Historians, the good ones, mark a century by intellectual and social boundaries rather than by the turn of the calendar page. Only through fortuitous accident might occasions of consequence occur at the very beginning of a century. Imaginative historians do tend, however, to invest a date like 1800 with powers that attract events of significance. It is thus both fortunate and condign that “biology” came to linguistic and conceptual birth with the new century. Precisely in 1800, Karl Friedrich Burdach, a romantic naturalist, suggested that his coinage Biologie be used to indicate the study of human beings from a morphological, physiological, and psychological perspective.1 Many other neologisms of the period (and Burdach issued quite a few) were stillborn or survived only for a short while. Biologie, though, fit the time, and with slight adjustment received its modern meaning two years later at the hands of the Naturphilosoph Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus. In his multi-volume treatise Biologie, oder Philosophie der lebenden Natur (1802-1822), Treviranus announced: “The objects of our research will be the different forms and manifestations of life, the conditions and laws under which these phenomena occur, and the causes through which they have been effected. The science that concerns itself with these objects we will indicate by the name biology [Biologie] or the doctrine of life [Lebenslehre].”2 Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, also in 1802, employed the term with comparable intention.3 In the work of both of these biologists, the word became immediately associated with the theory of the transmutation of species—a new term in recognition of the new laws of life. Treviranus thought the progressive deposition of fossils evinced a modification of species over time. And Lamarck, in the very year of 1800, declared, in his “Discours d’Ouverture,” that because of diverse environmental influences, creatures would engage in new habits that could alter anatomical parts, which themselves would become heritable, thus progressively modifying species.4 Biology, as it came to birth at the beginning of the nineteenth century, had evolutionary theory within its genetic depths. After mid-century, of course, biological study would explode, like a super-fecund rabbit, into a prodigious outpouring of evolutionary and counter-evolutionary literature. Though the history of science exhibits no radical discontinuities (of the sort Foucault has imagined), evolutionary theory did quickly form into an enormous and powerful force, disrupting everything within its conceptual territory. This surge of evolutionary thought has endlessly fascinated historians of the nineteenth century, and they have devoted more pages to its study than to any other subject falling under the rubric of biology.
Between 1795 and 1800, the German Romantic Movement took shape through the literary, philosophic, and scientific efforts of a select band of individuals resident in and around Jena, that small university outpost near Weimar. Its developmental ideal of Bildung (formation), which organized thought in biology, literature, and personal culture, readied the soil in Germany for the reception of evolutionary seeds blown over from France in the early part of the century and the more fruitful germinations from England in the later years. The conceptual ground for the Romantic Movement was prepared by the literary and historical researches of the brothers Friedrich and Wilhelm Schlegel; by the poetry and iconic personality of Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis); by the idealistic philosophy and personal magnetism of Friedrich Schelling; and by the dynamic art and science of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In 1797, Schelling’s Ideen zur einen Philosophie der Natur appeared (giving the name Naturphilosophie its particular contours), and then in rapid succession his Weltseele (1798) and System der transcendentalen Philosophie (1800). These books provided philosophical guidance for numerous works of biological importance that would penetrate far into the decades of the new century—for instance, Goethe’s own collection of tracts Zur Morphologie ([1817-1824] 1989), as well as the many studies in physiology and zoology of Treviranus and Johann Christian Reil, and the morphological researches of Burdach, Lorenz Oken, Carl Gustav Carus, and ultimately Richard Owen. The Romantic Movement also gave focus to the scientific vision of Alexander von Humboldt, who rashly but systematically conducted the kind of auto-experimentation in electrophysiology that would insinuate the self into the biology of the new century. In 1799, Humboldt sailed for the Americas, where he would spend five years exploring the geological and biological features of the New World, and, not incidentally, creating a scientific persona that would come to epitomize, for the first half of the nineteenth century, the natural-scientific researcher. Humboldt recounted his extraordinary journey in a multi-volume tome, Travels to the Equinoctical Regions of the New Continent (1818-1829).5 The book inspired Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel to embark on comparable voyages of adventure and research. The conceptual, moral, and aesthetic tides of the Romantic Movement would wash through the century, cresting in the evolutionary theories of Darwin and Haeckel.
