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THE MEANINGS OF DARWINISM: THEN AND NOW

by Robert M. Young

I am grateful to you for inviting me to take part in this conference on ‘Darwinism and Ethics for the Next Millennium’, and I congratulate Robin Case for having the idea of mounting it at Darwin’s old school. I say this not only because it is an appropriate place to honour Darwin but also because the issues we have come here to discuss and debate are of the greatest importance for young people and their teachers to ponder. The quality and perhaps the existence of our culture depend on the approach that gets taken to the relationship between Darwinism, in its widest sense, and ethics.

I have never set foot in a public school before. Darwin seems to have liked it here -- at least socially. What he has to say about himself and the school academically may offer some comfort to those of you who are thought, or think yourselves, indifferent scholars or are critical of the school. Darwin was, as I’m sure you know, born in Shrewsbury, and his mother died when he was eight. He was a pupil here for seven years between 1818 and 1825 and left when he was sixteen, I am sorry to say, because, as he puts it in his autobiography, ‘I was doing no good at school’. He was nicknamed ‘Gas’, not for the reason you may think, but because he was interested in chemistry, which the headmaster thought a useless subject. Darwin thought his time here was, as a means of education, ‘a blank’ (Darwin, 1958, pp. 25, 27, 28, 46). I do not report these things to put down Darwin or the school but to reiterate the point that you never know how someone who may appear an unimpressive student -- as Darwin did at Shrewsbury, Edinburgh and Cambridge -- will turn out when his or her imagination is fired by an interesting and challenging subject. This apparently idle boy is the most profound thinker the study of biology, including human biology, has ever had, yet neither his father nor his teachers had any inkling that this would turn out to be the case or that he would distinguish himself in any way.

I went to a state school in Texas, one that turned out in retrospect to be a good school, but I had little notion of that until I won a scholarship to America’s best university, Yale. I thought it was for my prowess as a swimmer, but to my considerable surprise they also thought I was clever, and so it turned out. I tell you this, not to compare myself to Darwin but, because in the course of saying some things about Darwin and Darwinism then and now, I am also going to say some things about being a scholar, a species I knew little or nothing about when I was your age. This ignorance turned out to be an asset, since I was so delighted when I found out what one was that I have never got over my initial thrilled enthusiasm, and I am keen to share it with you in the hope that some of you may become intrigued about a life of learning. It is not currently in fashion, but it is an honourable life, and I commend it to you.

I was so ignorant when I was a schoolboy that I could not have told you two sentences about any of the people in the study of whom I have spent the bulk of my career as a scholar: Darwin, Marx and Freud. These men are the central and originating figures of the main grand narratives which the nineteenth century bequeathed to us (Young, 1988). As it happens, each has been the subject of sustained and significantly successful attacks in recent years. Marx has fared worst, Freud rather (but not much) better, and Darwin is, as yet, only the subject of hostile legislation in a small number of American states and has his stout defenders. Trashing Darwin, Marx and Freud is fashionable, but that’s not the same as demonstrating that they were wrong or guaranteeing that they will remain unfashionable. For example, in some quarters psychoanalysis is a growing discipline. Over a dozen new MA degrees in Psychoanalytic Studies have sprung up in recent years, and there are now over two score professorships in this country associated with the subject, of which I hold the only one designated as Psychoanalytic Studies (Young, 1999, 1999b). Similar things can be said about the current position of Marxism, as opposed to its grotesque distortions in the former Soviet Bloc.

The movement to forbid the teaching of the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection as established fact is waxing in several American states and has recently been made official educational policy in Kansas. Regrettable though this is, it is certainly a rear-guard action, occurring largely among unsophisticated religious fundamentalists. In the broader culture there is a huge efflorescence of research, writings and television programmes celebrating and extending the Darwinian point of view to every nook and cranny of the science of living things, human nature and human relations. In some hands it has been claimed as a universal explanation. I am reminded of an analogous situation in the history of the treatment of the mentally ill. When large mental hospitals sited in the countryside first came in during the nineteenth century, the claims to effect cures just from being in such pastoral settings grew and grew until someone claimed to cure all of the patient in a given hospital. His name was Dr Awl, which led a wag to dub him Dr Cure-All. Well, Daniel Dennett, in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), has claimed that Darwinism is such a powerful explanatory theory that it is a universal solvent. The chemists among you will probably know that a universal solvent poses a special problem, since it dissolves everything, leaving one with no container in which to store it. My fear is that Darwinism, which is certainly an idea of fundamental importance, is being promoted in an uncontained way.

