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  • Rejecting the Myth of the Non-Darwinian Revolution
  • Piers J. Hale (bio)

The question of whether there was, or was not, a Darwinian revolution is an old one, but it is one to which we must return. Historians of science recognize that the idea of a Darwinian revolution following fast on the heels of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) is perhaps more problematic now than when Michael Ruse and others of an earlier generation first considered the matter. Our conceptions of the history of nineteenth-century science have changed a lot since the late 1970s. The Marxist historian Robert M. Young had long since argued that science was deeply ideological, an insight that Adrian Desmond and James Moore applied in their social account of Darwin’s life and times (Young, “Malthus and the Evolutionists”; Desmond and Moore, Darwin). Desmond was but one of a number of scholars for whom these insights revealed determined efforts, on the part of Thomas Henry Huxley and others, to carve out a scientific profession in opposition to the Oxbridge strongholds of the Anglican elites (Desmond, Huxley). Following on from this line of inquiry, scholars have [End Page 13] concerned themselves with efforts to professionalize and, subsequently, to popularize science and nowhere more so than in relation to Darwin’s ideas.

Our conception of what counts as science now extends beyond the hallowed halls of Oxbridge with which Ruse was concerned. We acknowledge the contested politics of evolution and the popularity of the transmutuationist works of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in the Edinburgh medical schools as well as the popularity of Erasmus Darwin among midland radicals, and we accede to the fact that Richard Owen was not the anti-evolutionist that early Darwinian historians made him out to be (see Desmond, Politics; Elliott; Rupke). Thanks to James Secord, we know that Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) was indeed a Victorian sensation that in many ways not only prepared the ground for Darwin’s own ideas but also shaped how Origin was read and interpreted. Even after the publication of Origin, as Peter J. Bowler asserted in The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth (1988), it quickly became clear that of the various versions of evolution that were entertained throughout the Victorian and into the Edwardian period, most were teleological, deeply progressive, and grounded in developmental or orthogenetic conceptions of species change. Further, where the idea of natural selection was accepted, it was not as the central driving force of speciation (2). Bowler’s point echoes the commentary of Vernon Kellogg, who, writing in 1907, noted that there were some dozen or so different theories of evolution taken seriously in science nearly fifty years after Origin was first published. Indeed, the diversity of evolutionary ideas that prevailed in the wake of Origin’s publication has been demonstrated more recently by Bernard Lightman, who has shown that Darwin sought but failed to control the kinds of evolutionary ideas that were popularized in his name (see Lightman, “Darwin”).

This said, in 1988, when Bowler first framed his idea of a non-Darwinian revolution, there may well have been good reason to question whether it was appropriate to talk about the post-Origin embrace of evolutionary ideas as a Darwinian revolution at all. Here, however, I want to argue that we need to move beyond the “Bowler thesis” of the “non-Darwinian revolution.” In a very real sense, it now undermines rather than underscores good scholarship.

When Bowler first urged the idea of the non-Darwinian revolution, he did so in opposition to a historiography that gave the impression that Darwin had virtually “single-handedly introduced and popularized the essentially materialist view of evolution still accepted by modern biologists” (2). Bowler singled out Gertrude Himmelfarb, John C. Greene, and Richard Hofstadter, in particular, as each having described a Darwin who, perhaps with a little aid from his trusty bulldog, Huxley, had effected a widespread belief in a materialist, chanceful, contingent, and anti-teleological understanding of natural selection, a view that Bowler recognized as untenable in light of historical inquiry. The Darwinian revolution, he claimed, was...


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