The conceit that the nineteenth century was “Darwin's century” carries more significance than the immediately obvious. It also portends an alteration in historiographic practice. In the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin proposed that the study of living nature would assume a new meaning when undertaken from a historical vantage:
When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as at something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history. . . how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become.6
The same might be said of the history of biology. The practice of the historiography of science, and that of biology in particular, has gradually moved from a concentration on the logical skeleton of theory—say, in the still quite useful History of Biology ([1920-1924] 1936) by Erik Nordenskiöld or in the more recent and even more useful Geschichte der Biologie, largely by Ilse Jahn (1998)7—to an examination of the full, fleshy creature. This has happened when more austere intellectual history has recovered its cultural context, when the theories that Darwin, Mendel, Haeckel, Galton, and Pasteur advanced have been understood as the products of multiple forces operative on the minds and hearts of such scientists. For the historian, this requires an imaginative and thoroughly empirically inspired return to the past to catch the now dead theories when they were full of life. Sometimes, of course, the resources for recovering that context are meager, and the best the historian can do is lay out the skeleton. But the full pleasures of the dance with the past can only be had when those constructive forces have been reconstituted so that the companion offers a lively step and a knowing smile.
The works of the historians I will discuss rarely meet the ideal of a fully reconstructed cultural history of biology. Some provide merely the bare bones of a theory, and neglect its author, who only becomes a name for a given set of ideas. Others produce a flabby creature that lacks the stiff structures of science—much about politics and social status, little about the hard elements of biological theory and practice. Some few historians do more, however: they articulate the bones to assume vivid poses, and at their best they refashion the remains of past biology with the imaginative skill of the artist, making it spring to life once again. I will have more to say about the ideal of cultural history of biology in the last section of this essay.
For the discussion of nineteenth-century historiography of biology, I have only occasionally mentioned articles, since their number is uncountable and space is finite. The medium of expression for most historians has been the extended monograph, and that genre certainly has had the principal role in shaping the field. I have chosen books that I believe have been of major importance, and added a few others for contrast. Evolutionary theory has been the obsession of the discipline, so the largest fraction of works I will discuss reflects that concentration. Evolutionary biology, then, will be my starting point (section 2). Thereafter, I turn to social Darwinism and evolutionary ethics (section 3), biology and religion (section 4), biology and literature (section 5), morphology and romantic biology (section 6), neurophysiology (section 7), genetics and cell theory (section 8), and biography (section 9). In the last section of this essay, I will sketch two contrasting modes in history of biology, intellectual history and cultural history.
During the last four decades, studies in the history of nineteenth-century biology have proliferated, expanding considerations of our understanding of science and its development. These studies moved the history of science community beyond the narrower confines previously established by histories of the physical sciences, which dominated during the previous half-century. The occasion for the transformation was the celebration, in 1959, of the centenary of Darwin’s Origin of Species. The commemoration stimulated the publication of several books whose oppositional considerations suggested a quite unsettled view of the scientific status of evolutionary theory and its underlying metaphysics, and thereby made poignant the very nature of scientific theory itself. Loren Eiseley, in his Darwin’s Century (1958), presented, in highly literate and sometimes elegant prose, the character of Darwin’s accomplishment, the reactions of contemporaries, and the prospects for the future. In that latter consideration, Eiseley seemed to take away what he had so felicitously offered in the first part of his book: he attempted to free human beings (by historical argument) from the biological determinism assumed by Darwin’s theory. Elaborating some considerations of Alfred Russel Wallace, and unaware of the latter's dalliance with spiritualism, Eiseley declared: “The mind of man, by indetermination, by the power of choice and cultural communication, by the great powers of thought, is on the verge of escape from the blind control of that deterministic world with which the Darwinists had unconsciously shackled man.”8
Eiseley’s history gave vent to his distrust of the underlying metaphysics of Darwin’s theory; and so he found in all corners of the Englishman’s science subtle deficiencies, rough edges, and misaligned ideas that indicated the whole would eventually come clanking and sputtering to a halt. In a subsequent volume, Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X (1979), Eiseley, upon due reflection, had decided that Darwin did not even deserve the attributions of originality initially conceded to him. Eiseley now maintained that Edward Blyth, an obscure naturalist, had formulated the fundamental Darwinian concepts—variation, struggle for existence, natural and sexual selection—already in 1835, and that Darwin had tacitly appropriated them as his own. John Greene, while not suggesting the kind of fraud that Eiseley had, nonetheless maintained that Darwin’s fundamental ideas had been anticipated by an obscure physician, William Wells, in 1818. Greene’s Death of Adam (1959) dissolved Darwin’s genius into the musings of his predecessors. Greene would likewise find the metaphysics of Darwinism distasteful, as he later made clear in his Science, Ideology, and World View (1981).
