Teaching Evolution

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

Friday, March 25, 2005

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place Part 2-Experimenter

One of my favorite things about Darwinism is the way it applies to subjects beyond biology and anthropology. In Part 2 of Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, Janet Browne writes,
[B]y now some of the most notable nineteenth-century thinkers were contemplating the inner recesses of Darwin's theory and pulling out of it some of the threads that would lead them towards the modern world….[S]everal key intellectuals commended Darwin's method of scientific reasoning, a style depending more on the accumulation of probabilities, and on analogy, than on the classic form of proof by demonstration.

John Stuart Mill praised Darwin's "unimpeachable example of a legitimate hypothesis." The blind Cambridge economist Henry Fawcett began teaching and discussing the Origin of Species to the mathematical and economic community. Karl Marx wrote that "Darwin's work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle." Alfred Tennyson altered In Memoriam after reading Darwin, changing the line that read "Since Adam left his garden yet" to "Since our first sun arose and set." The philologist Friedrich Max Muller suggested that natural selection could have applied to ancient languages. Shortly before his death in 1862 Henry David Thoreau was captivated by Darwin's work.

Still, just as today, Darwin couldn't convince those who closed their minds to his idea. The Australian museum curator Frederick McCoy insisted that if he could get a gorilla skin for his museum, anyone who looked at it would realize that Darwin's view that man and gorilla were relatives was nonsense.

Darwin had a fascination with the American Civil War, and he was such an adamant supporter of the North that he occasionally alienated correspondents who differed with him over the goings on across the Atlantic. Shortly after Lincoln's assassination, Darwin wrote to an American friend,

We continue to be deeply interested on American affairs; indeed I care for nothing else in the Times. How egregiously wrong we English were in thinking that you could not hold the South after conquering it. How well I remember thinking that Slavery would flourish for centuries in your Southern States.

Darwin always considered himself a passionate opponent of slavery, but Browne points out that he wasn't as introspective on the subject as he might have been:

Although he supported the anti-slavery cause more completely than any other social principle in his life, it was nevertheless relatively easy for him, quietly situated in an English village and buttressed by a private income, to advocate a moral crusade in America. Conveniently, he forgot the colonial and industrial sources of British economic wealth, forgot that his own stocks and shares rested on the manual labour of railway navies, miners, indentured millhands, and plantation coolies.

Darwin's core belief that all men are created equal also helped him to avoid the pitfall of so many 19th Century evolutionists who tried to turn the theory of natural selection into evidence of the superiority of certain races.

Physical illness was such a serious problem throughout Darwin's life that Browne titles Chapter 7 "Invalid." Darwin often complained about stomach problems and was frequently confined to bed for long periods of time. But he used these times to his advantage, often getting great amounts of research done when no one would disturb him because he was sick. He often found that his illnesses were a convenient excuse to get out of going to some of the events that British society expected a man of Darwin's stature to attend.

The most common phrase associated with (and, sadly, the only thing many people know about) evolution is "survival of the fittest." Browne writes about the way the phrase, first coined by Herbert Spencer and championed by Alfred Russel Wallace, finally worked its way into Darwin's writing when he published a fifth edition of his most famous work.

At Wallace's urging, Darwin…used for the first time in the Origin of Species Spencer's phrase "survival of the fittest," although remarking that the benefits of a change in wording so late in the day could only be limited. "I fully agree with all that you say on the advantages of H. Spencer's excellent expression of the survival of the fittest," he observed.


Yet neither Darwin, Spencer, nor Wallace apparently noticed how far the expression was replete with circular reasoning, nearly self-defining as a philosophical and biological tautology, in which the fit survive and the survivors are fit.

Darwin respected Wallace enough to use "survival of the fittest," in his Origin, but he later began to question Wallace's intellect when Wallace became fascinated with mysticism and psychics, attending a séance on more than one occasion. "It astonished him," Browne writes, "That an observational naturalist of Wallace's stature could be taken in by what he regarded as obvious fictions."

Browne also reproduces two pages of an original copy of Darwin's Origin, in which Wallace had gone through by hand, crossed off every repetition of "natural selection," and written "survival of the fittest" in its place. Even when you're a genius of Darwin's caliber, someone else always thinks he's smarter.


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