I am decidedly ambivalent about the celebratory furore around Darwin and Darwinism. You’d think I would be experiencing unalloyed delight. In some circles and at some times I have been called the world’s leading Darwin scholar, in others the most controversial but also the most influential. It has even been said that I have thought more deeply about the Darwinian revolution than anyone else. Why, then, am I not marching at the head to this growing academic party under the banner of Darwinism? The answer is that it scares me, and its most enthusiastic supporters make little space for the kinds of caveats I put forward. Some of the currently fashionable Darwinism has more than a whiff of zealotry abut it. Zealots claim too much and often run roughshod over those who doubt and disagree. I am very enthusiastic, indeed, about the importance of Darwin’s idea and of subsequent developments, and I’ll say why in just a moment. I am also, however, genuinely frightened by the passion and in some cases the arrogance with which some of the boosters of Darwinism are militantly promoting it. I am thinking, in particular, of the intolerance displayed by Richard Dawkins and the hucksterism of the group involved with the promotion of Darwin@LSE. There is something quite fundamentally intemperate about the approach and the broad claims made by some of these people.

I’ll come back to this theme. For the moment, however, I want to go onto the other tack and say something about Darwin ‘then’, that is, in the nineteenth century. I spent a long time studying the history of biology, philosophy and religion in the Victorian period (Young, 1985a). My interest came from a concern to understand human nature, which explains why I have spent decades pondering the ideas of Marx and Freud, as well (Young, 1973, 1977, 1985, 1986, 1989 1990 1993,,1994, 1994a, 1996).

Let’s stand back and try to place Darwin in the great scheme of the history of ideas. There have been a number of blows to human arrogance. The concept of the solar system dethroned the Earth from being regarded as the centre of the universe. Darwinism showed that humanity is not the specially created pinnacle of all living beings. Marxism showed that economic and ideological forces fundamentally condition what humans do. Freud showed that we do not even have access to the greater part of our motivations, which are unconscious. These explanations mitigate our conception of the human species and our planet as central in the firmament and our humanity as adequately characterised by rational intentionality and conscious control over our actions.

If we look at Darwin’s theory as one of the great ideas in the history of science, we can characterise it in two ways. Evolution ranks with gravity, the central concept in physics, and affinity, the key idea in chemistry, as one of the most basic concepts in the natural sciences. Beyond that, however, evolution by natural selection is a widely-applicable theory in two senses. It is the law which binds all of life together and defines its relations with the physical environment — how the history of living nature relates to the history of nature. And, of course, it binds humanity by causal laws to the rest of life and nature. Evolution by natural selection is the process which accounts for the history of living nature, including human nature. It is arguably the most important idea in the history of the natural and the human sciences. Suitably interpreted, I think it is.

All of the above is fairly common knowledge, though the breadth and depth of the scope of Darwinism is rarely adequately presented. However, there is a huge problem, which is left unresolved -- or perhaps I should say it is in some hands too easily resolved -- by evolution. If we take evolution to be an all-embracing explanation of living, including human, phenomena, then it includes human psychology, society and culture within the causal nexus of deterministic scientific laws. If this is so, what is the basis for morality? Put another way, how should we think of the role of values and morality in human nature? At its most stark, evolution by natural selection proceeds by competition for resources for resources and/or mates to achieve viable offspring which live to reproduce. How can this conception of the interrelations between creatures be subtle enough to include processes which transcend competition — altruism, charity, generosity, self-critical reflection, including what Darwin’s great inspiration, T. R. Malthus, called ’moral restraint’? (Young, 1999a). How can it explain the diversity of customs and mores in different cultures? Providing such explanations is, I take it, part of the project of the new Darwinian sciences, in particular Darwinian (sometimes called Evolutionary) Psychology. The answers they tend to provide often strike me as less useful than the ones we can gain from more traditional ones employing human purposes, consciously conceived and/or discerned in unconscious motivations, which do not rely on selfish genes and competition resources and/or mates.

