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How Was Darwin’s Theory Accepted? The Curious History of a Secular Creation Myth, or, Darwin’s Cultural Armor, pt. 2

In a post on July 7th I suggested that Darwinian evolution was a “scientific pip-squeak and a suit of cultural armor”. Here I would like to examine exactly how that cultural armor was historically constructed. In so doing we will see the stuff of which Darwinism is truly made.

It was Phillip E. Johnson who made the astute observation that “Darwinist evolution is an imaginative story about who we are and where we came from, which is to say it is a creation myth.” (Darwin on Trial, p. 163) Using this as a starting point for understanding Darwinism as the remarkably powerful and ubiquitous phenomenon that it is in present society, it is instructive to review and assess the history of how Darwin’s theory was actually accepted and even more instructive to see how the story around that acceptance has been conveyed by those who serve as the cultural high priests of this creation myth.


In order to unravel this complex topic it is best to start with the second part first; in short, not the history itself but its historiography. In this regard Darwin’s own defenders are ostensibly at odds. On the one hand there is Ernst Mayr, until his death in 2005 perhaps the most highly regarded evolutionary biologist of his generation, who believes that Darwin’s evolutionary theory was accepted very early (hereafter referred to as ETA, early theory acceptance). On the other hand is Peter J. Bowler, whose  Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Thoeries in the Decades around 1900 first appeared in 1983. Bowler proposed the alternative thesis that Darwin’s theory came to be accepted comparatively late (hereafter referred to as LTA, late theory acceptance); in fact, according to Bowler, it very nearly died out at the turn of the century and was not fully restored to preeminence until Theodosius Dobzhansky and others formulated the neo-Darwinian synthesis in the 1930s. Taking his cue from Julian Huxley’s reference to the state of affairs at the dawn of the significant merger of Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian genetics, Bowler has been a persistent LTA proponent. (In addition to his Eclipse of Darwinism, see also his “Revisiting the Eclipse of Darwinism,” Journal of the History of Biology, v. 38, n. 1 [2005]: 19-32; and “Darwin’s Originality,” Science, v. 323 [9 Jan. 2009]: 223-226.) For Huxley–and indeed for Bowler–Darwinism was in “eclipse” until the so-called “modern evolutionary synthesis” was achieved, especially with Dobzhansky’s influential Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937).


How rapidly was Darwin’s theory accepted? It is best to begin by understanding exactly what is being “accepted.” If we mean the acceptance of common descent by means of natural selection then surely LTA is more accurate. Natural selection as the main drive train of evolution was surely problematic even for Darwin, who found himself constructing subsidiary naturalistic theories such as sexual selection and pangenesis to shore it up. By 1900 a beleaguered natural selection found only a few ardent proponents–significantly August Weismann and Alfred Russel Wallace among them–with mutation and orthogenetic theories holding wide popularity among scientists of the day. But this misses the underlying significance of Darwinian evolution in the history of ideas. If by Darwinian evolution we mean not strictly its narrow sense of random variation by means of natural selection but rather a more overarching worldview of the nature of life and humanity’s place in it–Phillip Johnson’s sense mentioned above–then we must acknowledge ETA as the best description of its establishment within modern society. As Thomas F. Glick has pointed out in his book, What about Darwin?, the release of Origin in 1859 fostered a certain “habit of mind” entrenching itself within what could accurately be called the mentalit� of Victorian society.


As I suggested in my earlier post, the enduring power of Darwinism rests not primarily in its purported science but in its cultural aspect. Here ETA is in strong evidence as Darwinism was embraced by Darwin’s affinity group, the relatively small but influential Victorian elites who served as rapid conduits for unprecedented idea transmission. The English jurist, politician, and historian James Bryce best characterized the Darwin phenomenon reminiscing 50 years after the publication of Origin of Species:


