something, an ideology, sufficiently strong to overcome the worry about ends. Such an ideology did appear, that of progress: the belief that through unaided effort humans could themselves improve society and culture. It was natural for many to move straight from progress in the social world to progress in the biological world, and so we find people arguing for a full-scale climb upward from primitive forms, all the way up to the finest and fullest form of being, Homo sapiens: from “monad to man,” as the saying went (Fig. Introduction.1). It was not generally an atheistic doctrine, being more one in line with “deism,” the belief that God works through unbroken law. But it did increasingly challenge any biblical reading of the past, and it went against evangelical claims about Providence, the belief that we humans unaided can do nothing except for the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

Radical claims like these did not go unchallenged. Critics, notably the German philosopher Immanuel Kant and his French champion, the comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier, continued to argue that final causes stand in the way of all such speculations. Moreover, particularly after the French Revolution, many thought the idea of progress to be both false and dangerous. For this reason, evolution was hardly a respectable notion. It had all of the markings of a “pseudoscience,” like mesmerism (the belief in bodily magnetism) or phrenology (the belief that bumps on the skull give clues to psychological traits). It existed as an epiphenomenon of a cultural ideology; it was valued because it was value laden through and through. This is not to say that it was an unpopular idea. As we see in our own day, manifested by such pseudosciences as homeopathy (the belief in the curative power of small doses of the poison that in quantity kills), pseudosciences can be very popular. But enthusiasm lay generally with the public and not with the professional community.

The Origin of Species (1859) set out to change all of this. It is important therefore, from the beginning, to get Charles Darwin right. And as a start on this, we must recognize that the autobiography that he penned toward the end of his life, although captivating and very informative, is in many respects highly misleading. Darwin characterizes himself as a charming young man, not terribly directed or motivated, keenest of all on the country sports of shooting and the like, who almost by chance backed into one of the greatest discoveries of all time. This is simply not true. We must keep balance and perspective and not let the English penchant for self-deprecating modesty cloud the story. As an individual, Darwin was genuinely warm and friendly, loyal to family and friends, a good master to his servants, and for all that he was very careful with his money, good at managing it, and generous to those in need. He was loved and with good reason. He was also hard working, even to the point of obsession. He did not have the kind of mind that is good at doing things that impress schoolteachers. He was not that gifted at mathematics, nor was he a brilliant success with languages, dead or living. That put him at a disadvantage, given that back then these were precisely the talents needed for formal academic success. But he was clearly very intelligent; moreover, older people (especially when he went to Cambridge) saw this and almost rushed to be his friends and mentors (see Fig. Introduction.2 and Plate III). Above all, Darwin had an oversized, inventive and discerning eye for a good theory or hypothesis. Added to this is the fact that he was ruthless in his pursuit of an idea and the supporting facts, using others (particularly by courtesy of the penny post introduced in 1840) to gather information for his speculations. He was indeed sick – possibly a psychological sickness but even more possibly purely physical – but he used this sickness to avoid distractions and other commitments. One of his biographers has written of Darwin as having a sliver of ice through his heart, and never were truer words written.

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