Sunday, June 24, 2007



Janet Browne is the author of this generation's definitive two-volume biography of Charles Darwin, Voyaging and The Power of Place.

Her most recent book is part of the Atlantic Monthly Press's series called Books that Changed the World, in which various books are, themselves, the subject of biographies. Darwin's Origin of Species: a Biography is the result and it is a good primer for anyone on the ...well ... origin of Darwin's great work and its effect on the man and the world at large.

While Darwin's life, travels, family life and work are, necessarily, telescoped to fit this slim volume, the story is well told and the essentials preserved. Browne's discussion of the controversies that arose during Darwin's life is a useful outline that can assist anyone wanting to delve deeper ... say with Peter J. Bowler's Evolution: The History of an Idea.

Similarly, Browne gives a good thumbnail of the controversies, both scientific and cultural, since Darwin's death:

The fierce religious controversies of earlier days were subsiding. By regarding the Bible as an allegorical text filled with spiritual meaning, it became possible for Christian believers to retain their belief in the truth of God's message while also appreciating scientific findings as a different kind of truth. Moreover, the power of the Church itself was on the wane. Many of these changes were retrospectively attributed to the Origin of Species. Honours paid to Darwin at his funeral liberally acknowledged his important role in constructing the modem frame of mind.

His scientific legacy, though, was not nearly as secure. As fresh areas of research opened up in the biological sciences, and new kinds of professionals took up a wider range of problems with more sophisticated techniques, the original thesis of natural selection was modified almost beyond recognition.
Darwin's own ideas as to how evolution occurred were largely eclipsed by other systems of evolutionary thought beginning near the end of the nineteenth century and lasting into the 1940s. In particular, selection as a major force in evolution was criticized, partly as a result of a reaction against the excesses of "Social Darwinism," which owed more to Herbert Spencer than to Darwin himself, and partly as a result of greatly expanded paleontological discoveries in America which were interpreted as showing linear evolution:

The American palaeontologist Theodore Eimer claimed that evolutionary history had not taken the shape of a Darwinian branching tree but proceeded in a straight line. In his eyes, natural selection was powerless except to weed out obviously deleterious trends. A much-discussed example was that of the Irish Elk, which was thought to have become extinct because of the dramatic over-development of its antlers -- the suggestion was that the antlers had acquired a momentum of their own and eventually became a liability not an advantage.

Alpheus Hyatt, another noted fossil expert, similarly argued that adaptive trends almost always carried on beyond their usefulness. Ultimately, he said, a species would be driven to 'racial senility' and extinction.
This view, often called orthogenesis and shared by many other important paleontologists, such as Edward Drinker Cope and Henry Fairfield Osborn, had a political effect:

Such straight-line evolutionary histories, with their subtexts of inbuilt senescence or death from over-specialization, lent authoritative support to increasingly pessimistic views about the human future. Primitive cultures could now be regarded as in the 'infancy' of their development. More advanced societies might be set on lines of development that led them through the heights of civilization to corruption or decay. Those who transgressed society's conventions, such as criminals, homosexuals or the mentally deranged, could be categorized as 'throwbacks' to some racial past. ...

Whereas in Darwin's day eugenics was mainly expressed in fears about the maintenance of biological fitness, in the early twentieth century it expanded through Europe and the Americas into significant political movements seeking to change government policy with public health measures for the masses, birth control and enforced restraint from breeding. At root, the old system of Malthusian checks that Darwin had applied to biology was reapplied to political economies with compelling biological support. The poor, the deranged, the weak and diseased came to be regarded as biological burdens on society. For the good of the nation, it was said, policies should be introduced to prevent them from reproducing their kind. ...

It should be said, however, that racism and genocide predated Darwin. Nor were they solely confined to the West. Nevertheless, [post-Darwin] evolutionary views, and then the new science of genetics, gave powerful biological backing to those who wished to partition society according to ethnic difference or promote white supremacy.
Thus, claims that eugenics is an outgrowth of Darwin's theory are, at best, a hopelessly simplistic reading of history. In fact, the evils of racism and hatred of those who do not narrowly conform to social norms; the will to blame the poor and the downtrodden for their own condition; and the impetus to eliminate "the other" need no justification but will merely take whatever there may be at hand.

Brown also sketches the history of creationism up to the present. After telling the tale of "Creation Science," she ends with the latest in a long line of attacks:

Intelligent Design does not generally refute evolution but suggests that some biological processes are far too complex to have originated in the step-by-step manner proposed by Darwin. ... This is basically the old argument as put forward by William Paley or Asa Gray, brought up to date with new examples.

The new millennium has consequently begun with Westerners as divided as ever over the implications of a natural origin of species. Despite these challenges, the modern synthesis stands firm at the heart of biological science. ... History seldom tells of simple triumphant advances, but it can tell of the extraordinary impact of a single book. While many of the ideas and themes addressed by Darwin in 1859 were not new, and his writing style was mild in the extreme, the Origin of Species was clearly a major publishing event that spectacularly altered the nature of discussion on the question of origins. ... Old texts are frequently remade by new forms of attention, and it appears that Darwin's Origin was both resilient in the survival of its main proposals and malleable in the hands of its devotees. His book can therefore be seen, not as a solitary voice deliberately defying the traditions of the Church or the moral values of society, but as one of the hubs of transformation in Western thought.
Browne's case for the importance of the Origin is well made.

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