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Darwin Now pod 2: Darwin in context

Updated Tuesday, 13th October 2009

How do you propose a radical theory without sacrificing your reputation? Professor Jim Moore explores the social and scientific context in which Darwin developed his ideas.

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Copyright British Council


Music: Variations on a Theme by Giuliani

Rissa de la Paz: Hello and welcome to the second of our monthly podcasts for Darwin Now. We’ll be exploring the social context in which Darwin developed his theory of evolution. Why did he feel that even contemplating such an idea was, as he confided in a letter to a friend, like “confessing to a murder?”

Our guide to Darwin’s place and time is James Moore, Professor of the History of Science at the Open University in the UK and acclaimed biographer of the naturalist.

Jim Moore: Darwin is important because Darwin did, I think, change our entire understanding of the meaning of human life in history and nature. Darwin is important also because of who he was and the light he sheds on what it means to do science.

Darwin was a respectable middle class gentleman. The least likely person, you would think, to articulate theories of evolution in which human beings are the natural product of natural processes, yet he did, and he did it in the teeth of religious and scientific opposition. How he did that is important because it helps shed light on how science operates even today.

The scientific establishment of Darwin’s day was 99% religious. Remember Darwin worked in a society dominated by the Church of England – it was the established church. That means one had to subscribe or to assent to certain Christian doctrines, which were held to exclude any notion that human beings could have evolved naturally, or even that living species could have evolved naturally. This was the reigning scientific/religious consensus.

Rissa de la Paz: More than that, Darwin was operating in a society very different from ours today with its mass media and popular literacy. Theology was seen as a stabilising force, so the notion that living things might have emerged from simpler forms and progressively change in response to purely natural forces was radical. Yet such ideas of so-called transmutation were percolating, even when Darwin was a young medical student at Edinburgh University.

Jim Moore: The ideas of transmutation, as it was called, stemmed mainly from revolutionary France to a certain extent, other ideas came from Germany. Darwin’s own grandfather had articulated a kind of vision of evolution which a few people understood in medical circles in Darwin’s day. It wasn’t part of mainstream science, there was no discipline called evolutionary natural history or anthropology, there simply was no such subject.

Rissa de la Paz: And yet, not long after Darwin had returned from his voyage on the Beagle and began his career as a self-supporting gentleman naturalist, he became convinced that he could no longer hold the established view that species, including humans themselves, were divine acts of creation.

Jim Moore: Of course Christians believed that all humans had descended from Adam and Eve, and that all individual biological species had descended from those created in the Garden of Eden. Darwin went a step further. He connected not only all the humans presently alive and all the races to an ancient common human ancestor, but he connected humans and animals and plants and micro-organisms as we’d say, all historically deep into time to an ancient common ancestor or ancestors. That made Darwin’s view original. Common descent. Common descent.

Rissa de la Paz: More than that, it begged the question of how living things might actually change; how they might proliferate and diversify through time.

Jim Moore: Darwin likened it to a huge tree and we’re just one little twig out on the end of a branch of this tree of life. Darwin said it took place by various mechanisms, the most important one was natural selection in which only those with an edge, some advantage, tend to survive and pass their advantage onto their offspring. Their offspring had therefore changed, they’d adapted to their environment, and that kind of change goes on and on and on through history, leading to the diversification of life. Natural selection Darwin called it, and that was the principal and most controversial mechanism in his famous book On the Origin of Species published in 1859.

Rissa de la Paz: Why was Darwin’s proposed mechanism of natural selection so potentially inflammatory?

Jim Moore: Natural selection was initially objectionable to people who understood it because they drew anti-God implications from it. It didn’t seem to be a purposeful process at all, it seemed to be very chancy. If things happened to have an adaptive advantage in the environment then they might, might be preserved, andit seemed to mean that there was no place for God to be directing this process, and Darwin himself said “if God is doing it, then I don’t even want to talk about it any more because if God does everything then why have scientific theories?” But in Darwin’s day it was quite illegitimate to reason about the causes of organic phenomena without recognising that there was a purposeful God, even a designing God standing behind and administering or controlling the causes that produce those phenomena.

Rissa de la Paz: In today’s more secular world, where some argue that science and religion are separate ways of thinking, it may be a continuing puzzle that such debates were and are still argued with such fervour. Moore the historian, has a robust response.

Jim Moore: People argue that science and religion are separate ways of thinking, separate ways of believing, one the realm of faith, the other of reason, that they are separate magisteria, separate power centres of authority in society and the world, don’t reckon with history. In history what was considered to be ‘science’ and what was considered to be ‘religion’ was always in dispute. And in Charles Darwin’s day for example, there was just religion in science or science in religion. There was actually a sect founded called Christian Science in the 1860s. So we have to look at reality, historical reality and not just play with words and concepts in our heads.

