The Changing Face of Darwinism

Michael Ruse. Victorian Studies. Volume 45, Issue 2. Winter 2003.

Many people have come to Charles Darwin through Philip Appleman. A founding editor of Victorian Studies, a novelist and a poet, Appleman is also the editor of the Norton Critical Editions of Darwin. Thefirst edition appeared in 1970, the second edition in 1979, and now we have the third edition just out in 2001. The first edition went through twelve printings in nine years; the second edition went through twenty-three printings in twenty-two years. Thinking in Malthusian terms—Appleman is also the editor of Norton’s Malthus—since we are working in an geometric progression, we should expect this edition to last until around 2040 and go through between forty and fifty printings. Charles Darwin is well served.

The Norton Critical Editions are aimed at the college market. What kind of picture of Darwin and Darwinism is Appleman giving to young students? Let us start back with the first edition of 1970. The Creationist movement was gathering strength again-the seminal work by George Whitcomb and Henry C. Morris, Genesis Flood, was published in 1961—although as yet the movement did not have the profile it gained later in the decade. Within the academy, evolutionary studies were starting to ferment and bubble. Most particularly, people were now becoming aware of the pathbreaking achievements of William Hamilton, who was the key thinker in the move to (what Richard Dawkins later labeled) the ”selfish gene” perspective on natural selection, and which within a few years was to provide the theoretical backing for a whole new science of the evolution of social behavior (so-called “sociobiology”). In parallel with the exciting new work of scientists, historians likewise were moving forward quickly. In 1970, Darwin studies were just about to take off. The embryologist Gavin de Beer had been transcribing and publishing Darwin’s private species notebooks, and others were following to the archives in Cambridge and digging into the world behind the veil of print. Relatedly, some were opening up the pamphlet and periodical literature of Darwin’s day. Things were really moving.

Appleman’s 1970 Darwin was an old man. The cover and the frontispiece were based on the well-known photograph of Darwin around seventy years old but looking more like ninety, bearded and with bushy eyebrows, carrying the world’s cares as he stares into space and worries about major conceptual problems. Appleman’s Darwin was first and foremost a heavyweight, serious scientist, who found one of the truly great scientific theories of all time and who pushed ahead to justify it to himself and then to prove it to the world in a skillfully presented series of works. This original Darwin started with a section containing primary and secondary extracts informing us about the pre-Darwinian scientific world, and then followed with massive (and usefully abstracted) passages from the major writings, notably The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). Although in the original more than half of Descent was devoted to the secondary mechanism of sexual selection, for Appleman (rightly) it was the application of evolutionary ideas to our own species which really made Darwin important and interesting.

The first edition of the Norton Darwin then moved on to Darwin’s influence on science, down to the present. This section was solid and sound, but already starting to look a little behind the times. It presented the Darwin made familiar by the Grand Old Men of the evolutionary field, people like the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky and ornithologist Julian Huxley, rather than the controversial Darwin who, in anticipation of the selfish-gene perspective, insisted (against Alfred Russel Wallace) that selection works for the individual over the group. Absent from the Norton Darwin was the Darwin being taken up by young scientific Turks, who argued that the biological world is much tougher and nastier than most suspect. There was no hint of the Darwin who would stand behind future controversial works like Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975)—Darwin who was going to upset just about everyone from liberals to Marxists who had taken an ideological stand on the virtues of cooperation and of working together.

Then, in the first edition of the Norton Darwin, came Darwin’s influence on theology and philosophy. This solid section traced the ways that people tried to find explicit meaning—ethical and religious—in the pages of Origin, or in the implications that they saw coming from them. Opinions for and against were offered, and, although the context was historical, it was used to suggest (what was true in 1970) that science and theology/philosophy have little to say to each other. For instance, the chief discussion of the implications of evolution for ethics did not feature scholars from the humanities. Rather, it was given over to two scientists, in fact two Huxleys-grandfather Thomas Henry and grandson Julian-who squared off over the issues.

Next in the Norton Darwin came Darwin and society. Again pretty historical, with material on Social Darwinism, including Teddy Roosevelt holding forth on analogies between biology and history, and with anarchist Peter Kropotkin telling us that there exists between all people a natural feeling of mutual sympathy and inclination to help others. “Darwin and the Literary Mind” then brings to conclusion the main sections of the Norton Darwin. A. Dwight Culler makes some stimulating points about Darwin’s influence on people like Lewis Carroll, disappointing if only because his suggestions are mere teasers rather than fully worked-out analyses. I did miss finding something from Stanley Hyman’s Tangled Bank (1962), which still seems to me to have one of the best discussions on metaphor and science.