The attitudes of Eiseley and Greene found their complement in the work of Gertrude Himmelfarb. In her compelling, if irritating, study Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959), she argued that the scientific core of Darwin’s theory sank into confusion, while the dogmatic shell might be retrieved by sly Marxists. In this respect, she prophesied correctly if obliquely, since Marxist historians, of considerably more benign character than this Cold-Warrior envisioned, have seized upon evolutionary theory as subject for social analysis. Stephen Jay Gould, Robert Young, and Adrian Desmond, whose works I will more thoroughly discuss below, have each detected varying aspects of the theory to be generated by political and social assumptions. The studies of Eiseley and Himmelfarb gained force when the philosopher Karl Popper (1974) set his own small bomb under Darwin’s theory. He argued that because natural selection could not predict new variations and new species, it could not, for reasons of logical symmetry, explain their origin. Further, he construed the theory as simply a tautology: the fit survive, and we know they are fit because they survive. The theory, he concluded, failed as science but thrived happily as metaphysics.9
These initial studies of the origins of evolutionary thought brought a counter reaction from historically minded biologists, such as Ernst Mayr. Mayr began writing historical essays during the 1960s and 1970s, bringing them to culmination in his 1982 book The Growth of Biological Thought, two-thirds of whose almost one-thousand pages he devoted to evolution and genetics. His history fashioned Darwin into the very model of the biological scientist; and its trajectory had a definite end, namely the vindication of Darwinian theory against the likes of Eiseley, Greene, Himmelfarb, and Popper. The model of the proper evolutionist, though, ill-suited Herbert Spencer—at least, in Mayr’s estimation. In his very extensive monograph, he devoted only three paragraphs to Spencer, who, after Darwin, was certainly the most influential nineteenth-century English evolutionist. Mayr thought “it would be quite justifiable to ignore Spencer totally in a history of biological ideas because his positive contributions were nil.”10 This attitude, needless to say, poorly comported with that of the younger, professionally trained historians whose interests became trapped in the tangle of evolution, politics, and social relationships. Like Br'aer Rabbit, they loved the brier patch, where the likes of Spencer could be found. But alas, poor Spencer, he still awaits the monograph that will show exactly what it was about his philosophy and science that captivated intellects of power and influence during the late nineteenth century.11
Another scientist turned historian who began writing in the wake of the Darwinian centennial is Michael Ghiselin. His Triumph of the Darwinian Method (1969) provided a literate public, especially scientists, a general introduction to Darwin’s thought. But the book also found in Darwin’s work those singular features that raised it above even very clever science, something that anointed Darwin’s ideas as scientific touchstones, whence gold or dross could be discerned in the many other claims made by biologists. When that special aspect of Darwin’s thought was revealed, however, the expectant reader met disappointment. In Ghiselin’s estimation, what made Darwin’s method triumphant turned out to be its putative hypothetico-deductive character. In other words, Darwin’s method was just what the logical-empiricists took to be the technique of all good science, and Darwinian theory was, after all, good science—therefore, hypothetico-deductive. This was a Darwin the logical empiricists could learn to love.
David Hull and Michael Ruse, two leading philosophers of biology, made special study of the history of evolutionary theory from the very beginnings of their careers.12 In Darwin and His Critics (1973), Hull collected early contemporary reviews of the Origin of Species—those of J. D. Hooker, Adam Sedgwick, Richard Owen, and others. He prefaced the collection with a series of essays that treated various topics relevant to evolutionary controversies (e.g., inductive method, occult qualities, teleology, essences). Like Ghiselin, Hull strove to make Darwin’s thought look respectable to logical-empiricist eyes (though in more recent work, Hull has thrown sand into those very eyes).13 Ruse had a similar goal, pursing it through such books as The Darwinian Revolution (1979), Taking Darwin Seriously (1986), Evolutionary Naturalism (1995), and Monad to Man (1996). In this latter, Ruse surveyed the development of evolutionary thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, anchoring that thought in Darwin’s accomplishment. The book, rich from archival digging, posed several interesting questions, of which two stand out: Does Darwin’s theory intrinsically imply biological progress? and What was the professional status of the theory prior to the synthesis of evolution and genetics during the 1930s and 1940s? Ruse handled these questions deftly and almost persuasively. He argued that notions of progress clung to Darwin’s theory like barnacles to a ship—inevitable attachments if one plied the waters of the mid-nineteenth century, but eliminable with enough analytical scraping. He also maintained that because of such accretions, scientists like Huxley might take evolutionary theory out on a pleasure cruise, something to entertain the masses, but would never seek to introduce that theory into professional work. Ruse improbably concluded that evolutionary theory did not become a respectable scientific subject in the professional literature (at least in the English speaking world) until the synthesis of evolutionary theory and genetics undertaken by J. B. S. Haldane, R. A. Fisher, and Sewall Wright.
