Editor’s note: We have been delighted to present a new series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Charles Darwin and the Ghost of Epicurus.” This is the fifth and final article in the series. Look here for the full series. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).
In 1838 Charles Babbage, the Cambridge mathematician and originator (with Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace) of the first rudimentary computer, claimed that the mysteries of nature could in all cases be more credibly explained by natural laws than by supernatural acts. That thesis had in the earlier part of the same decade already been successfully tested by Charles Lyell in his demonstration that currently observable causes in the terrestrial environment, acting at modest rates throughout the immensity of geological time, could build the full panoply of earthly events, from seas to mountains to volcanoes.1 According to the new doctrine of geological uniformitarianism there was no longer any need for a divine hand to push up mountain ranges overnight.
Wholly Natural Terms
Once the Newtonian paradigm in cosmology had won acceptance, there then followed a predictable amount of follow-my-leaderism as it came to be thought that all scientific explanations should henceforth remain congruent with that paradigm. After all, did not Darwinian theory dovetail satisfyingly with those other naturalistic approaches to the universe which had been gathering momentum in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and which, cumulatively but sometimes insensibly, were edging Britain towards a post-Christian era? Newton having satisfactorily explained the starry heavens above, and Lyell having explained the inanimate, geological realm, the sights of scientific research were now refocused on organic life by use of the same methodological means. The direction of the scientific quest now turned to finding a solution to the riddles of the terrestrial world in wholly natural terms: how had its plant and animal life developed?
It was at just this time that Darwin made his grand entrance on to the public stage to give people the kind of answer they would have wanted at precisely the time they would have wanted to hear it. He could not have timed it better, for now Darwin came to be seen as marching in triumphantly to provide a crowning consummation of Newton and Lyell. So it was that by the mid to late 1860s, Darwin’s theory began its irresistible integration into that great, overarching metanarrative of the age which reduced all things to natural causes, his intervention in history commonly viewed as “a completion of the unfinished Cartesian revolution that demanded a mechanical model for all living processes.”2
Once sheltered under the aegis of that mighty scientific metanarrative, Darwinism could be inducted with little more ado into the domain labelled science, no further questions asked (however pertinent), protesters being reduced to voices crying in the wilderness. It was in vain that Sir Charles Lyell protested that the application of his geological doctrine of uniformitarianism was not a valid analogy when applied to the sentient domain — such constituting nothing less than a colossal philosophical category-error in Lyell’s view. It was in vain that early reviewers of the Origin of Species almost to a (wo)man remained unconvinced by Darwin’s speculations3 or, even more remarkably, that Darwin’s proverbial bulldog, Thomas Huxley, could not accept the postulated mechanism of natural selection even to the end of his days.
Despite having no truly scientific, that is, empirical proof to recommend it, Darwinism was able to triumph because it synchronized with that spirit of the age which, after it had reached a certain momentum or “critical mass,” became, it appears, irresistible. At length it began to feel right to people who, then as now, had no objective means of assessing whether it was right or wrong. So they simply capitulated to subjective gut-instincts in response to their vague intimations and anticipations of the ambient zeitgeist.
Keeping Up with the Joneses
People chose to believe what they wanted to believe in obedience to the then reigning intellectual fashion. Or as Richard Hofstadter put the matter in his foundational study of the reception of the Origin of Species in America, discoveries as (purportedly) revolutionary as Darwinism “command so much interest and acquire so much prestige within the literate community that almost everyone feels obliged to at the very least bring his world-outlook into harmony with their findings.”4 Ultimately it was this would-be intellectual keeping up with the Joneses melded with the familiar Victorian wavering of faith which enabled people to transfer credence so uncritically to an unprovable and improbable theory which, when viewed dispassionately, carried far less conviction than those philosophical understandings which had guided the steps of their forbears for more than two millennia within the Western tradition.
- Principles of Geology, edited by James Secord (London: Penguin, 1997).
- Richard Lewontin, It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions (London: Granta, 2000), p. 66.
- See my Taking Leave of Darwin (Seattle: Discovery, 2021), pp. 60-67.
- Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (orig. 1944), revised edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), p. 3.