Teaching Evolution

A blog devoted to teaching evolution, both in our schools and in our communities.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place Part 1-Author

Janet Browne begins the second volume of her Darwin biography by describing him as not just a scientist, but as one of the foremost authors of Victorian England. Darwin took his time -- many years -- writing The Origin of Species because he wanted to be sure he got everything correct. Darwin was devastated, though, when Alfred Russel Wallace appeared to beat him to the theory of evolution by natural selection. It's important to remember that Darwinism wasn't a new discovery so much as an improvement upon those who came before him. Wallace was a perfect English gentleman, though, when Darwin told him of his own ideas, writing to a mutual friend that he was glad to know of Darwin's "much earlier and I doubt not much more complete views of the same subject."

As many words as Darwin the author wrote, he's probably best known for words he didn't write. He didn't call his theory "evolution" because at the time the word was used to mean the development of one organism, like an embryo becoming a man. And he chose "descent with modification" rather than "survival of the fittest," a somewhat inaccurate term that was coined in 1864 by Herbert Spencer.

As Darwin prepared to step forward publicly with his theories, he sent The Origin of Species to several respected scientists. Many immediately hailed it as a brilliant work, but some thought Darwin a fool to even consider such a thing. Whitwell Elwin called Darwin's work a "wild and foolish piece of imagination." He thought Darwin would be better off writing a bit about the pigeons he had studied and discarding everything else.

When Darwin finally was prepared to publish, he settled on the title of "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life." And alongside the title would appear the name Charles Darwin. Many authors of the era -- especially authors who clashed so markedly with established Christian doctrine -- chose to publish anonymously. Darwin wanted to show that he was prepared for an open debate.

Darwin came along at the perfect time to change the world as an author (he and Dickens were contemporaries) because, as Browne writes, "Darwin and his theories -- and then the Darwinian movement as a whole -- benefited enormously from the unprecedented surge in publishing activity in the middle decades of the nineteenth century." As another time, Darwin would not have received the attention that his theory needed to grow.

As Part 1 concludes, Darwin is widely ridiculed for his belief that man and apes were related. What's surprising is how Darwin's critics were completely devoid of any rational argument. The scientist Richard Owen was one of the world's foremost experts on the gorilla, but he'll always be remembered more for his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the similarities between the human brain and the gorilla brain. Owen claimed that God gave humans a hippocampus minor and that it separated humans from gorillas. Of course, gorillas have a hippocampus minor as well, and Owen simply ignored all the evidence in front of him because it offended his preconceived ideas. Some things never changed.

See also my reviews of the first, second, and third parts of the first volume of Browne's Darwin biography.

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