In the mid-to-late 1970s, the scholarship on Darwin changed decidedly. Historians began making pilgrimages to Cambridge, where the huge trove of unpublished manuscripts and letters lay buried beneath vague catalogue titles (e.g., in the “Black Box”). Historians looked first to the material pertaining to the young Darwin and the formulation of his fundamental ideas. Here was empirical work that would help settle, among other questions, Darwin’s originality. Howard Gruber used Darwin’s early notebooks, especially those devoted to questions of human evolution, to uncover the particular nature of Darwin’s genius. Gruber’s Darwin on Man (1974) brought Piagetian psychology to the reconstruction of Darwin’s theory of species change and, most interestingly, the evolution of human moral and intellectual traits. Gruber conceived the field of Darwin’s genius not flashing with the brilliance that Huxley manifested, but more as a landscape slowly evolving, one in which underground forces inexorably push up towering mountains with dramatic vistas. Indeed, not Piagetian stages but Lyellian gradualism served as the implicit model.
Edward Manier also sustained claims to Darwin’s inventiveness, but in relation to another stratum of thought, the philosophical. Manier explored Darwin’s ‘virtual’ interactions with a group of social, political, and philosophical writers whom he dubbed Darwin’s “cultural circle.” The Young Darwin and His Cultural Circle (1978) depicted Darwin in dialogue, via reading their books and papers, with the likes of Charles Lyell, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, James Mackintosh, William Whewell, Thomas Malthus, David Hume, Dugal Stewart, and other writers of somewhat more narrow fame. The young, philosophically curious naturalist held up his end of the conversation by annotating their books and jotting reactions in his own notebooks. Manier, in using this archival material, argued that Darwin’s creativity lay both in slowly formulating synthetic notions out of the metaphysical and ethical ideas of his circle, and in the ways he wove those notions through his biological theories. These philosophical threads, as Manier perceptively observed, were not fashioned from brittle materialism and mechanism, but from a more supple Scottish realism and Wordsworthian romanticism. Moreover, the argumentative structure of Darwin’s early evolutionary theory could hardly be called hypothetico-deductive, since virtually nothing of the theory could be tested in the way that scheme demanded. Manier offered an important corrective to the accounts of those historians and philosophers reading Darwin’s ideas off the surface of the Origin of Species.
During this same period of the 1970s, two other historians, whose arguments would set the agenda for much of the scholarship of the immediately following years, also made generous and insightful use of the unpublished papers and letters. These were David Kohn and Dov Ospovat. Kohn argued in his “Theories to Work By” (1980) that Darwin inched his way to natural selection through a variety of hypotheses for the production of transformations, each of which he tried out for a while and then dropped into his toolbox of auxiliary aids. Darwin’s work on these initial hypotheses, according to Kohn, prepared him to see the significance of Malthus's observation about the tremendous reproductive capacities of organisms, namely: that with many more organisms produced than could survive, those having by chance some advantage within their particular environments would, in competition with others, be more likely to reach reproductive age and pass on their advantageous traits, which had gradually to transform species.
Dov Ospovat, in his Development of Darwin's Theory (1981), constructed and judiciously sustained an important thesis regarding Darwin’s development. He maintained that Darwin, through his early notebooks and essays (1837 to 1844), retained an assumption from his days as a student of William Paley. Paley and other natural theologians had held that biological adaptions were perfect, since authored by the all-perfect Creator. Darwin, as Ospovat pictured him, simply substituted evolutionary processes for the hand of the divine, but still thought of the products as being perfect. During the early 1850s, though, Darwin began to adjust his theory, finally giving up the idea of perfect adaptations. Manier, Kohn, and Ospovat indicated by their histories what real advantage could be gained in understanding the origins and significance of Darwin’s thought by examining the unpublished papers and letters.