All in all, the first edition of the Norton Darwin, was a substantial collection (674 pages), representing a huge amount of learning and sheer hard work in collecting, selecting, condensing, and ordering. Movethe clock forward now to 1979 and the second edition of the Norton Darwin. On the cover, we now had a younger Darwin. Reproduced (in black and white) was George Richmond’s famous wedding portrait, drawn when Darwin was about thirty-handsome, dressed as a bit of a dandy (great waistcoat), and still with his hair. You might think that the shift to the younger Darwin marked a move to a Darwin of the private, creative years-the years of discovery and subjectivity, when things like the influence of religion were important—and a move from the Darwin of the later, public-presenting years—the years when objective reason and evidence were prime. But this was not so. Appleman’s Darwin continued to be primarily a man of science-if anything, even more so a man of science. His influences (to and from him) were as a man of science and the really important new developments were in the realm of science. Although much work was done in the 1970s documenting the influences of religion, philosophy, and the like on Darwin, the influences were not the new focus of the second Norton edition. Science counted even more than before.

The second edition started (as did the first) with science before Darwin and at once one can sense that something is up. Flagging the change of emphasis in the new edition is the reduced significance of natural theology. The attempt to find God through reason rather than faith was a very significant influence on Darwin. In the 1970s, those of us who grubbed around in the archives found much to support theimportance of this connection. In the first edition of the Norton Darwin, the connection was made several times. William Paley, author of Natural Theology (1802), the standard early-nineteenth-century work on the argument from design, was much discussed and there were pieces from the Bridgewater Treatise (1836) of William Buckland and another from the Bridgewater Treatise (1833) of Charles Bell. In the second edition, however, Paley was much reduced, and Buckland and Bell had gone entirely. This was a Darwin of science, and not one with God lurking somewhere in the background.

Why this change in emphasis, given the opposite direction of Darwin studies in the 1970s? The answer came later in the second edition, in the section on philosophy and religion. During the 1970s, Creationism started to rear its ugly head in a significant and threatening way. Henry Morris was joined by Duane T. Gish, author of Evolution: The Fossils Say No! (1973) and a highly effective public speaker. Biblical literalism was starting to make progress, though it was not until 1981 that the state of Arkansas passed a bill mandating the teaching of Genesis alongside evolution. In revising for the second edition Appleman presented a no-theology Darwin, who could be used to blast the Creationists out of the water. Nor were the Creationists to speak for themselves. Rather (through extracts of articles taken from the Humanist), they were roughed up and rejected. Someone like the physicist and theologian Ian Barbour, who was trying to reconcile a sensible Christianity with a sensible Darwinism, went unmentioned.

The positive additions to this new edition were in the science selections. There was discussion of fossil discoveries of pre-humans in Africa. There was discussion of recombinant DNA, and its implications for the future of humankind. There was now a big and rich section on sociobiology, going on to related issues like the possible biological basis to human intelligence. While the opponents certainly had their say, basically we were presented with work in the Darwinian mode. The edition celebrated work following in the steps of Origin and even more those of the Descent. Evolution through natural selection ruled triumphant, and humans had better never forget this. Wilson is an expert on the ants, and his big book (Sociobiology) is only in small part on our species, but it is this human material which was abstracted.

So we come to the third edition of the Norton Darwin. The young Darwin is still on the cover, but now he is in living technicolor, framed in eggshell blue and gold. This cover is a good metaphor for the volume as a whole, for the contents are much more lively and diverse and self-confident. Although the structure of the edition is the same (with some of the same section headings), and although some readings persist from edition to edition, this is a much-revised and revamped edition. I hate to use metaphors from punctuated equilibria and evolutionary progress—both of which I consider perversions of true Darwinism—but this volume is a great leap beyond the others. It is full, exciting, controversial, and terrific fun. Now you know why Darwinism grips people’s minds and just will not let go.

Rather than giving a detailed synopsis, I will compare the first (historical) section, from second and third editions. In the second edition, titled “Scientific Opinion in the Early Nineteenth Century” (shortened, remember, from the first edition), we get five pieces. In the third edition, now called “Scientific Thought: Just before Darwin,” we get eight pieces. With his new section title Appleman conceals a change in his approach, granting religion (Paley and Whewell) and philosophy much greater space. Although John F. W. Herschel was the leading astronomer of his day, he was also a philosopher of science: Appleman now reprints this material, which Darwin found really stimulating. (In this third edition, Appleman prepares the way for this change of approach and emphasis by adding a short introductory piece by Ernst Mayr stressing the philosophical dimension to the Darwinian story.)