No book dealing with a scientific subject had ever, I suppose, been so largely read by people who were not scientific. I was an undergraduate at Oxford at the time, and I recollect very well that many of my fellow undergraduates who never opened–I will not say a scientific, but hardly even a serious book before–procured the treatise and read it with avidity. We all talked about it. We discussed it with the greatest ardor, indeed, with a positiveness which was in inverse ratio to our knowledge; and it was the same all over England. The Origin was not only the subject of constant comment in magazines and newspapers as well as at meetings of scientific societies, but it furnished a theme for constant jests in the comic papers, and it was an unfailing topic for conversation in all cultivated private houses. (Glick, p. 38)


Edward B. Titchener noted that in just three months from its release more than 4,000 copies had been distributed, and Mudie’s Circulating Library put 500 copies of Origin into the hands of approximately 2,000 subscribers, giving the book an extended middle-class audience that Darwin’s immediate affinity group undoubtedly regarded as mere pretenders to culture and taste. Charles Edward Mudie, impressed by the success of Darwinian evolution but apparently himself unconverted, derisively noted that “the fairy tales of science, as narrated by a Huxley or a Darwin, are beginning to be as eagerly demanded as the latest productions of Miss Braddon and Mr. Wilkie Collins [two of the Victorian era’s most popular novelists].”


If the influence of Origin extended beyond science it also extended beyond England too. The German Marxist Karl Kautsky, during the supposed nadir of Darwinism, declared, “I had applied myself to history at the University [ca. 1899 or 1900], but was also enthusiastic over Darwinism. My ideal was the introduction of Darwinism into history. As a student I formed a plan, which was never carried out, to write a Universal History, in which the leading idea should be the struggle for existence of races and classes, my idea resembled [Ludwig] Gumplowicz’s race-war theory.” (Glick, p. 217)


But even within science there is some reason to doubt Bowler’s LTA thesis. Writing in 1890, the English zoologist and director of the Natural History Museum E. Ray Lankester admitted revealingly, “Darwin by his discovery of the mechanical principle of organic evolution, namely, the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence, completed the doctrine of evolution, and gave it that unity and authority which was necessary in order that it should reform the whole range of philosophy [emphasis added].” (Glick, p. 237) Even more interesting is the example of paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn. Osborn represented one of the supposed challenges to Darwin in championing orthogenesis, a now-discredited idea that actually tells more about the endurance of Darwin’s ideas even during this alleged period of eclipse. Far from dismissing Darwin, Osborn proclaimed with notable hyperbole in a 1925 address that “between 1859, the date of ‘The Origin of Species,’ and 1879, evolution was firmly grounded as a Law of living Nature, and found its place permanently beside the Law of Gravitation of Newton!” (Osborn, “The Origin of Species, 1859-1925,” The Scientific Monthly v. 22, n. 3 [1926]:186.) For Osborn and most proponents of orthogenesis, evolution was more reflective “of a continuous creative unfolding of life fitted to a continuously changing environment” closer to Henri Bergson’s “creative evolution,” but, as Osborn quickly pointed out, not amenable to Bergson’s “teleologic or vitalistic implications.” (188) Thus from this standpoint, whether one accepts ETA or LTA scenarios, the question is less the survival or death of Darwinism but the recasting of the debate over materialistic evolution from a real battle between pro and con perspectives into something of a family feud over details. Whether the mutationists or orthogenesists were right or wrong, Darwin was generally the acknowledged discoverer of common descent by a strict process of methodological naturalism that was generally applauded, even if the specifics were in doubt.


The speed with which this idea was accepted vis-�-vis Origin in 1859 is rather remarkable. An analysis of scientific acceptance of Darwinian evolution within the first decade suggests that its influence has perhaps been overestimated (again it needs to be emphasized that Darwin’s early influence was chiefly carried forward by his wide ranging and diverse affinity group of Victorian elites and not especially scientists), but still was rather astonishing. According to this study, in 1869 nearly 75 percent of all scientists had accepted Darwinian evolution. (See David L. Hull, Peter D. Tessner, Arthur Diamond, “Planck’s Principle,” Science, New Series, v. 202, no, 4369 [1978]: 717-723) The authors note also that Planck’s principle (i.e., the idea that young scientists are more accepting of new theories and ideas in science while their older colleagues remain resistant) does not seem borne out in Darwin’s case, which is precisely what one would expect if the ETA thesis is accurate. Thus, Ernst Mayr seems quite right in stating, “Within fifteen years of the publication of Origin hardly a qualified biologist was left who had not become an evolutionist.” (See his One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought, p. 25.) While Hull, Tessner, and Diamond may consider Darwin’s scientific influence exaggerated, their own data suggests that Darwin’s theory spread with nearly unprecedented speed in the annals of science.