Just as the anniversary of the Origin of Species stimulated the first wave of Darwinian scholarship, so the anniversary of Darwin’s death produced a second, but more historiographically forceful response. The build up began in 1982 with a conference at the Florence Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, and crested with a publication of the papers (plus many more added), which Kohn edited. Virtually all the major Darwinian scholars of the time made contributions to the Darwinian Heritage (1985). The volume set many of the questions for subsequent studies, not only in history of evolutionary theory but in its philosophy as well. Gruber and Silvan Schweber depicted the immediate and wider context of Darwin’s theorizing; Phillip Sloan examined Darwin’s very early work on invertebrates, with telling results; Frank Sulloway subjected Darwin’s Beagle writings to the kind of statistical content-analysis that would later prove an obsession for him; Kohn and Jonathan Hodge focused on the notebooks and pieced together the immediate origins of the theory; and Malcolm Kottler followed the debates between Darwin and Wallace over the origin of inter-species sterility and the nature of sexual selection. Peter Bowler, Paul Weindling, and others provided comparative analyses of the reception of Darwinism in different national cultures. The more philosophical aspects of Darwin’s ideas were considered by John Beatty, Elliott Sober, and David Hull. Finally, Kottler constructed a comprehensive bibliography of books and articles. The book demonstrated to the larger community how history of science might become more deeply satisfying—for the historian, almost sanctifying—when augmented by hard archival work. It became one of the great products of the “Darwin industry,” which has been belching smoke ever since.
Not every historian of Darwinism has the sooty look of a laborer in the archives. Peter Bowler has kept his Irish tweeds neat, confining his efforts to published works. He must, though, be reckoned one of the captains of the Darwin industry, so great has been his output and influence. He has probably devoted more pages than any other historian to the reconstruction of Darwin’s theory and the theories of the many other evolutionists writing in the wake of the Origin of Species. In Evolution, the History of an Idea (1984), The Eclipse of Darwinism (1983), The Non-Darwinian Revolution (1988)—and still other books—Bowler has brought to his reconstructions a particular thesis, which he shares with Ruse, Gould, and Mayr. He has insisted that natural selection forms the essence of Darwinism.14Thus we should not mistake, for example, Haeckel’s work as furthering the Darwinian revolution, since it gave minimal attention to natural selection. Bowler is quite convinced that Haeckel’s use of Lamarckian notions, his progressivism, and his theory of recapitulation completely separated his biology from Darwin’s. This tendency among historians like Bowler (as well as Ruse and Gould) to distance Haeckel from the Darwinian tradition lies, I suspect, more in Haeckel’s perceived connections with the Nazis than with the theoretical markers of Lamarckism, progressivism, and recapitulation. I have argued in The Meaning of Evolution (1992) that the heart of Darwin’s theory, from its inception through its mature development, beat precisely to progressivist and recapitulationist rhythms. It is less controversial to observe, though not often remarked, that Darwin always allowed for acquired characteristics to be inherited and to serve as traits upon which natural selection might operate. Bowler’s interesting and wide ranging studies have, by contrast, striven to preserve Darwin as an authentic scientist (by our lights), one untainted with the kind of scientific and moral corruptions of someone like Haeckel.
Darwin, unique among figures in the history of nineteenth-century science, has drawn scientists to the history of their discipline. The best-known of those so drawn is Steven Jay Gould, who started writing on the history of biology during the early 1970s. At that time, his succulently readable essays began appearing in the Natural History Magazine and have been subsequently collected in a number of plump little volumes, beginning with Ever Since Darwin (1977a) and trailing off into books bearing rather more kitschy titles: The Flamingo’s Smile (1985), Bully for Brontosaurus (1991), Eight Little Piggies (1993), Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995), and Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1999). Gould has been prodigiously productive, authoring these and many other books dealing with aspects of the history of evolution, genetics, and geology, including: Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977b), The Mismeasure of Man (1980), Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle (1987), and Wonderful Life (1989). In all of these, Gould has usually found a fascinating hook that quickly lands the reader. And while professional historians might occasionally cavil at some of his claims, they are undoubtedly the benefactors of the large readership he has cultivated for the history of biology. Gould writes, as he himself has frequently avowed, as a Marxist historian. His Marxism, though, is decently attired in a J. Press work shirt. He exposes the ideological taints—usually racial and class biases—that tincture a good deal of nineteenth- and twentieth-century biology; but he knows that good science, at its heart, remains pure. From his historical analyses, he catalogues (rather often) what he takes to be the lessons of evolutionary history, namely: that evolution is contingent and non-progressive; that human beings form one species; that we should not assume given traits have arisen as specific adaptations; and that, consequently, human mental activity betrays no lingering inclinations, acquired from our Pleistocene ancestors, toward specific behaviors. Ironically, such a list of purity rules would cast Darwin himself from the ranks of the saved.