Not only do we have a fuller, livelier picture of Darwin and his achievements, better balanced and more self-confident, but we have a Darwin who reflects the ways and discoveries of modern history of science, that looks at archives and cultural influences. To take the absolutely crucial factor in Darwin’s case, we have an approach that does not see the relationship between science and religion as one of tension and conflict, but as much more subtle and simulating, for both sides. This approach reflects a much-changed attitude to Appleman’s readers. Before, he felt he had to stress the scientific nature of Darwinism; now, he apparently feels that the way to the students’ hearts is by showing just how rich and multi-valued is Darwinism.

I will leave to others a full evaluation of the treatment of modern science in the third edition of the Norton Darwin. I think it looks pretty good, and the same is true of the much-expanded discussions of such topics as the relationship between Darwinism and philosophy, both in epistemology and ethics. I suspect that someone who is not that keen on Darwin might complain that the selections are somewhat tilted towards Darwinism rather than to alternative mechanisms of evolution, but alternatives get an airing. But rather than focusing on the later sections of the edition, those sections dealing with Darwinism today,the question I now want to raise (as I draw towards an end) concerns Appleman’s overall success in placing the historical Darwin in the light of modern scholarship. Given what is going on today in and around Darwin studies, what might we expect to find added to the fourth edition of the Norton Darwin?

As I have pointed out previously (“The Darwin Industry”), there is a huge amount of work going on around and about Darwin and his revolution. Hence, there is no way that Appleman can capture the full scope of work being produced by the Darwin industry. Nonetheless, I have never been sure that Appleman does full justice to the pre-Darwinian evolutionists-Lamarck in the third edition finally gets an extract, but I would have thought that Erasmus Darwin and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and (above all) the Scottish publisher Robert Chambers, author of the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), deserve more attention. In the past two decades, Adrian Desmond has drawn our attention to the vigor and number of pre-Darwinian evolutionists and how they provide such a contrast to the Origin, being interested in issues quite other from those of Darwin.

The question of adaptation is very revealing of the differences between Darwin and those who preceded him publically. For Darwin, Cambridge-educated, Paley-reading, it is absolutely crucial. For someone like Chambers, it is an irrelevance, something to be acknowledged when it is pointed out to him, and then to be ignored as he moves on to more metaphysical issues. Drawing on some of these issues might highlight even more Darwin’s significance, and point out to the reader of the Norton Darwin, not so much that science is simply a social construction, but that a scientist’s interests will be significantly reflected in his or her work. By focusing more than he does on Darwin’s predecessors, Appleman could strongly reinforce the important point that truth and being right is not everything there is to be said about science. The science that finally appears publically is going to be shaped by interests and cultural ideas and language. Chambers had a different program from Darwin and this is reflected in their very different works.

As it happens, Chambers is getting star treatment just at the moment. Responding to the need to consider and reconsider pre-Darwinian evolutionists, in an absolutely massive work—Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation—historian James Secord has given us a truly magisterial analysis of the Vestiges and its influence as popular science on the early-Victorian scene. But I suspect that Appleman is going to be deeply unsympathetic to Victorian Sensation, and the approach that it represents to the history of science. Secord really cares not about the content of Vestiges as such, but about what Vestiges represented to the Victorians, those who read it and those who claimed to have read it (and those who said that they would never read it under any circumstance). Vestiges as science, important or unimportant, is not Secord’s quarry. He is after other game, and because of this he is led to (or perhaps always intended to arrive at) conclusions much opposed to the spirit in which the Norton Darwin anthologies were conceived and executed.

Victorian Sensation is divided into four parts. First, in “Romances of Creation,” there is much about the reading public in early-Victorian Britain, and information about the actual processes of producing books (itself of interest because of Chambers’s own connection with publishing). Second, “Geographies of Reading,” takes us through the sorts of people who would have been reading Vestiges-city people, scientists, professional theologians, and so forth. Then third comes “Spiritual Journeys,” where we learn about Vestiges and individual reactions to it. Finally, we have “Futures of Science,” which talks about the nature of the scientific community at the time, and how Vestiges impinged on this community and how different people reacted, and what it all meant to them. In line with Secord’s overall approach, there is more discussion of what it meant to be a gentleman, and more particularly a gentleman scholar, than there is of the minutiae of Chambers’s claims or their derivations.