Nature is, is a fabulous thing and how we grasp it at one point in history does not exhaust the possibilities of understanding what this thing Nature is, and religious people would say the same thing about God.

In Darwin’s day, Christians had come to accept that Christian men of science tell us about God’s world, and what they tell us enables us correctly to interpret the words of holy scripture. Today these things have gone their separate ways. People want to go back and say the text predominates over the laboratory, scientists need to listen to our magisterium rather than theirs, and that was a battle thoughtful people in recent centuries thought had concluded in the sixteen or seventeen hundreds, and it’s still very much with us. So much for secularisation.

Rissa de la Paz: Little wonder then, at a time when the British cultural establishment embraced a discipline called natural theology, that Darwin’s ideas could be seen as subversive.

Jim Moore: Darwin chose evolution in the teeth of opposition, universal opposition, amongst his friends, amongst those to whom he looked to advance his career as a gentleman naturalist. His old Cambridge professors, his sponsors in the Geological Society, even his closest mentor the geologist Charles Lyell, all were opposed to transmutation. Thus Darwin did his work privately in a series of pocket notebooks.

Transmutation was an abomination and he had plenty of examples in his career, of what a word out of season could cost a man, and so he kept his words to himself. Finally he allowed himself the luxury of writing down what he thought, and eventually in 1844 he had a copy of his essay prepared for publication, he said “in case of my sudden death”. It was only over his own dead body that he was going to allow these things out in 1844, and he left the manuscript to his wife to publish in case he died. That’s how careful he was.

Rissa de la Paz: We now know that Darwin was eventually forced to publish when a young naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, sent Darwin a short essay with his own independent, but remarkably similar account of evolution by natural selection. But in the twenty-year period between Darwin’s own initial essay and the publication of The Origin, he managed to keep his ideas largely secret.

Jim Moore: Between 1844 and the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin, as far as we know, only told three people about his theory of natural selection. It was bad enough to be an evolutionist, but to have a respectable, Darwin thought, theory to explain it laid him open to even more opprobrium, and of course to people who would want to rip him off and take that theory and use it possibly for anti-God purposes, and Darwin wasn’t anti-God, he wasn’t prepared to allow his life’s work to be exploited in that way.

So Darwin pursued a strategy of fortifying his theory, anticipating every possible objection he could think of and answering it with sledgehammer blow after sledgehammer blow of facts, as he said.

Rissa de la Paz: But to build a convincing case required evidence and he needed all his powers of observation, argument, analysis and, where necessary, persuasion.

Jim Moore: He had to tread a fine line because he needed information and he, as he said, pumped people to get that information. He did it in a way that did not expose his theory or expose him to suspicion. A few times he did tip his hand and say, you know, “I’m unorthodox on this subject”, but generally speaking he would only say “I’m interested in the variation of species or the origin of species”, in other words where they originate on Earth. Every creationist was interested in where God created, so origin, variation, he used those words in pumping people for information, but he, of course, had his own meaning attached to them. So in that way Darwin was managing his self-defence before he ever went public. He was acquiring the information he needed to back up his theories against all the objections he knew would rain down upon him once he went public, whenever that was.

Rissa de la Paz: Not that Darwin was opposed to the discourse on which science rests. Rather, he was supremely astute at how he engaged with it. But quite apart from that, Moore argues that the debates which took place over Darwin’s theories were part of a wider struggle.

Jim Moore: Science is controversy. Science is conjecture and refutation. The essence of science is disagreement, argument. Of course, consensus is formed, but that is an agonistic process, it is struggle. The stakes were really high in Darwin’s day because Darwin’s allies were fighting against the older established naturalists, who maintained that you could do science as a kind of self-subsidised gentlemanly activity. In Darwin’s day they were gentleman naturalists, they were many of them fuddy-duddies to the new rising professional scientists, and it was that conflict between the old gentleman naturalists like Darwin, many of whom were compromised by religion, and the rising men that formed the context in which Darwin’s theories were being debated. They weren’t just being debated for their own sake, they were being debated as weapons in a struggle to professionalise science itself.

Rissa de la Paz: And in the debate, Darwin did attract some notable allies, each a recognised expert in his field. They included the botanist Joseph Hooker, who later became Director of Kew Gardens, and the zoologist Thomas Henry Huxley. He also cultivated allies in the United States, notably the Harvard professor, Asa Gray.

Jim Moore: Darwin was, you might say, stage-managing his reception already before he had published, and sure enough some of these younger naturalists, particularly Thomas Huxley, came out on his side after The Origin of Species was published. Not because they agreed with him 100%. Huxley never really accepted that natural selection was proved, but they were jolly well going to insist as loudly and as long as possible that Charles Darwin will be respected. He will not be patronised by clergymen, he will not be denigrated by older naturalists. This man is not doing something wrong or immoral, subversive, he has an argument that deserves to be heard.