Ghiselin, Mayr, Ruse, Bowler, and Gould represent one strong interpretative wing of Darwinian studies. In their hands Darwin’s theory has been molded to late twentieth-century specifications. They implicitly regard scientific theories as abstract entities that can be differently instantiated in the nineteenth century or today, while exhibiting the same essential features. For instance, Ruse, Bowler, and Gould have consistently interpreted Darwin’s theory as having a logic and evidentiary base that renders evolutionary progress impossible. Lamarckians and Spencerians might have fabricated theories of progressive evolution (which sanctioned racist ideologies), but Darwin, they believe, rejected the idea of biological progress—or at least his theory did. Darwin the historical individual might actually have succumbed to the idea of progress, but somehow he constructed a theory that remained scientifically pure—that is, as pure as we like them today. By separating Darwin’s actual words and logic, as expressed in the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man, from the theory as an abstract entity, these writers have attempted to keep the essences of Darwinism inviolate, free from what they take to be non-scientific corruption.15
Another wing of Darwinian scholarship, the left wing, has understood Darwinian theory, as well as earlier and later evolutionary constructions, to be saturated with social and political features, stains that sink right to the core of Darwin’s thought.16 This is actually a quite traditional way to understand Darwinism. In the 1920s, Erik Nordenskiöld argued, in his comprehensive History of Biology, that Darwin’s romantic conceptions had been scientifically refuted long ago, even though they retained cultural momentum. Political liberalism, he urged, had initially given evolutionary theory its push: “From the beginning Darwin’s theory was an obvious ally to liberalism; it was at once a means of elevating the doctrine of free competition, which has been one of the most vital corner-stones of the movement of progress, to the rank of natural law, and similarly the leading principle of liberalism, progress, was confirmed by the new theory.”17 This political interpretation of evolutionary theory has been sustained more recently by such historians as Robert Young and Adrian Desmond. Young began publishing a series of essays in the late 1960s and continued through the early 1980s. These essays attempted to place the development of Darwin’s ideas, as well as those of Spencer and other early evolutionists, in a common intellectual and social context. The earlier of these essays, several of which he collected in Darwin’s Metaphor (1985a), pulled from a variety of printed sources—the Westminster Review, the Edinburgh Review, the Quarterly Review, and other Victorian periodicals, as well as from monographs in political economy and social theory. These essays were measured and convincing, complex and insightful, unlike Young’s later essays, which sometimes became mired in a creed that removed them from the category of history to that of polemic. In an essay published in the Darwinian Heritage (1985), Young urged that
once it is granted natural and theological conceptions are, in significant ways, projections of social ones, then important aspects of all of the Darwinian debate are social ones, and the distinction between Darwinism and Social Darwinism is one of level and scope, not of what is social and what is asocial. . . . The point I’m making is that biological ideas have to be seen as constituted by, evoked by, and following an agenda set by, larger social forces that determine the tempo, the mode, the mood, and the meaning of nature.18
If biological theory has its fundamental meanings determined by social beliefs, by ideology, then the question becomes which ideology do you prefer, not which theory is the most coherent and has the most evidence. Young became fully persuaded that recent applications of evolutionary theory to explore animal and human social traits, especially in the work of sociobiologists, were driven by a pernicious ideology; his later essays fire the claxon to sound the appropriate warnings. Despite the polemical cast of Young’s recent work (or maybe because of it), he remains a thinker of power and urgency.