The scholarship is formidable, and Secord does indeed show definitively how Vestiges prepared the way for Darwin and yet how it was something completely other. In many respects, Chambers was speaking to a non-scientific audience and trying to give a world picture, one which would supplement if not replace traditional Christianity. Naturally, those of a conservative Christian perspective, men like the professor of geology at Cambridge Adam Sedgwick, did not like Vestiges at all. Those of a more liberal persuasion, who were already finding Christianity wanting found Vestiges exciting and plausible, if not in every detail then at least, in many of the basics. (Notably, of course, Tennyson made much use of Vestiges m his poem In Memoriam [1850].) But for all its virtues, Victorian Sensation is not on Vestiges, but about it. And either because of this, or because of the philosophy that led Secord to write in this way, some very relativistic claims are promoted. It is not simply that Secord thinks that culture is important in science—Appleman would agree to this—but that in some respects culture seems to be everything. Secord wants his massive treatment to show that ultimately there are neither great definitive books nor definitive scientists. At some significant level, it is all in the mind-our minds. A text in itself has no meaning, only in the reader’s reactions. Comparing Vestiges with the Origin, Secord writes, “Like all readers, we are free to make what we can out of books in the context of our own interpretative communities” (516). Then, somewhat disparagingly, he adds of Darwin’s fame (as compared to that of Chambers), “Like all forms of hero-worship, this celebration of the author undermines possibilities for individual action, for none of us can be a Darwin, at least in the terms that the myth provides. It sets an unobtainable ideal-the genius revealing great discoveries-as a model of what a scientist should be” (518).

Everything about the Norton Darwin editions, including the third, stands against this philosophy. We are not free to make what we can out of books in the context of our own interpretative communities. To use old-fashioned language, Darwin got it right and Chambers did not. The Origin of Species tells us truly about our origins, and the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation does not. Darwin’s book sets up a framework in which other scientists can experiment and observe and predict and explain, from Henry Walter Bates in the 1860s who used natural selection to explain insect mimicry, to the newest graduate student starting out as a scientist. Secord has set up his account in such a way that questions of content and truth are simply ruled out, and not discussed. They are dismissed as unimportant or unanswerable. We could as soon be looking at the third edition of the Norton Chambers as at the Norton Darwin, and in objective terms the difference would not matter. If (with Secord) you write a book that looks at the reactions and the readings, then the conclusions drawn will be that the reactions and the readings are all-important. If you write a book that does not look at the content and relate it to truth, then you are not going to get answers in terms of content and truth. More likely, you are going to produce as conclusion your initial premise, that content and truth are not the crucial issues.

Secord is extreme and by no means universally representative of the scholarship around Darwin and his revolution. Two other recent books—for all that they are deeply sensitive to culture and to social factors—would be much more congenial to the philosophy of the history of science underlying the new Norton anthology. Start with a puzzle. One of the most striking things about the Origin of Species is precisely what it does not say. It is completely silent on the issue of the origin of life, although Darwin would have known that this issue would interest every reader. Life’s origins was a major topic in Vestiges and then comes into many of the better-known, post-Darwinian, evolutionary works-those by the German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel, for instance. Darwin’s silence was deliberate (see Ruse, “The Evolution Wars”). He knew he had no good answers and that discussing the issue could only draw attention to his ignorance. Now, there is much evidence about early life forms and about possible ways in which life might have started. It would hardly be true to say that we are yet on top of the problem-anything but-but the problem is more one of abundance of information and theories and ideas, than of lack of anything to go on. (The origin of life issue is of much interest, to the Creationists, who loudly proclaim that it is an insoluble problem within any possible scientific framework, and hence evidence and support for their side of things.)

In a future Norton Darwin, it might be interesting were some of these issues (about life’s origin) taken up. From a historical perspective, one could do little better than turn to James Strick’s excellently written and beautifully informed study, Sparks of Life: Darwinism and the Victorian Debates over Spontaneous Generation. He shows truly how, despite Darwin’s reticence, the origin of life question flourished in theyears after the Origin. The hero of Strick’s story is Henry Bastian, English medical doctor, and enthusiast for spontaneous generation, who thought that (around 1870) he had performed experiments which showed beyond doubt that new life can indeed come from the non-living. Strick shows that Bastian did not have a chance of making his case, not simply because he was wrong, but that what Bastian was about was out of tune with what the British establishment’s powerful science clique had decreed was to be part of front-rank science.

