One of the common myths of our present society is that evolution theory was invented in the 19th century by Charles Darwin. As everyone who has studied evolution theory knows, the French biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, had published a comprehensive theory of evolution in 1809 – the year Darwin was born (See separate essay on Lamarck). Even when scientists do admit that there had been plenty of evolutionists before Darwin – in Britain, France and Germany – they still like to claim that Darwin invented evolution by natural selection. However, that too is an erroneous claim. Another thing that neo-Darwinists like to perpetuate is the idea that Darwin was a perfect gentleman whose dealings with all people was always honourable. Though he was undoubtedly kind and loyal to his family and friends, a good case can be made for claiming that, where evolution theory was concerned, he was ruthlessly possessive, manipulative and sometimes underhand. Though I have no desire to topple Darwin from his rightful place as the most meticulous and thorough promoter of evolution in the 19th century, and the most famous evolutionist of all time, I do think that some misconceptions concerning the originality of his ideas and the generosity of his spirit need to be addressed.
In this essay, I shall look at the evolution of evolution theory in Britain, starting with Darwin’s free-thinking grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). By profession, he was a physician who, incidentally, declined an invitation to attend to “The Madness of George III”. Among his friends in the Lunar Society of Birmingham were some of the most notable scientists of the age, including the Scottish engineer, James Watt (1736-1819), whose improvement work on steam engines made his name synonymous with power. Erasmus Darwin was also a poet, an inventor and an amateur naturalist, who had undoubtedly read Buffon’s great works on natural history (See Lamarck essay). His own writings, and most notably “Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life”, indicate a belief in a process of change in nature, with expressions such as “all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament”, though his prose was more poetic than precise. He would surely have been forgotten if it had not been for his famous grandson. I mention that only as an indication that belief in an evolutionary process was probably commonplace by then amongst natural historians. The question that needed to be addressed was how evolution occurred. Lamarck’s answer was yet to come.
Another physician, of Scottish ancestry, William Charles Wells (1757-1817), whilst not a declared Evolutionist, seems to have realised the importance of competition, survival, and the environment in determining the geographical distribution of races, as shown by the following extract from his posthumous 1818 paper:
Of the accidental varieties of man which would occur among the first and scattered inhabitants of the middle regions of Africa, some one would be better fitted than the others to bear the diseases of the country. This race would subsequently multiply, while the others would decrease; not only from their inability to sustain the attacks of disease, but from their incapacity of contending with their more vigourous neighbours. The colour of this vigourous race I take for granted, from what has already been said, would be dark. But the same disposition to form varieties still existing, a darker and darker race would in the course of time occur; and as the darkest would be the best fitted for the climate, this would at length become the most prevalent, if not the only race, in the particular country in which it had originated.
The first prominent Brit to espouse Lamarckism during the late 1820s and 1830s was a Scottish academic called Robert Edmond Grant (1793-1874), who had studied in Paris. However, he didn’t have much influence outside the academic circles in which he operated, first at Edinburgh University and later at University College, London. In 1833, a Scottish geologist called Charles Lyell (1797-1875) included a critique of Lamarck’s theory in his hugely influential book, “Principles of Geology”. That was probably the first time that many British scientists became aware of the concept of transformism, as well as of the evidence for the earth’s incredibly old age. Ironically, since Lyell would go down in history as being influential upon evolution theory, he did not then even believe in the process, especially insofar as it related to man, and he did not become a convert to evolution until many years later, when he admitted to having done Lamarck an injustice.
There were, however, other people in Britain who took evolution on board. A Scottish arboriculturist, Patrick Matthew (1790-1874), and an English amateur ornithologist, Edward Blyth (1810-1873), independently left evidence in the form of writings published in the 1830’s that they were not only familiar with Lamarck’s views but also believers in the importance of competition and survival. Matthew even used the term ‘natural process of selection’ in his 1831 book, “Naval Timber and Arboriculture”.