In any case, the ETA thesis is best established by considering Origin much more than the presentation of a scientific theory, something that Ernst Mayr understood, even if his Darwinian commitments were wrongheaded. (See, esp. his “Darwin Impact on Modern Thought,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, v. 139, n. 4 [1995]: 317-325)


But just as we must be careful in our understanding of what exactly was being accepted in the march of Darwinian evolution from idea to paradigm, we too need to recognize that both ETA and LTA theses serve as an apologetic for the Darwinian creation myth. Whether told by Ernst Mayr or Peter Bowler, each of these secular priests attempts to establish a historical narrative that supports a constructed validation for Darwin’s ideas, and they do so with the passion and heartfelt conviction of any religious proselyte or tribal shaman. On Mayr’s side ETA implicitly seeks to demonstrate the self-evident power and transparency of the idea itself; on Bowler’s side LTA actually reflects Darwin’s own version of a pained but arduous struggle of ideas that finally triumphed by the sheer “grand body of facts.” (See, for example, Darwin’s letter to L. Jenyns, Oct. 12, 1845) In both cases, however, such accounts simply reduce the question to a temporal race of when “facts” were accepted, obscuring the deeper cultural, social, historical, and philosophical catalysts for actually determing how Darwin’s speculative pronouncements came to be regarded as “facts.”


Mayr and Bowler’s theses are essentially mythical constructions. The acceptance of Darwinism is more accurately found in its rapid transmission and acceptance by a largely nonscientific, self-appointed “smart set” of highbrows and somewhat later middlebrow wannabes, indeed as Bryce keenly observed, chiefly “in inverse relation to one’s knowledge.” We can only speculate on the degree to which this broad general acceptance of Darwinian evolution as a worldview, a creation myth that served as the metaphysical foundation for a modernist mentalit�, influenced the scientific community, but that it had none is unlikely. In any case, the real power of the paradigm came from the former rather than the latter.


Understood in this context, Darwinism is not properly construed as simply a scientific idea that transformed society but rather as a metaphysic based upon a dogmatic methodological naturalism that had been brewing in England for some time. David Hume, who influenced Darwin, had set the intellectual tone and course one hundred years before Origin just as Auguste Comte, another influence on Darwin, prepared the way on the Continent. Thus Gertrude Himmelfarb keenly observes “that it was less as intelligent men ‘accustomed to scientific argument’ that they judged and approved the Origin than as intelligent men susceptible to philosophical prejudice.” (Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, p. 296) “Darwin,” concludes Himmelfarb, “dramatizing and bringing to a climax the ideas, sentiments, and conjectures of his age, may be thought of as the hero of a conservative revolution.” (p. 447)


The cultural armor forged more than 150 years ago and made up of the alloys of Victorian elitism, methodological naturalism, and popular secularism intermixed with the shiny gloss of scientific speculation has remained impenetrable to this very day. The important point it seems is that the paradigmatic strength of Darwinian evolution was not principally established by the scientific community, but by Darwin’s affinity group. For all the purported claims of Darwin’s contributions to “Science,” its development from an idea to an integral part of the present day elites’ mentalit� shows a more storied past. While none of this should suggest that scientific critique from many disciplines should not be brought to bear upon modern biology’s most cherished icon, it does point to factors other than science in its unique historical path that made it both cherished and iconic. 


Sociologist Stanley Aronowitz once noted that “science is not free of historical and discursive presupposition and [yet] . . . it has constituted itself as an autonomous power precisely through its convincing demonstration that it is free of such preconditions.” (Science as Power, p. viii) In Darwinism this is manifestly true and it has been able to do this by and through a cultural suit of armor that obscures and thus protects the anemic weakling inside.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.



Darwin's Heretic (Alfred Wallace)