It seems to me to be approaching things the wrong way up to claim that Darwinian explanations provide the most basic accounts for the subtleties and complexities of human relations when literature, philosophy, theology, analytical psychology and other cultural approaches evoke and explore them so well. Perhaps I should say, rather, that it seems wrong-headed to me to offer Darwinian explanations as superior to or as replacements for traditional explorations of such matters derived from the arts. It may be, of course, that evolution explains humanity and all its works, but we must still find a way of paying due respect to established forms of reflection on human nature and not run headlong into a single explanatory paradigm -- and a reductionist one, at that. The general applicability of evolutionary explanation is not the same as its replacing other explanations or as being seen as more appropriate or basic than them.

This point becomes an urgent one when science gains access to the mechanisms for altering genetic processes and begins to allow us to alter and reconstruct the genomes and achieve cloning of other species and ourselves. It is too easy to collapse the issues involved and to allow too much authority to scientists in the debates which it is appropriate for us to have about these matters. There is also a common elision, which needs to be avoided. It is sometimes thought or implied that since evolution can, in principle, explain everything human, then evolutionists — by which I mean biological scientists and popularisers of their ideas — have special insights and authority across all of knowledge. I find this implied in the aggressive stances taken up by some (not all) of the public spokespersons of science. I have in mind, for example, the aforementioned Richard Dawkins (1976) and also Louis Wolpert (1993), both of whom strike me as delighting in putting down people whose disciplines they assert are made less important and even a waste of time, e.g., philosophy, history and philosophy of science, cultural studies.

There was a similar arrogance associated with positivism in philosophy and science in earlier decades. It was claimed that there was science on the one hand and confusion on the other; testable hypotheses were set over against and versus muddle, logic and poetry. A whole series of dichotomies was posited with one side scientific and reliable and the other markedly less so:

fact-value

science-ideology

nature-culture

science-arts

primary qualities-secondary qualities

mechanism-purpose

outer-inner

rational-emotional 

My experience of certain biologists, molecular biologists and scientists who appear on the media and speak in a militant way is that they indulge in the celebration of science at the expense of the rest of knowledge. I advocate complementarity and peaceful coexistence and deplore arrogance, splitting and competitiveness over such matters. Two examples come to mind. The eminent molecular biologist, Sydney (latterly Sir Sydney) Brenner (co-translator of the genetic alphabet), was a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, when I was. I invited a distinguished philosopher of science, Mary Hesse (latterly a Fellow of the British Academy) to a college feast, and the person arranging the seating thought it might prove interesting to put them next to each other. When they were introduced and Brenner asked her and was told what her field was, he replied (in his rather thick South African accent), ‘Haven’t they closed that down yet?’ I told this story in a television debate with the scientific pundit, Louis Wolpert, at a point when he was denigrating scholars whose disciplines involved reflecting on science. His comment was (also, as it happens, in a South African accent), ‘Quite right!’. Aside from the discourtesy to a college guest, I found Brenner’s insolence characteristic. I have a similar impression from some of the speculations of Richard Dawkins who discusses religion as analogous to a virus and in one article let slip that he regarded culture in the same light (Dawkins, 1993). The implied subtext was that scientists might help us root out these infections and leave us with pure scientific rationality. I should add that he repudiated this implication when challenged. These people may be right to defend themselves against the charge of being reductionists, though some would not wish to do so. (For example, at the conference where I gave this talk, Matt Ridley said he was proud to be a reductionist but deplored what he called ‘greedy reductionism’.) It is not at all as obvious to me that they are not philistines (Young, 1995a).

