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Origin Day lecture: Peter Bowler response

Updated Tuesday 24th November 2009

Peter Bowler offers his reaction to Professor Wilson's lecture.

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Armand Leroi

Good morning.  My name’s Armand Leroi.  First of all let me say what an extraordinary honour it is for me to be here chairing this distinguished panel, minus one panellist I think, on this wonderful day and at this particular place.  And it is especially true because Thomas Henry Huxley, as Gerard mentioned, the great defender of Darwin who defended in this very room, was a predecessor of mine at ImperialCollege.  We have a panel here who have various expertises and who are going to each speak to some aspect of the Origin and of Professor Wilson’s talk, and after that we’ll throw the discussion open to questions from the floor.  We begin with Professor Bowler, who is Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at Queen’s University, Belfast, one of the most iconoclastic historians of Darwin and Darwinism of his day, made his reputation with The Eclipse of Darwinism, is a Fellow of the British Academy, a former President of the British Society for the History of Science and many other honours which he has not listed in his biography, but I know that he has.  Professor Bowler.

Peter Bowler

Thanks very much for that.  I wanted to pick up on a couple of points in Professor Wilson’s talk.  I mean it was a very rich talk so we all have to be very selective.  We’re here on, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species on this day, and we’re told that it was sold out on the first day.  I think we have to be a little careful with that, I believe it was sold to the book sellers on the first day not to the general public who snapped it up very rapidly thereafter.  And I wanted to say a few words about the impact of it, because we've had this wonderful explanation of the really very radical nature of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. 

It’s a theory which doesn’t allow much room for a concept of a designed world in the old fashioned sense of Paley’s watch and the divine watchmaker and so on.  And that meant that Darwin’s contemporaries were faced not only with adjusting to the idea of evolution, but evolution in perhaps its most radical form, and what the historical evidence tells us is that there was this enormous controversy that exploded in the early 1860s which was resolved fairly rapidly by most scientists and many ordinary people accepting the general idea of evolution, but not necessarily natural selection.  Natural selection was seen as a mechanism that was a little too tough to swallow, and many ordinary people and also many scientists looked for alternatives that would perhaps make evolution seem a little more purposeful and a little more orderly.  And so we have the episode of, that I call the eclipse of Darwinism, borrowing a phrase from Julian Huxley, when people looked for alternatives, and it was only in the early 20th Century with the synthesis with modern genetics that natural selection came into its own.  So we need to bear in mind just how radical the theory was and how difficult it was even for the scientists of Darwin’s time to accept it. 

The other topic I'd like to pick up with that Professor Wilson mentioned was the network of communications that Darwin built up to gather information of relevance to his project.  And we were told about this enormous network of correspondents he built up around the world, and that of course is now being published, and if I could see correctly because of the lights, I believe Professor Jim Secord from Cambridge is up there, he’s the Head of the Darwin Correspondence Project at the moment. 

And it is important to recognise not just the sheer diversity of individuals that Darwin corresponded with but the different range of topics he queried them on.  He was talking to naturalists, to museum people, to field naturalists, to explorers, to colonial administrators, anyone who could provide information on what we would call biodiversity.  But he was also talking, corresponding with animal breeders and horticulturalists, and from that he got the idea partly of natural, of artificial selection as a model for natural selection, but also a huge fund of information on heredity and variation.  So Darwin was drawing upon a range of topics which were in principle available to anyone else at the time, but I don’t think there was anyone else who was actually sampling the whole diversity of information which allowed Darwin to pull these things together, to make so radical a theory. 

In conclusion, perhaps the one area he didn’t stay up to date with was the sort of laboratory areas of biology, the developments in physiology, biochemistry and the like, and we know that his theory of heredity pangenesis was conceived in the 1830s and not published until the 1960s, by which time it was beginning to seem a little out of date even to his contemporaries, because Darwin wasn’t fully on top of emerging topics like cell theory and so on.  So I think we need to bear in mind the importance of Professor Wilson’s notion of those areas that look for the biodiversity and those that look further down, to causal explanations, and Darwin certainly was on top of that side of it but a little, perhaps, slower digging down to the bottom there.

Armand Leroi

Thank you very much Peter.

(5’58”)

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