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Origin Day Lecture: Audience Question One

Updated Tuesday 24th November 2009

What would have happened had The Origin of Species never been published?

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Armand Leroi (as Chair)

Before I open the floor to questions from the audience, we have some questions from overseas correspondents which I would like to address to each of the panellists.  The first comes from Giselle Pissaro from Santiago, Chile, who asks what would have happened had the Origin of Species never have been published?  And that I have to say, is a question for Peter.

Peter Bowler

I have to say this is not a planted question, I just happen to be planning to write a book on this topic.  My book is about what would have happened if he’d fell overboard and drowned on the voyage of the Beagle, so there would be no…

Armand Leroi (as Chair)

Would you really start the book that way?  An irreverent courtesy, but never mind.

Peter Bowler

My, the tack I am going to take with this is to presume that without Darwin, without the Origin of Species, there probably would have been a gradual transformation to an evolutionary world view.  It would have been a slower one, it would have taken through the 1860s/70s, but it would have happened, but it probably would not have contained a major element of the idea of natural selection because I think Darwin was in a unique position to startle the world with that very radical idea.  Now many will say yes but yes what about Alfred Russel Wallace, but we need to bear in mind that Wallace’s theory was significantly different to Darwin’s.  He was a deeply religious man, he did not take on board some of the harsher implications of the theory that Darwin explored, and he didn’t approve of Darwin’s analogy between natural and artificial selection.  So a Wallace theory would have been significantly different and I think, given Wallace’s isolated position, he would not have been very well positioned to get his idea promoted back in Europe.  So I think there would have been an evolution revolution without natural selection initially, or with natural selection playing a much less significant role until some time later on, possibly not until around 1900 when we think genetics comes along, it may have come along in the alternative universe too.  What I envisage is we would have a sort of evo-devo in the late 19th century, which is what we had really anyway, with all those non-Darwinian theories I mentioned, with natural selection coming in later on.  So we would end up I think pretty much where we are today but the components of modern biology would have been put together in a different sequence with the natural selection coming in much later than it did in our world.  So I think Darwin really did upset the apple cart in many respects, and as we look to a world which would have been significantly different at least in its initial starting point, but would have come around to more or less the components we accept today.  I'm not going to propose an alternative universe where there’s no evolution theory or no natural selection at all.

Armand Leroi (as Chair)

Do any of my other panellists have thoughts on that?  Do we really have such, well let’s call it a qualified deterministic view of history, qualified in so far that the outcomes are the same but the order in which it’s happening is different.

Peter Bowler

I think we’d think about the issues very differently, although the components and the technical level were the same, I think our perception of the issues related to creationism, social Darwinism, or all of those issues, I think we’d have a very different perception.  So I'm not saying it would be the same universe represented.

Sandy Knapp

Well I think that that, because you would arrive at basically the same point through a different trajectory, is to me evidence that evolution by natural selection is a fact, like a fact like the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around, is we would have arrived at that position, the earth revolving around the sun, had there not been a Galileo.  That would have been found out in some kind of way somehow.  And the same is true of evolution, and I think that because you could arrive at similar situations through different trajectories, that’s one of the things that you can use to say well this is something that is a fact.  And a fact in science is different to a fact in history or anything else, a fact in science is something that has overwhelming support and no one has any evidence against yet, that stands up to other evidence.

Randal Keynes

I'd just suggest that the banners we march under are often important, and surely the whole progress of thinking about evolution has been influenced by the fact that we were marching under the banner of struggle for existence, survival of the fittest.  I'm trying to think of possible alternative paths to the same point.  I would like to think that ecology might have developed more clearly and more quickly as a science of interrelations and whole systems if it had had a clearer run.  I really don’t know enough about the history of biology to be able to see exactly how it would have worked, but it seems to me that one could have come to our present understanding along that different path, different banner.

Armand Leroi

Yes, it’s a tricky one.  My own thinking probably is that yes, we would believe in natural selection absolutely.  It would be regarded as the major force, as a major force for the construction of complex forms, of order.  However, shall we say there are, if we can cut the tradition in evolutionary biology in terms of explanation, in terms of what is sometimes called the structuralist tradition, which is mostly associated with the laws of form versus natural selection, those two traditions have been contesting for the central ground of evolutionary biology for a very, very long time.  You could even antedate it to the origin and take it back to Plato versus Aristotle if you want, and for us, most of us, especially in this country, natural selection and the domineer traditions, the two large tradition is central, and the structuralist one is a minority.  I wonder whether it might have been the other way around.

Peter Bowler

I think there would have been a lot more structuralism in the late 19th century.

Sandy Knapp

Well if you think about Ernst Haeckel.

Armand Leroi


Sandy Knapp:

And Ernst Haeckel, who was the big populariser of Darwin’s ideas, Haeckel’s books were translated into more languages than were Darwin’s and he was the populariser of what Alfred Russel Wallace called Darwinism, because Wallace is the one who coined the term Darwinism.  And Haeckel was very much in the structuralist tradition, he was into what today we would call evo-devo, but he also had this - you know so much of science hinges on personality, so much of human interaction hinges on what people are actually like, and Ernst Haeckel was a very complicated and difficult individual who took on the church in the late 19th century, and that was part of his problem.

Armand Leroi

Also was very charismatic.

Sandy Knapp

Very, very charismatic, but also complex, difficult, and I would argue that Haeckel was the Dawkins of his day.  And so it could have been quite different.

Peter Bowler

I can remember some of the other non-Darwinian theories were explicitly non-adaptationalist, they tried to rule adaptation out as a major factor.  It’s amazing to read some of the biologists of the late 19th century who basically say adaptation is not really that important, though they write into that other formal traditions.

Sandy Knapp

And I think it’s too bad that in a way Ernst Haeckel was, has sort of been sidelined in the history of the acceptance of Darwinian thought, because he was one of the people who really tried to pull those strands together, but possibly due to the way he was didn’t really succeed in a kind of way of pulling the scientific community behind him.

Armand Leroi

I'm a big Haeckel fan, and I'd love to talk about, but we have to move on.




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EO Wilson Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: British Council Professor EO Wilson's lecture to mark Origin Day





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