It is also important to ask about the relationship between these highly-public debates and the development of Darwin scholarship, which is proceeding apace with the progressive publication of the collected letters of Darwin, eleven volumes of which have so far been published by Cambridge University Press (Darwin, 1985-99), taking us up to 1863, and he lived for nearly two more decades. I am struck by how little contact there seems to be between the hucksterism of those offering Darwinism as a universal explanation, on the one hand, and the professional Darwin scholars, on the other. This is, to say the least, odd, since claims for the power of Darwin’s ideas should surely be based on a sound foundation of what he actually said and the framework of ideas which he advocated and within which he thought.

The area of Darwinian science which is flourishing most is sociobiology, which in its current, more subtle and more promising form is, as I said, called Darwinian Psychology and uses evolutionary variables to explain human behaviour. The explanations in Darwinian Psychology are rooted in instinct theory and expressed in term of the contribution of a given way of reacting to competition for mates and survival. These explanations are often ingenious, but I think they are also often far-fetched. That is, they use distal explanations when proximal ones are called for. Don’t get me wrong. We must find more adequate models for the inner world, and how we evolved is certain to contribute quite fundamentally to understanding human nature. I have spent significant periods of my life working on theories of brain function (Young, 1970, 1990), on evolutionary theory and on evolutionary views of psychology (Young, 1970, esp. ch. 5; 1985a, esp. ch. 3). I am not opposing those approaches, but I am reminding you that behaviour and motivation are multi-layered, just as physics, chemistry and biology are. It is notoriously true that you cannot deduce the subjectively experienced properties of tables and chairs from the physical properties of fundamental particles or explain the subtleties of food flavours by reference to molecular interactions in biochemistry. Similarly, the layers of historical explanation in evolution and the layers of causal explanation of behaviour do not all reduce to the struggle for existence. There are other layers — other levels of explanation — which provide accounts which have their own explanatory efficacy and appropriately satisfy curiosity (Young, 1995). When I ask someone why he has done something, I do not want to hear about his serotonin levels. I might find an explanation in terms of brain injury or drug reaction relevant in some cases, but in most cases I want a reply which informs me about his motivations, one that includes a moral dimension. I will feel fobbed off by anything else. Similarly, when I go into a chemist’s shop and ask for something for a headache, I don’t want a response in terms of fundamental particle physics. I want a response at the appropriate level of explanation, in this case about a pill for my headache and instructions about how often to take it.

We continue to turn to literature, the theatre, music and story-telling to edify and to reflect upon human nature. Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Kafka and others enlighten us, and they explain why people behave as they do in terms of the subtleties of intentions and motivations. We need a psychology and therapies which resonate with lived experience, and Darwinian Psychology is so far a very long way from providing one. I want to give it a fair wind, but in the meantime I want to see its development as a part of a family of congenial and compatible approaches to human nature, no one which claims to be more basic than, and to supersede, all the others. In particular, I would argue that psychoanalysis (along with related theories drawing on it) is at present the only theory one on offer, which illuminates the most primitive dimensions of our inner — that is, our subjective — world below consciousness. I should perhaps add that I speak not only as a Darwinian scholar but also as a practitioner of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

I want to offer some historical examples to support my belief that we should be cautious about feeling that evolutionism is a panacea. Science, like other modes of thought, offers no guarantee of getting things right. Darwin was himself very modest, indeed, about the implications of his theory for psychology. His writings on this subject were largely derivative and rather tentative. Of course, in his lifetime there was a much more fundamental hurdle to clear, the principle of continuity between other species and homo sapiens. While zoology showed that we were closely allied to the higher apes, some of Darwin’s most assiduous allies were reluctant to draw the appropriate conclusions. Sir Charles Lyell, the great geologist, provided in his Principles of Geology (1930-33) the principle of uniformity which posited that only current causes, in their current intensities, could account for the history of the changes the earth has undergone. This meant that great draughts of time would be required to account for the history of the observed changes on our planet. Darwin saw that small changes, working over this time scale, could produce the evolution of species, including our own. Lyell, it must be said, was very reluctant, indeed, to see this extrapolation made, and Darwin spent many years agonising over Lyell’s slowness in assenting to Darwin’s explanation of The Descent of Man (1871). Lyell’s The Antiquity of Man (1863) withheld assent from the application of Darwinism to humanity, and it was many years before he accepted this extrapolation.