In 1844, an anonymous book called “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation” was published, which had clearly been influenced by Lamarck and Laplace with its view that the whole solar system, and all the life on earth, had evolved. To the British public, it was revolutionary stuff, and it caused quite an outcry, running to many editions. It was later discovered that it had been written by the Scottish publisher, Robert Chambers (1802-1871), whose surname is now associated with reference books. One eminent English biologist, called Richard Owen (1804-1892), who discovered the previous existence of what he called ‘dinosaurs’, was very aware of what was going on in France and was sitting on the fence waiting to see where his destiny lay. But it was an English philosopher, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who took up the cause of Lamarckism most enthusiastically after reading Lyell’s critique. Spencer was arguably the greatest evolutionary theorist of the century and it was he who coined the term ‘evolution’, within the context of biological change, as well as the expression ‘the survival of the fittest’. We shall be returning briefly to him when he moves into the spotlight but, for the moment, it is sufficient to say that his first evolutionary book, “Principles of Psychology”, did not make much impression when it was published in 1855, probably because it was couched in philosophical language and could only be understood by philosophers.
And so, at last, we come to the most famous Evolutionist of all time, Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), the grandson of Erasmus. After a privileged education, during which he showed himself to be not too bright, Darwin was persuaded to go into the family business and study medicine at Edinburgh, but he dropped out because he hadn’t the stomach for it. His father then persuaded him to study for the clergy at Cambridge, but that didn’t work out either, and he spent much of his time shooting birds. His only real interest was natural history, but that was not considered a fitting career for a gentleman. His big break came when he was offered a free passage on what turned out to be a five-year round-the-world cruise on H.M.S. Beagle. At least it got him away from the career expectations of his father. During the course of this voyage, he was able to study the natural histories of far-flung countries, and he was particularly impressed by what he saw on the Galapagos Islands. Another myth concerning Darwin is that he thought up evolution theory there. He may have become a convert there, but he was well aware of the existence of evolution theory long before he set sail on The Beagle. Not only had he read his own grandfather’s books as a teenager, but he had also known Robert Grant whilst at Edinburgh University. Whilst on board the Beagle, he had read Lamarck’s “Histoire Naturelle des Animaux sans Vertèbres” and Lyell’s “Principles of Geology”. He was well steeped in Lamarckism.
He came from a very rich family and, shortly after his return to England, he made the logical decision to marry his cousin, Emma Wedgwood (1808-1896), who came from an even richer family of potters. Thus he ensured that he would be able to lead a life of leisure, studying natural history to his heart’s content. He also became friends with Charles Lyell, whose views on geology had a great influence upon his own views on natural history. The main thing that Lyell was able to give Darwin, which Darwin desperately needed, was time – millions of years of it. He also received regular, informative correspondence from Edward Blyth, whose essays he had read; they had been published in The Magazine of Natural History, of which Darwin was known to be an avid reader even when abroad. Though he studied hard, and there were undoubtedly a great many influences upon him, the three main ones seem to have been Lamarck, Lyell and Blyth. (See essay, “Darwin’s Influences”)
Though Darwin was generally very bad at acknowledging influences, sources and predecessors – indeed, he gave the impression that he thought up all his ideas entirely by himself – he later claimed that he had been influenced by an English economist called Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), whose 1798 “Essay on the Principle of Population” also contained the rudiments of Natural Selection, in much the same way as Dr. Wells’ essay did. However, all the scientific papers Darwin published concerning his discoveries abroad contained no hint of the theory which he was developing into a long essay during the early 1840’s and then a mammoth tome during the 1850’s. Even when it was effectively finished, he kept it in his bottom drawer for alleged fear of the offence it would cause if it was published, not least to his dearly-beloved religious wife. That didn’t stop him from making provision for its publication in the event of his death. He also allegedly feared it would increase social unrest, even though “Vestiges…” had done no such thing.
