The Darwinian Revolution: Was There a Revolution? Was it Darwinian?

By Michael Ruse

Was there a Darwinian Revolution?  The eminent historian of science, Peter Bowler – a graduate of the University of Toronto – argues that there wasn’t much of a Darwinian Revolution and inasmuch as there was, it was a disaster, leading to today’s troubles with fundamentalists.  He argues rightly that most scientists of Darwin’s day did not much care for natural selection, and although they became evolutionists they opted for other mechanisms like the inheritance of acquired characteristics.  It was not until the 1930s and the coming of modern genetics that natural selection could be incorporated into evolutionary thinking, by which time the damage had been done – as shown by the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 – and thanks to Darwin there was huge Christian opposition.

Satirical drawing of monkeys sitting in the jury's box.

In response, let us agree that many scientists like Thomas Henry Huxley did not much care for natural selection as a working tool of science – they were much more interested in subjects like anatomy where mechanisms of change like selection are of little value.  For them, it was better to employ Germanic-type methods of comparison to ferret out relationships and to put fabulous new fossil finds – from the Western USA and Canada – in place.

But this is not to say that there was no revolution and that it was not Darwinian.  It is certainly not to say that if there was, it was a disaster.  In the everyday world, especially the world of culture and of literature, as well of philosophy and related subjects, there was a huge sea change and it was caused by Darwin.  Whether or not this was a good thing was a matter of taste, but not quite such a matter of taste as Bowler seems to think.   Some people like lemons, some do not.  Either way, lemons are sour.

What Darwin truly did first was convince people of evolution.  Even those not that enthused by selection nevertheless accepted evolution.  This in itself was revolution enough.  Second, in the everyday world, selection was accepted by many and those who opposed it still took it seriously and feared it.  The revolution was in respects more one of religion – seeing God as either dead or irrelevant.  Consider the famous sonnet “Hap” by Thomas Hardy, spelling out that he could handle a cruel God.  It was an indifferent or absent God that really hurt.

Verses of the poem Hap by Thomas Hardy.

Natural selection suggests that life is nothing more than a chance happening because of blind laws – not very nice laws either because they point to a universal struggle for existence with selection as the result.  Pain and suffering are the universal lot of all living things – at least, all living, sentient things.  The happy, tight, little world of the God of Love is gone forever.  There is no meaning.

But isn’t this just a disaster, as Bowler suggests?  Wouldn’t things have gone more smoothly if this message had never got out?  By the time the scientific world was ready for natural selection, although people would still have been losing their faith, it would have been a much more gentle and gradual process and there would not have been the extreme reactions by Christians that led to such things as the Monkey Trial?

I am not sure that this is so.  Even after Darwin, people found that they  could still go on believing in God and that Jesus Christ was his son.  Things could not stand still after Darwin, so there was a revolution, but belief was still possible.  Very popular was a turn to the Book of Job and the God found there.  He is not warm and friendly.  He can be downright cruel and horrible.  But He points out that He makes the rules and He can do as He pleases.  “Who has a claim against me that I must pay?  Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11).  This seems much more like a God after Darwin than the God of the natural theologians, like that of Archdeacon William Paley.  And remember, in the end God makes it all right. 

Cover of Natural Theology by William Paley.

In any case, it seems clear that much of the opposition to Darwinism – such as that that led to the Monkey Trial and modern equivalents – owes more to social and political factors than anything very theological.  The Monkey Trial was sparked by fears that modern science is leading to a breakdown of traditional norms – for instance about sex and race – and a desire to return to the past.  The same is true today.  It is not natural selection that upsets people but abortion on demand, gay marriage, and the thought of a black man in the White House. 

The Darwinian Revolution was complex, with many layers.  Let’s not pretend that it wasn’t Darwinian or that it wasn’t important.

Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor and Director of the History and Philosophy of Science Program at Florida State University. He is the author and editor of more than fifty books on Charles Darwin and the intersections between philosophy, science, and history.

Further Readings:

Bowler, Peter J.  The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Ruse, Michael. The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Ruse, Michael. Darwinism as Religion: Evolution as Viewed through Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, Forthcoming 2016.

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