Almost as wounding and disappointing was the fact that the co-author of the theory of evolution by natural selection was also not a wholehearted adherent to Darwin’s views on this matter. You may recall that Alfred Russel Wallace was a field naturalist in the Malay Archipelago when he suddenly grasped the essence of the theory. He had adumbrated it earlier and came so near that Lyell warned Darwin to get his skates on and publish his theory before Wallace forestalled him. Darwin did, indeed, sit down to write a big book, never to be published in his lifetime, entitled, Natural Selection (Stauffer, 1975). He was hard at it when he got a letter from Wallace saying that he had figured it all out while having a malaria attack and lying in his hammock. Darwin was devastated. He said that Wallace’s phrases were his own chapter headings. This potential scoop was handled in a gentlemanly manner; they published jointly (Darwin and Wallace, 1958) and Wallace always generously referred to the theory as Darwinism and even wrote a book with that title (Wallace, 1889). But where the human brain was concerned, he abandoned natural selection and argued that some other explanation of its features was called for (Wallace, 1870). Darwin was grievously disappointed.

You might say that the brain anatomists and neurophysiologists would solve the problem and vindicate Darwin, but scientists usually see what their theoretical preconceptions lead them to see. One of the great anatomists and paleontologist of the period, Richard Owen, claimed vociferously that there was a brain structure, the hippocampus minor, that humans had and other species did not. This was entirely false, but gallons of ink were consumed by Darwin’s most successful popularizer, T. H. Huxley, and others in getting the matter clear. An eminent brain physiologist at Princeton, my friend and colleague, Charles Gross, has told this story in a fascinating essay, subtitled ‘On the Social Construction of Neuroanatomy’ (of which I’ll leave a copy of for your library – Gross, 1998).

William Carpenter, probably the most respected brain scientist of this period, said that there was a physical gap separating the cerebral cortex from the lower nervous centres and tracts –-- a literal gap separating the thinking and willing parts of the brain from the lower animal parts. Any first year medical student in our own time could show you with ease that there is no such gap. These are the lengths Darwin’s contemporaries went to fend off the evolutionary continuity between man and beast (see Young, 1970, pp. 210-20).

I tell you these interesting anecdotes in the history of psychology and brain science to illustrate a general point. Traditions and points of view in science are not immune from prejudice and preconception, even in the minds of very great thinkers and researchers. Here we have leaders in the field whose eyes saw what their preconceptions dictated. There were other figures in the history of psychology in Darwin’s lifetime who he thought had more to say about the brain and psychology than he did. For example, he relied on his disciple, Huxley, to write the part of his book on The Descent of Man which was  about the brain. In fact, the most provocative passage in On the Origin of Species illustrates this point. In the first edition of 1859, Darwin wrote, ‘In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be placed on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation’ (Darwin, 1859, p. 488). Then comes the sentence, which made the book a huge threat to the established view of the place of humanity in nature. Darwin concludes this short, provocative paragraph as follows: ‘Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history’ (Ibid.). In the last edition, which he corrected until the late 1870s, he makes it clear that he does not regard himself as having laid those new foundation for psychology. The sentence about psychology is re-written and reads, ‘Psychology will be securely based on the foundation already well-laid by Mr Herbert Spencer…’ (6th ed., reprinted 1895, p. 402). Spencer provided an evolutionary basis for both the development of mind and learning (Spencer, 1855, 1870-72), an approach, which was taken up by the great British neurologist John Hughlings Jackson (1931) and adopted, in turn, by Freud who used these as assumptions in the psychoanalytic approach to the structure and functioning of brain and mind (Freud, 1891).

