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Why Darwin Eclipsed Wallace: The Role of Propaganda

Neil Thomas
Statue of Alfred Russel Wallace
Photo: Statue of Alfred Russel Wallace, by George Beccaloni / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0).

In two posts so far (here and here), and concluding today, I have been considering the question of how Charles Darwin came to overshadow the co-founder of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Certainly, proselytizing by Darwin’s allies played a significant role in gaining a favorable hearing for the Origin. His English friends were also well placed to exert influence in the educational and academic spheres. The journal Nature was founded in 1869 in part as a vehicle for spreading the Darwinian message, and the so-called X Club (founded by the indefatigable Thomas Henry Huxley) became the venue for Darwinian stalwarts to meet and discuss the progress of their “campaign.” For his part Darwin exploited his status as a Fellow of the Royal, Linnaean, and Geological Societies to cultivate friendships with influential members of the scientific community, always giving priority to the role of his co-adjutants, concluding that the Origin of Species would never have achieved such resonance without his friends. And there is surely some truth in that.

Such factors support Peter Bowler’s thesis that “it was through persuasion and through success in the politics of science that Darwinism came to dominate British biology,”a contention which has been confirmed by a recent study of the role played by a group of fellow scientists dubbed Darwin’s “apostles.”2 In 1866, for instance, Joseph Hooker delivered lectures favorable to the Darwinian viewpoint at the British Society for the Advancement of Science. John William Draper  (who had spoken in favor of Darwin at the Oxford Debate in 1860) was another apostle who enthusiastically gave support to the Darwinian argument in the United States. The most fervent of the apostles was of course the proverbial bulldog, Huxley, who kept Darwin’s name to the forefront for fully two decades by a series of talks and contributions to journals.3

Friends Pulling Punches

As with Wallace, who over time began to see through and beyond a conjecture which for him had begun to forfeit its claim to logical coherence, it appears that other contemporaries of Darwin harbored similar misgivings. But their reverence and love for Darwin bade them exercise a deal of tact in deference to Darwin’s feelings. Nevertheless, although perfectly prepared to temporize with Darwin in the name of gentlemanly solidarity and friendship, many contrived tacitly to move closer to Wallace’s version of theistic evolution. They appeared to be at one with Wallace in renouncing the “purer” Darwinian faith yet contrived by tactful intellectual maneuvers to signal their solidarity with Darwin and so uphold the group’s esprit de corps. They were in effect humoring the great man. Such trimming on the part of so many of his peers appears to be one indication that hardline Darwinism was not universally accepted by later Victorians. What was accepted was as often as not an artful fudge of the Darwinian position, and this fudge may explain why Darwinism was not more directly opposed. Having assumed the protean form of being able to be all things to all (wo)men, it clearly did not present an easy target under its artfully woven camouflage. 

A Resultant of Forces

To isolate and quantify the factors which ultimately led to the acceptance of Darwinian ideas is not a straightforward task. With hindsight we may observe that Darwin’s Origin of Species benefited from what in modern terms might be described as a slickly coordinated publicity campaign orchestrated by complaisant supporters. Yet ideas in democratic societies which allow the free development of personal opinions are not like viruses or “memes” which transfer automatically from donor to recipient. Human beings are manifestly far more subtle adjudicators than is allowed for in the reductive, “memetic” analyses of those who term themselves “evolutionary psychologists.”

The role of Darwin’s social cachet cannot of course be left out of account since his social peers clearly felt some class loyalty to endorse one of their own, but one must also include the scarcely definable (much less easily quantifiable) subject of Darwin’s personal charisma. Such a form of personal appeal clearly transcends the issue of class yet it was successful in inspiring what in some cases became a form of discipleship for some of his supporters. That factor, too, must be thrown into the mix in explaining Darwin’s influence, and taken together with that more general shift in religious attitudes which had occurred in Britain between the 1830s and 1860. By the time of the famous Huxley/Wilberforce debate in Oxford in 1860, the times they were definitely a-changing — and to such a degree that I have speculated elsewhere that, had Darwin published his Origin in the 1840s (as many friends were urging) rather than in 1859, it may not have achieved the same positive resonance it did. 

It was the secular turn in the national mood plus the author’s charisma plus the fact that Darwin was able to call on the support of well-placed friends and foreign colleagues which all came into conjunction. It was the combination of all three determinants that led to that benign resultant of forces which ensured the success of the Origin of Species, and the eclipse of Wallace.

Notes

  1. Peter Bowler, The Non-Darwinian Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988), p. 68.
  2. David Orenstein and Abby Hafer, Darwin’s Apostles: The Men Who Fought to Have Evolution Accepted, Their Times and How the Battle Continues (Washington: Humanities Press, 2019), p. 6.
  3. In 1859 he published “Mr. Darwin’s Origin of Species” in MacMillan’s Magazine. In December of the same year he published a very favorable review of the Origin in The Saturday Review. In 1863 he published the Darwin-friendly Man’s Place in Nature and in 1864 was the founder of the X Club. In 1871 there appeared his Mr. Darwin’s Critics, a collection of essays defending Darwin from his detractors, and as late as 1880 he addressed the Royal Society on the subject of “The Coming of Age of The Origin of Species.”

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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Alfred Russel WallaceCharles Darwinevolutionevolutionary psychologyGeological SocietyHistoryJohn William DraperJoseph HookerLinnaean Societynatural selectionNature (journal)Origin of SpeciesPeter BowlerpropagandaproselytizingpublicityRoyal SocietySamuel WilberforceThomas Henry HuxleyX Club