It was only in 1858, when he received a letter from another English naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), that he realised he would have to take action if his brainchild was not to be usurped. (See essay, “The Darwin Conspiracy”) In a malarial fever in Malaysia, Wallace had hit upon almost exactly the same theory and his letter contained a paper to that effect for submission to the Linnaean Society. Wallace claimed he had first been alerted to the idea of evolution by “Vestiges…..”, though there is evidence that he had also read Blyth’s essays. If Wallace had not been such a gentleman, or such an impatient fool, we might now be talking about the Wallacian Theory of Evolution. It probably wouldn’t have caught on since, as an unorthodox religious member of the species for which the world had been made, Wallace’s evolutionary views were riddled with inconsistencies and attracted much ridicule. The fact that most people have never heard of Wallace tells its own story. Though Darwin was persuaded by his friends to make his own submission at the same meeting of the Linnaean Society, thereby preventing Wallace from beating him to it, Darwin had a book almost ready whereas Wallace didn’t. In 1859, the book was published with the somewhat long-winded title of “On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”, of which this is the opening:
When on board H.M.S.Beagle as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species – that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years’ work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable; from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object.
As evidenced by that passage, the book gave the impression that Darwin had invented evolution theory by himself. I am going to take the liberty of assuming you know the gist of his theory, of which details will be discussed during the course of the rest of this essay. What I will say now was that his most famous book did not attempt to explain the origin of the variations upon which Natural Selection operated; they were just random modifications, which he usually called spontaneous variations, which could be beneficial, neutral or detrimental to the organisms that received them. Consequently, Natural Selection is only the Guiding System of Evolution and not the driving force. The supposed origin of random mutations would not be understood for well over a hundred years.
Leaving aside the origin of the variations, Natural Selection is undeniable to the point of being a tautology or truism. Nobody can deny that, if any organism does not live long enough to reproduce, it does not leave descendants. It is also entirely logical that the organisms which don’t live long enough to reproduce will tend to be the ones which are least suited to life or the environments they inhabit. The other side of that coin is that organisms which manage to reproduce profusely will tend to be the best suited to life. That much had been known to breeders and natural historians for centuries, without it being seen as an instrument of evolutionary change. In order for Natural Selection to be effective and meaningful, it depends on significant over-production of offspring followed by natural culling down to the sustenance level of the environment, as exemplified by the following passage from “The Origin of Species”, as it came to be known:
Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection.
Though it is fairly well known that Darwinian evolution relies heavily on luck, the fact that it also depends on large-scale premature death has always been down-played.
As Darwin had anticipated, the book caused a furore, most notably from the Church of England, but it also proved to be a best-seller, running to many editions. Darwin himself kept well out of the mock trial which followed, pleading genuine ill-health, and left his defence in the capable hands of his most ardent supporter, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), who, on reading “The Origin of Species”, claimed to have said to himself, “How stupid of me not to have thought of that.” A sceptical scientist, Huxley had previously read Lamarck and “Vestiges…”, and been friendly with Spencer, without being convinced. Once converted, he devoted his oratory skills to the cause to great effect. During the most publicised session, after Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), arguing the Creationist case, taunted Huxley by asking him whether it was on his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side that he claimed ape descent, Darwin’s Bulldog famously retorted with words to the effect that he would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth. Huxley was judged to have won the day, but the verbal exchanges at the bar would go on for a long time yet, with a never-ending stream of witnesses taking a stand.
Though the main opposition was to the very concept that species could have changed, on religious grounds, what Darwin might not have anticipated was the antagonism that came from other Evolutionists such as the aforementioned Patrick Matthew, Richard Owen and Herbert Spencer. Since Darwin had no cause to read books on ‘Naval Timber’, he claimed he couldn’t have seen Matthew’s Appendix, as Matthew seemed to suggest after the publication of “The Origin of Species”. But some people reckon Darwin could have known about Matthew, and that the minor acknowlegements Darwin gave to both Blyth and Matthew in later books were very ungracious. (See essay on “Darwin’s Guilty Secret”) Blyth was only acknowledged for supply of factual information, of which there had been plenty, and Matthew was privately described as an ‘obscure writer on forest trees’ who had briefly enunciated the principle of Natural Selection. Darwin gave more credit to Wells and Malthus, neither of whom had been interested in natural history and both of whom were, very conveniently, dead, than he ever did to Matthew and Blyth. Matthew even reportedly had “Discoverer of the Principle of Natural Selection” printed on his visiting cards and title pages; he was so indignant that his role had not been recognised. Whether Darwin did or didn’t know about Matthew before the publication of “The Origin of Species”, the fact is that Darwin and Wallace had both been well and truly beaten by Matthew over the issue of evolution by Natural Selection, and Darwin did very little to publicise that fact.