I’ll make this point about preconceptions another way by telling you something about the history of encyclopaedias. Unless you live in a very large house you can become pretty unpopular with your wife or partner by becoming a collector of encyclopaedias, I can tell you from personal experience. I have several successive editions of The Encyclopaedia Britannica (the latest edition of which, is now, she was relieved to learn, available free on-line). I am fascinated by how they change -- you might even say that they evolve. The founders of the encyclopaedia movement in France saw them as repositories for the accumulation of knowledge, but they were wrong to think that knowledge accumulates in a linear way. Not only do new discoveries get made in what has been called ordinary science or scholarship. More important than that, as Darwin strikingly shows, ways of thinking also shift. The categories, the assumptions, the theories, whole approaches change. Thomas Kuhn (1962) has called this level of change ‘a paradigm shift’. Well, if there was ever a paradigm shift in the history of thought, it was the one wrought by Darwin. There were, of course and as I’ve indicated, other dramatic ones. The shift from geocentric planetary theory to heliocentric -- from belief that all planets go around the earth in circles to belief that all planets, including the earth, go around the sun in elliptical orbits. The atomic theory in chemistry was another. If you peruse the eighth edition of the Britannica, you will search in vain for any mention of evolution, even though there were theories of it about. You will, however, find a substantial entry entitled ‘Deluge’, where the history of geology (which has no separate entry in this edition) is subsumed under an account of the Biblical Flood. There is only a tiny entry on ‘Evolution’ which does not mention our sense of that word, none on ‘Development’. The one on ‘Species’ says only ‘See LOGIC’. This volume of the Britannica bears the date 1854, five years before Darwin’s book was published at the end of 1859. Now have a look at the ninth edition. The long article on the Deluge has vanished, and one on ‘Evolution in Biology’ has appeared (Huxley, 1879), as has one on ‘Evolution in Philosophy’ (Sully, 1897). The whole intellectual framework for thinking about the earth and the history of life has shifted between the 1850s and the 1870s, when the next edition came out.

The Darwinian theory replaced a framework which had reigned since antiquity, and I want to urge you to read the book, which describes it. The theory of everything which ruled intellectual and religions life from the Greeks to Darwin was called ‘The Great Chain of Being’, and Arthur O. Lovejoy founded the academic discipline called the History of Ideas by writing a book about it, subtitled, ‘An Essay in the History of an Idea’. According to this theory, this cosmology, everything that could possibly exist did exist; there was a single chain extending from non-being to the angels and God; every link was there. The ruling principles were plenitude, unilinear gradation, and sufficient reason (that everything was there for a purpose). Humankind was exactly in the middle of the chain. Alexander Pope immortalised this world view in the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment in a passage I am glad that I was required to memorise when I was a schoolboy and will now recite. It is from a poem called ‘An Essay on Man’ and appeared in 1733. Pope wrote, 

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:
The glory, jest and riddle of the world!

(Pope, 1733, Epistle II, pp. 125-26) 

I find this a lovely vision, and, although perhaps passé in certain features which are not central to the vision being conveyed, it embodies the kind of wisdom which explanations drawn from Darwinian Psychology are unlikely to improve upon. It was allied to a time span for human history of 6000 years, such that the earth was created in 4004 BC. Needless to say, evolution was precluded by the terms of the theory. The links in the chain of being were quite distinct, did not merge into each other and did not change over time. Ironically, it was a related principle, that of uniformity, which lay at the base of Lyell’s uniformitarian geology and Darwin’s theory, which he said came half out of Lyell’s mind. Indeed, Darwin took volume one of Lyell’s Principles of Geology with him as he set sail in the world voyage of the Beagle between 1831 and 1836, where he moved through space and geological time on a sufficient scale to conceive of his own over-arching theory

It is important to stress that Darwin did not think of evolution all by himself. Volume two of Lyell’s Principles reached Darwin in Montevideo. Lyell wrote in opposition to evolution but the second volume contained a careful exposition of the evolutionary theories which were then available. Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had conceived of a theory of evolution several decades before Charles (E. Darwin, 1794-96; McNeil, 1987). An autodidact, Robert Chambers, had published a theory of evolution in 1844, which had caused a great stir and led Darwin, who had worked out his own theory in 1838, to write out a fair copy of his ideas in case his abundant physical symptoms might kill him before he published his ideas (Darwin, 1844). And Herbert Spencer, whom I mentioned a minute ago in connection with evolutionary psychology, published a theory of evolution in 1852, entitled ‘The Development Hypothesis’.

