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Why Darwin Eclipsed Wallace: Darwin and the English Class System

Neil Thomas
Photo: George Romanes, by Elliott & Fry, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The theory of natural selection was the co-discovery of two men, but by the mid 1860s one of its progenitors began to reject his own theory, scarcely more than a half decade after first announcing it to the world. Towards the end of his life Alfred Russel Wallace would resolve the conceptual confusion surrounding the curious “half-and-half” dualism which initially prompted him to claim that it was only mankind’s mental faculties which had been designed, natural selection having fashioned our bodies. That improbable thesis was later to be replaced by his contention that the totality of (wo)man — body and mind — had arisen from what today would be called intelligent design, and, moreover, that the same applied to the whole sentient universe. This was indeed a root-and-branch “apostasy” from his prior convictions.

Why have people not registered this rejection of the theory by its co-author more strongly? Why is it Charles Darwin’s view which has persisted while Wallace’s has been airbrushed out of history? Predictably, the quintessentially English subject of class has been invoked to answer this question. Sociologists of science often point to the fact that the progress of scientific ideas advances in part as a form of social process, and Darwin, unlike the impoverished and socially less well-placed Wallace, was fortunate to have an upper-middle-class support group to promulgate his ideas. 

How convincing is this thesis as an explanation for Darwin’s greater success? I have argued elsewhere that the major role in the acceptance of Darwinism depended not so much on social factors but on the truly seismic changes in attitudes to religion experienced by all classes of society by the middle of the 19th century. But this does not mean that social factors played no part at all. How might those factors be characterized?

With a Little Help from His Friends

There are indications that Darwin over time gained something of the de facto status of a cult leader (in an unexceptionably benign sense). There cannot be many natural scientists who have inspired a follower to write a fulsome, 50-page poem in their memory, but after Darwin’s death in 1882 this is precisely what occurred. A younger acolyte, the naturalist George Romanes (pictured above), venerated Darwin so greatly — “this side idolatry” seems the entirely appropriate phrase — that he chose this form of laudation for a commemorative poem titled with lapidary simplicity, “Charles Darwin: A Memorial Poem.”1 There is ample evidence in Darwin’s voluminous correspondence with both indigenous and overseas scholars —continued without interruption even when chronic illness kept him house-bound — and in the “pilgrimages” to Down House he inspired from his old boys’ network of former college friends and tutors, that he had an enviable gift for friendship, even to the point of being able to inspire forms of fraternal love.

Only on the assumption of such personal magnetism can we understand such things as his limitlessly supportive inner circle meeting regularly to discuss matters of personal and professional interest with him. The severe-looking photographs of the bearded patriarch that have come down to us clearly give few hints of the sheer charisma he must have projected to inspire such admiration and affection. Romanes’s poem, which set off the high honour already accorded to Darwin in his burial in the north aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey, near to Sir Isaac Newton, might have suggested to some an aura close to sanctity or at the very least a symbolic assumption into a form of scientific empyrean.

The Darwin Circle: A Small World

To those acquainted with modern Britain, a place which frowns on nepotism and cronyism (at least officially), and which has opened itself up to meritocratic selection procedures and the importation of foreign talent, it is rather surprising that the same cast of characters keep popping up again and again in the drama of Darwin’s life.2 Clergyman and botanist Professor John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861)3 would regularly hold soirées at his home, attended by Darwin and Darwin’s Cambridge tutors, William Whewell and Adam Sedgwick, the latter having been Darwin’s companion on a number of geological field trips when Darwin was younger and in better health. Henslow’s daughter was later to marry one of Darwin’s closest friends, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. It was Henslow who recommended Darwin for the Beagle expedition in the early 1830s and again Henslow who chaired the famous Oxford debate in 1860 where Bishop Wilberforce squared off against Darwin’s “bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley. Despite his reservations about Darwin’s ideas, Henslow’s avuncular relationship with Darwin bade him always do his best to protect Darwin from harsh criticism.4 The same was the case with Adam Sedgwick. Sedgwick disagreed with Darwin’s ideas in the Origin so radically that, far more in sorrow than in anger, he once described Darwin’s ideas in a confidential letter to palaeontologist Richard Owen as being at one and the same time saddening and risible. For him, his erstwhile protégé was “a teacher of error instead of the apostle of truth.”5 Notwithstanding these reservations, he remained on commendably friendly terms with Darwin for the remainder of his life.

The recipient of this amount of indulgence from his friends clearly had every reason to feel secure in the knowledge that he commanded a supportive in-group whose loyalty he could depend on absolutely. So it was that in 1856, at a hush-hush meeting at Down House convened by Darwin, he took soundings with Hooker and Huxley as to how best to proceed with his heretofore secret ideas concerning evolution. Huxley, despite the fact that he had condemned ideas similar to those of Darwin when they had been presented in Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), and that he would never reconcile himself with Darwin’s special theory of natural selection, immediately volunteered to defend Darwin’s ideas, being more than willing to take Darwin’s corner against the high authority of Richard Owen. In the words of Iain McCalman, alluding to the fact that so many of Darwin’s intimates were part of an old sea-dog confraternity who had made voyages of scientific discovery of their own, Huxley had come aboard and “joined Darwin’s fleet.”6 Huxley might have been, in Peter Bowler’s phrase, a “pseudo-Darwinian” (that is, a believer in evolution but not natural selection), yet he would not hear a word said against Darwinism in any of its facets.

There is no getting away from the socially parochial aspect of English life at this time. The same names recur in the Darwin story simply because debate about matters of high import at the time were debated and largely decided by an “upper crust” of ex “public”7 school boys and Oxbridge graduates. These persons would typically not even meet, let alone converse with members of “lower” social classes (except in trading transactions) because it was tacitly accepted that it was only the views of the social elite which counted.

Tomorrow, “Why Darwin Eclipsed Wallace: Darwin Comes to America.”

Notes

  1. See J. David Pleins, In Praise of Darwin: George Romanes and the Evolution of a Darwinian Believer (New York, London: Bloomsbury, 2014), pp. 299-348.
  2. In his Charles Darwin: A New Biography (London: Pimlico, 1991), John Bowlby gives a useful “Who’s Who” of the characters who played a part in  Darwin’s career (pp. 489-504).
  3. For Henslow and his relationship with Darwin, see Jean Russell-Gebbet, Henslow of Hitcham (Lavenham: Terence Dalton, 1977).
  4. Jean Russell-Gebbet, Henslow of Hitchen, pp. 23-4.
  5. Chris Park, Wedded to the Rocks: The Life and Work of Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) (London: Amazon Createspace, 2017), p. 244.
  6. Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution (London and New York: Norton, 2009), p. 315.
  7. The term “public school” is a misnomer. It means private school in the British context.

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.

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Adam SedgwickAlfred Russel WallaceBritainDown HouseevolutionfriendshipGeorge RomanesHistoryHMS BeagleIain McCalmanintelligent designIsaac NewtonJohn Stevens Henslownatural selectionOxbridgePeter BowlerRichard OwenRobert ChambersSamuel WilberforcesociologistsThomas HuxleyVestiges of the Natural History of CreationWestminster AbbeyWilliam Whewell