Though Owen had been ambivalent, the publication of “The Origin of Species” revealed that he was pre-destined to be an anti-Darwinist, who joined ‘Soapy’ Sam Wilberforce in the famous debate and continued to have major disputes with Huxley. Darwin could only account for Owen’s antagonism on the grounds that he was jealous. Arguing the Lamarckian cause was left to Spencer, who saw evolution in universal terms, as a continuous flow; he took great exception to the idea that evolution would have to wait around for random variations; it had to be cause and effect mechanisms which kept the flow going. Spencer tried to make a lot of noise about this but he didn’t gain much attention, since the real debating point was still between Creationists and Evolutionists. One Roman Catholic biologist, St George Mivart (1827-1900), was brave enough to try and build a bridge over troubled waters by claiming, in his 1871 book, “The Genesis of Species”, that evolution, along Lamarckian lines, was the method God had used to create all the different species. In consequence, he was debarred from taking the sacraments by the Archbishop of Westminster and rebuked by Darwin’s supporters for missing the point. He remained a vociferous, and implacable, opponent of Natural Selection, since God would hardly rely on large-scale, premature death in order to achieve His purpose.
What the baying public wanted to know was, whether this evolution business applied to man, or were we exempt? Though Huxley had never been in any doubt, Darwin waited till 1871 before he confirmed in his book, “The Descent of Man”, what he had known all along but had been loathe to publicly admit – that it did and that we were just big-headed, erect, naked apes:
The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly organised form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind – such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey……..as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
“The Descent of Man” caused another outcry, not only for admitting that but also for raising the issue of sex in evolution for the first time in Victorian Britain. Even over this issue, there is good reason to suppose that Darwin was not the originator, since it had been discussed extensively in the 1868 book, “The History of Creation”, by the German evolutionist, Ernst Haeckel (See separate essay on Haeckel). The gist of the new idea was that, alongside the principal guiding system of evolution, which is Natural Selection, there is a second one, which he called Sexual Selection. Though, in broad terms, Sexual Selection refers to any attributes that give an animal, or even a plant, a better chance of being propagated, its main interest is in respect of female choice amongst conscious animals. Based on observations of many, many animal species, it seemed to Darwin that one of the variants that the females inherited were selection criteria for a mate; they were specifically selecting certain characteristics in males, most of whom were indiscriminate opportunists. Therefore, one highly influential factor in evolution was female tastes. Judging by the birds, those inheritable tastes could be extremely arbitrary, as long as the characteristics they favoured weren’t also harmful to the males. In other words, they were random and capricious, but they were still subject to Natural Selection.
With regard to perceived differences between men and women, Darwin was able to put the following extract into public print without fear for the future of his genitalia:
Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness; and this holds good even with savages……………It is generally admitted that with woman the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least, of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation.
The chief distinction in the intellectual power of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.
As its co-discoverer, Wallace agreed totally with Darwin about the importance of Natural Selection, even though he had never used that term. However, unlike Darwin, but following Descartes’ views, Wallace excluded the mind of man from that evolutionary process and also would not accept the issue of Sexual Selection, possibly because he didn’t believe that animals have minds, so the females couldn’t make choices. He denied that there was any direct evidence that female animals selected the most adorned males (for want of a better expression) and accounted for the circumstantial evidence presented by those males by claiming that they were the fittest. As the process of evolution, as opposed to creation, became accepted amongst British scientists and philosophers, differences of opinion over how evolution occurred became more widespread and heated.
So far, we have seen that, in the promotion of what he always called ‘his theory’, Darwin failed to acknowledge his many predecessors and sources of ideas. It was when someone who was more inclined to Lamarckism decided to point out that fact that Darwin got really riled, and engaged in what can only be seen as ungentlemanly conduct. For the story of that rather public row, I refer you to my separate essay on Samuel Butler
P.S. I wrote the above in the late 1990s, with the only additions being the internal links to other essays on this site. Since then a lot of things have come to my attention which change Darwin from a possessive under-acknowledger into a duplicitous liar. The evidence is summarised, and my own role explained, in “Six of the Best – Of Darwin’s Lies”