What Darwin provided was a huge amount of scientifically respectable data and a credible theory of the mechanism of evolution. That’s not quite right; he did not really have a mechanism. That came some time after he died and as not clearly formulated until well into the 1930s and was not given a truly chemical basis with the relevant structure spelled out until the Watson-Crick model of DNA in 1953. Darwin’s account was sufficiently plausible so that it persuaded people that evolution occurs by natural means. I fact, he climbed down from pure belief in natural selection or the survival of the fittest (Spencer’s phrase) and brought in other factors to the point that his book was a bit of a mess by the sixth edition. He meticulously revised it again and again, adding new data, shoring up his arguments in the face of criticisms. Of the 3,878 sentences in the first edition, nearly 3,000, about 75 per cent, were rewritten from one to five times each. Over 1,500 sentences were added, and of the original sentences plus these, nearly 325 were dropped. Of the original and added sentences there are nearly 7,500 variants of all kinds. In terms of net added sentences, the sixth edition is nearly a third as long as the first. The editions from the first to the sixth included ever-increasing revisions. Of the total, 7 percent appeared in the second edition (1859), 14 percent in the third (1861), 21 percent in the fourth (1866), 29 percent in the fifth (1869), and the sixth (1872) -- including extensive replies to a single and particularly vexing critic, St George Jackson Mivart - had even more (Peckham, 1959, p. 9). We owe these details about Darwin’s revisions to the meticulous researches of Morse Peckham. It is a useful exaggeration to say that by the sixth edition the book was mis-titled and should have read On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and All Sorts of Other Things.

But the sweep of Darwin’s argument carried the day, even though natural selection fell out of favour, only to rise again in my own lifetime. A former student of mine, Professor Peter Bowler, has written a series of careful studies of Darwinism after Darwin and before modern genetics and molecular biology (Bowler, 1983, 1986, 1988). The general theory came to command wide assent, but his special contribution -- random variation, competition for resources and/or for mates, survival of those with slight advantages and the slow accumulation of such changes -- did not receive a firm basis until many decades after Darwin died in 1882.

In the broader culture, while evolutionary theory in the strict biological sense was not yet based on a secure mechanism of evolutionary change, thinking in evolutionary terms and analogies swept all before it as a framework of ideas. There was a large body of writing in evolutionary approaches to human nature in the decades after Darwin, affecting psychology, anthropology, sociology and even economics and architecture. Some of the most admired and influential thinkers in these disciplines cast their theories in evolutionary terms. They treated societies as organisms and drew on biological and physiological concepts, especially structure, function, development and adaptation. Together they were known as the functionalist movement. This approach was pioneered by Herbert Spencer, who wrote an important essay entitled ‘The Social Organism’ in 1860, in which he said, ‘Societies slowly augment in mass; they progress in complexity of structure, at the same time their parts become more mutually dependent, their living units are removed and replaced without destroying their integrity; and the extents these peculiarities are proportionate to their vital activities.

‘These are traits that societies have in common with organic bodies. And these traits in which they agree with organic bodies and disagree with all other things, entirely subordinate the minor distinctions: such distinctions being scarcely greater than those which separate one half of the organic kingdom from the other. The principles of organization are the same and the differences are simply differences of application’ (Spencer, 1860, p. 206).

Spencer had been thinking in these terms for some time. He wrote nearly a decade earlier, ‘We commonly enough compare a nation to a living organism. We speak of ”the body politic”, of the functions of its several parts, of its growth, and of its diseases, as though it were a creature. But we usually employ these expressions as metaphors, little suspecting how close is the analogy, and how far it will bear carrying out. So completely, however, is a society organized upon the same system as an individual being, that we may almost say there is something more than analogy between them (Spencer, 1851, p. 448). We can discern in Spencer’s way of thinking and expressing his ideas just how comforting and plausible it is to present our social and political beliefs in organic, developmental and physiological rhetoric and to claim that they are thereby firmly and deeply rooted in biological soil. That doesn’t make them true, though.