Adrian Desmond shared Young’s sense of the interpenetration of the social and the scientific, and portrayed that sense in a series of monographs written with verve and panache. In Archetypes and Ancestors (1985), he examined the Huxley-Owen debates, detecting beneath the scientific surface, scared as it was by considerable acrimony, an ideological divide separating the rising professionals of strong materialistic bent from the establishment and church-supported idealists. Desmond continued his digging into the substructure of scientific debate in The Politics of Evolution (1989), which attempted to show how radical reformers in the London medical scene, during the early part of the century, had embraced evolutionary theory as part of an effort to overcome the elite political and scientific hegemony of orthodox institutions, such as the Royal College of Surgeons. He argued that this context made Darwin hesitate to publish a theory that had been associated with “dissenting or atheistic lowlife, with activists campaigning against the fornicating Church, with teachers in court for their politics, with men who despised the political archbishops and their corporation toads.” Desmond imagined that Darwin, who sought to articulate “a Malthusian science for the rising industrial-professional middle classes,” was frozen with political fear.19 And so Darwin hesitated to publish his work for some twenty years. Desmond and Young thus interpreted evolutionary science as deriving its force and danger from the political message ticking away in the carved hollow of its theory.
After the Darwin Centennial, interest spilled over—though only slightly—to other evolutionists, especially to his predecessor Jean-Baptise de Lamarck. Lamarck had been pictured either as merely a precursor of Darwin or as one whose theory of evolution, in the words of Charles Coulston Gillispie, “belongs to the contracting and self-defeating history of subjective science.”20 Richard Burkhardt rectified these contorted approaches by a thorough-going contextualization of Lamarck's thought in his The Spirit of System: Lamarck and Evolutionary Biology (1977). Burkhardt showed how Lamarck’s evolutionary ideas fit into his other concerns, in physics, chemistry, meteorology, and geology. By the standards of his time, Lamarck proved no more subjective in his science than his opponents. Burkhardt set a high standard for other historians—he had consulted the important archives, he wrote clearly and forcefully, and he was interested in Lamarck’s theory for its own sake, judging it by relevant criteria. He also sought to answer the historian’s usual kind of question: How did Lamarck arrive at his evolutionary theory? Answer: as a conchologist aware of the similarities between fossil shells and those of living species, and as a geologist seeking to avoid Cuverian theories of geological catastrophe and animal extinction, he sought refuge in the idea of a gradual mutability of species over long periods of time. Pietro Corsi, in his finely wrought The Age of Lamarck: Evolutionary Theories in France, 1790-1830 (1989) broadened the contextualizing of Lamarck’s theory by considering in detail those ideas of his antagonists (e.g., Cuvier) and friendly associates (e.g., Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Bory de Saint-Vincent). In the new edition of his book, Lamarck. Genèse et enjeux du transformisme, 1770-1830 (2001), Corsi adds lists of students who attended Lamarck’s lectures and includes extracts from his notebooks—a considerable resource for those interested in transformation theory before Darwin.
My own study of Darwinism—Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (1987)—initially focused on the impact of evolutionary considerations on the understanding of psychological life, from animal instinct to human mind and moral behavior. I examined Darwin’s evolutionary constructions of instinct, mind, and morality, and then traced their operations in the works of a range of biologists and psychologists—Herbert Spencer, George Romanes, Conwy Lloyd Morgan, James Mark Baldwin, and William James, through to John B. Watson, Konrad Lorenz, and Edward O. Wilson. I believed the earlier studies of Young and Desmond, which certainly made vividly compelling reading, to be shackled to the a priori conviction that science must be a surrogate for politics and social philosophy. I attempted what I thought a more empirical strategy, focusing on individual scientists—their education, experience, and psychological dispositions—to discover whence their scientific theories emerged and what the several forces that shaped their thought might be. And the forces were usually multiple, with, perhaps, a more powerful impetus now coming from the political side, now from the philosophical, now from the religious, and always against the inertia of the scientific. Desmond and Young usually examined the external context of ideas first and then moved inward to characterize the mind of the scientist. And since they began with the a priori assumption that the political-social context was the most important, they came easily to regard the science as stuck in politics like a fly in molasses—and they themselves had a great taste for molasses. If one began, however, with the individual mind first, working out the formative experiences, examining the books read, assessing the interests that moved the soul, then one might more adequately determine what features of the external environment had the most purchase on the scientist. Darwin may have grown up in a political and social context of individualistic utilitarianism, but his biology of moral behavior turned out to be authentically altruistic and expressly anti-utilitarian. One simply could not predict in advance what the most powerful forces shaping the science might be. By focusing on the application of biological theory to mind and behavior, many of those various currents could be seen welling to large and more identifiable proportions.