They saw him as a great granite edifice, a man who knew far more about most of their fields than they themselves did. Darwin really was phenomenal, and he had the inevitability about his reasoning and his questioning, and I liken it to a glacier – he moved slowly but inexorably and he ground everything before it. And people knew that, there was a power in this man, a really quite awesome power across the natural history fields.

Rissa de la Paz: At the same time, Darwin’s allies were aware that his influence could work to their own advantage.

Jim Moore: They could use Darwin’s theories, his reasoning, his apparent omniscience as a way of getting themselves accepted. Those who stood in his aura could claim to be independent authorities in science and in the understanding of life on Earth. Life on Earth and human life on Earth will now be a science, it will not be a part of religion.

Rissa de la Paz: It’s remarkable how a man with such a radical theory managed to transform scientific and cultural thought without sacrificing his reputation – even becoming a celebrity of sorts.

Jim Moore: By the time Darwin died in 1882, I think it’s fair to say that most intellectual people whether they were Christians or not Christians accepted that evolution, natural processes produced the diversity of life on Earth, but this was God’s evolution for most thoughtful people. I mean, Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey wasn’t he? He didn’t get there for being an atheist or an out and out agnostic, he got there because by 1882 he was welcomed as an example of how respectable science could be done on the edge, producing a new theory of the origins of organic phenomena without necessarily contradicting God. The sort of the Isaac Newton of natural history; Isaac Newton showed how the planets moved by natural forces, he’s buried in Westminster Abbey. Darwin’s a few yards away from Newton in Westminster Abbey.

Rissa de la Paz: As far as the British establishment was concerned, there could be no more powerful endorsement than that. But what about the reaction to Darwin’s theories outside Britain?

Jim Moore: Books were the material conduit by which Darwin’s theories spread across the world, and who translated them, when they were published, where they were published, who read them, who could afford them, how they were read – all of these were factors in the Darwinising of the globe, you might say. What did people make of these theories? In other words, how did they read these books? We don’t know very much about that. We know a lot about how Europeans read Darwin’s books, a lot about how the Americans do, some about South American countries, some about China, very little in the Arabic speaking world, in the Islamic world. All of this remains to be discovered.

What I think we can safely say is that Darwin’s theories were almost always interpreted; that is to say his texts were interpreted in the light of pre-existing assumptions about nature, human nature and society. Where there were already theories of organic diversification, even if they involved God, people were able to claim, “Ah, Darwin is at last discovering what we’ve always known.” Or they could say, “Darwin is just one of a number of authorities now for believing something that we want to believe in about human progress or human history.” Some would say, “Darwin is a member of an English intellectual elite who are exporting their understanding of the world, along with their culture, along with their material goods, and they are taking over and colonising our minds. And this must either be resisted or this must be cooperated with because this represents progress.” There’s no simple global generalisation for what Darwin’s theories meant to human beings.

Rissa de la Paz: We’ll be exploring the global response to Darwin in another podcast. But even as he was amassing his evidence for publication, Darwin was cannily aware that he was potentially addressing audiences far beyond his native shores.

Jim Moore: The world was Darwin’s oyster. He was not theorising about one place, one country, one continent at a certain time. He had a global vision of geological processes and life within those processes.

Darwin had to consider all of the possible exceptions to his arguments for evolution, taken from every part of the world, because there were Englishmen, primarily, everywhere, just about everywhere in the world, many of them missionaries, many of them religious people, army, doctors, think of India, who could throw objections in his teeth and say, “Ah but in Bengal we have this, ah but at the Cape we have that.” When Darwin turned to put together his big book called Natural Selection he threw his net over the whole world. He developed a correspondence network that touched every little England and many of the other emerging colonies, and even people who lived in yet to be colonised areas.

He had specific questions for them. Not about evolution, they were about evolution for him, but what sorts of animals do people keep there. Can you describe it, can you send me an example? I want pigeons from China, I want rats from West Africa. He developed a whole menagerie or a museum, you might say. Animals dead and alive. Plants the same. He asked people what they could remember having seeing on islands, remote islands. He needed to understand how animals and plants had diversified everywhere around the world. So you might think of Darwin as a kind of spider sitting in the centre of a great network that he had spun around the world. Darwin used this network to build up the evidence that would make his theories irrefutable.

Rissa de la Paz: The rich and remarkably far-reaching web that Darwin spun through his lifetime of correspondence across the world is actually the subject of our next podcast.

Music: Variations on a Theme by Giuliani

Rissa de la Paz: What do these letters reveal about Darwin the scientist and Darwin the man?

But that’s it for this month’s podcast, which was produced as a collaboration between the British Council and the Open University.





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