This way of thinking was taken up by pioneers in modern psychology and social science, for example, Émile Durkheim in France, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski in Britain and William James, John Dewey and Talcott Parsons in the US. It ruled in the human sciences for the first half of this century; it was the orthodoxy. Functionalism had the interesting feature of precluding radical or revolutionary social theories by virtue of the terms of reference of the theory. If society was treated as an organism and in biological and evolutionary terms, then a fundamental (revolutionary) change in a relatively short period was literally inconceivable within the terms of the functionalist framework (Demerath and Peterson, 1968; Gouldner, 1971; Young, 1981). It is worth recalling that the rise of radical theories occurred in a period of student activism in the 1960s and 1970s, when radical protest against the Vietnam War led to a critique of the social and political theories fashionable in academia which were seen to apologise for the status quo (Young, 1971).

Sociobiology emerged in the 1970s and was subjected to withering criticisms from the left. Its founder. E. O. Wilson, an expert on ants and a professor at Harvard, played straight into the critic’s hands in arguing, for example, that ethics should be entrusted for a time to the hands of biologists (Wilson, 1975, 1978). Many then and now found his explanations rather reductionist, but he has remained an influential figure. In the last few days he has given a lecture in Boston to the American Psychological Association in which he argued that the life sciences, such as biology, are inherently connected to the humanities and social sciences, and that the ‘borderland disciplines of cognitive psychology, genetics and evolutionary psychology could unify our knowledge of human nature’. He concluded, ‘I am very aware that the conception of a biological foundation of complex social and cultural structures runs against the grain for a lot of scholars, but at long last we appear to have acquired the means either to establish the truth of the fundamental unity of knowledge or to discard the idea. I think we’re going to establish it’. I find this worrying, even though I am in favour of interdisciplinary thinking.

I am approaching my conclusion. The thought I want to leave you with is, once again, an ambivalent one. On the one hand, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most important ideas in history and perhaps the most important idea for understanding human nature, and extrapolations from evolutionary mechanisms to psychological and social theory are, in principle, very welcome. However, we already know a lot about human nature from literature, religion, philosophy and other fruits of the cogitations of clever and profound thinkers who have pondered these matters literally over millennia, if you think of the traditions extending from the Platonic Dialogues, the Aristotelian corpus, Greek tragedy, the great theological texts from, for example, India, China, Japan, Islam and Christianity, Renaissance thought, Shakespeare and so on up to Marx, Kierkegaard, Freud and insightful thinkers in our own time whose place in history is as yet less clear. Two of my candidates are the novelists Joseph Heller (1962) and Larry McMurtry (1985, 1999), but I know I am biased by my own cultural upbringing and preferences.

We need to bring Darwinian insights into the broad culture of knowledge and wisdom about human nature. What we need not to do is privilege ideas with the adjective Darwinian in front of them, as if that label provides a guarantee of trustworthiness or profundity, and its absence means that the holders of other ideas are mired in error and/or befuddled irrationality. We already have some profound ideas about human nature, thank you very much. It would be nice to have some more but not if they want to elbow out the good ones we already have. You might think this obvious until you hear some of the zealots and hucksters who are immodestly and aggressively claiming that they -- because they are Darwinians -- are uniquely qualified to represent scientific rationality and that this form of rationality stands above and can replace others.

Darwin, bless him, never suffered from this kind of tunnel vision. I’d like to think what he learned here at Shrewsbury School helped him not to be narrow-minded. The headmaster, Dr Thomas Butler, accused Darwin of only being interested in trifles (Browne, p. 33). The boy, in turn, managed to convey his low opinion of the headmaster in deliciously mischievous way. He took an enthusiastic part in a game known as ‘raising the Doctor’, which ‘consisted of a dozen boys going into the room over the Doctor in the middle of the night & dancing a tattoo & then rushing back to bed and pretending to be asleep’ (Browne, p. 25), which proves once again that you never know how an apparently indifferent scholar and naughty pupil will turn out.

Revised version of talk delivered at Shrewsbury School Millennium Conference on ‘Darwinism and Ethics for the Next Millennium’, 16 October 1999. 

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Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ
robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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