Initially things looked good for Bastian, who was a first-class scientist and no mean experimenter. In the decade after the Origin, despite Darwin’s silence, Thomas Henry Huxley had himself been speculating on life from non-life and indeed thought there was some empirical evidence to support it. But foul odors still hung in the air from the speculations of Vestiges, not to mention the new findings coming from elsewhere (especially the continent), and soon Huxley was wary of Bastian’s supposed successes at producing new life. Bastian was finding his papers trimmed, altered, shaped, and ultimately refused; he was on the outside looking in. As it happens, by the end of the 1870s it was becoming clear that Bastian’s work was flawed-he had been ignorant of the power of heat-resistant spores, which survived his attempts at sterilization and which then appeared to have come into being from the non-living. But the writing was on the wall before anything definitive was proven on that score. It was not so much a question of being wrong as of being out of tune with the themes of a new science, a new more chemically and physically based science. And so Bastian had to retreat from front-line research and make his career as a physician.

I am not sure how much of such a story could be introduced into a new Norton Darwin, but it would be pure gold if something like it could. Starting with the intrinsic fascination of the origin of life story in itself, one could introduce to the reader the extent to which the social structure of science is so crucial to success and failure. One would have here an opportunity to provide an account that Secord’s analysisof Vestiges misses. Truth does matter-had Bastian been right, then he would have won out eventually. But, in the short run (which may turn out to be a very long short run), social factors count crucially also. It does matter to history when and whether ideas are taken up by the scientifically powerful and allowed to flourish or not.

The brief treatment that I shall give the final book under review here makes me very conscious that I am truly not doing it justice; I simply use it as a foil to compare with the Norton Darwin. Disseminating Darwinism: The Role of Place, Race, Religion, and Gender is one of the most important books of recent years on and around Darwinism. It is not an easy read; indeed the articles are tough going sometimes and very much directed towards specialists. But for sheer solid achievement in looking at the ways Darwinism spread after the Origin, this volume is without competitor.

Included are pieces by David Livingstone, looking at different Presbyterian reactions to Darwinism, finding significant differences between sophisticated Edinburgh, raw Belfast, and pushy, new America; Barry Butcher looking at Darwin; and religion in Australia; John Stenhouse doing the same for New Zealand; and Suzanne Zeller bringing us back up to Canada. Then, turning more directly to religion, there is Ronald L. Numbers and co-author Lester Stephens peering into Darwinism in the American South (more interesting and less uniformly hostile than you might think); Jon Roberts gazing at the general Protestant reaction to Darwinism; and Scott Appleby and Marc Swetlitz looking at the (American) Catholic and Jewish reactions respectively. Finally, Eric Anderson takes on black responses to Darwinism and Sally Kolhstedt and Mark Jorgensen turn to the ”woman question.” This final material should be mandatory reading for those who treat the whole of evolutionary theory as sexist. It is not that evolutionists (including Darwin) were pure as driven snow, but that the truth is so much more complex and interesting.

In a way, Disseminating Darwinism is rather depressing for someone like myself, who is a professional philosopher rather than historian. My stock in trade is sweeping hypotheses rather than nitty-gritty particulars. Numbers and Stenhouse and their contributors show just how difficult it is to make generalizations about Darwinism and its effects. What holds in Edinburgh, fails to hold in Glasgow; what is true of Catholic, is not true of Jew. But it does show again and again just how crucial Darwinism was to Western thought right from 1859. And here, incidentally, by implication the contributions to Disseminating Darwinism show that, at the very least, there has to be something gravely wrong with or incomplete about Secord’s dismissal of the very idea that the Origin might be more important in some absolute way than the Vestiges. It simply is not true that Darwin and his achievements are merely puffed-up figments of the imaginations and needs of our twenty-first century thought patterns and processes. Disseminating Darwinism shows that, whether you liked it or not (and many did not much like it), Darwin was a genius and he did make great and disturbing discoveries. He was a very obtainable and human “ideal.” And generation after generation of people recognized this, and grappled with what he had provided. The work of the Origin transcended individual reactions, and posed fundamental questions that all had to answer in some way or another.

Which of course is precisely what Appleman has been telling us all along. Not that Darwin and his achievements were only things of the past. Appleman’s Norton Darwin editions, with their large sales, show that Darwinism remains no less crucial a century and a half later. The editions and their changes show how the ideas reflect and mold our thinking in so many different areas of human inquiry and interest. Especially, the third edition shows that Darwinism is important in science, in philosophy, in religion, in politics, in literature, and much more. There are good reasons why, today, “in the context of our own interpretative communities,” we continue to make much out of Darwin and his achievements. And it is for this reason why Darwin, and all who cherish his name, must and should be grateful to Appleman. He has long given, and still continues to give, to us and to our students, a brilliant introduction to one of the most important and exciting ideas that our culture has ever produced.