History of Evolutionary Thought, 1860–1925
- LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0021
- LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0021
The reaction to the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was as varied as the sources from which it emanated. Responses ranged from those of naturalists, physical scientists, and religious leaders and theologians to social scientists, political activists, historians, and even artists from George Eliot and Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Richard Wagner. Darwin’s work was as controversial as he feared it would be, so he left defending it in the scientific world, to his “bulldog” Thomas Henry Huxley. The initial reaction, dating between the years 1860 and 1882 (Darwin’s death), included numerous scientific critiques, some of which were highly favorable, even if not agreeing with Darwin in all details. Others, however, attacked virtually every aspect of Darwin’s theory from his concept of heredity to his insistence on gradualism and including his vagueness about how speciation would actually come about. In addition, the immediate reaction by theologians was often quite virulent, and it has remained to plague evolutionary theory down to the present. The sociological spin-off into what has loosely been called “social Darwinism” and other evolutionary views of history was also immediate and highly influential. Few historians or social scientists were able to ignore the impact of Darwin’s ideas on their field, however much some may have wanted to resist it. The general period in the history of Darwinism from 1860 to 1925, then, is one marked by numerous controversies, even as many, at least in the scientific realm, began to reach some sort of resolution by the time of the so-called evolutionary synthesis of the later 1920s and 1930s. This article will focus on the period leading up to, but not including, the synthesis and beyond.
A number of works dealing with the development of Darwin’s ideas also include discussions of reception of his ideas in its various forms, and thus they may provide a convenient entry into the topic. The Oxford Bibliographies Online article in the Evolutionary Biology module, Charles Darwin, provides some treatment of the scientific and public response, so works cited there will not be repeated here. The sources listed below will be limited to those that provide general overviews of the history of evolutionary theory, particularly after publication of The Origin. How revolutionary Darwin’s work was depends on the particular aspect of the theory on which one focuses. Certainly, in terms of descent with modification (evolution as such), compared to special creation, Darwin’s theory is clearly “revolutionary,” even if not everyone accepted the mechanism of natural selection acting on small, chance variations that Darwin championed. Bowler 1988, in its original format and revised several times and reissued as Bowler 2009 for the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth (and the 150th anniversary of the epublication of The Origin), provides a summary of the last twenty-five years of Darwinian scholarship. Ghiselin 2003, Mayr 1982, and Gould 2002 constitute examinations of Darwin’s work by late-20th-century biologists, all of whom have a strong sense of the historical and philosophical issues involved in evolutionary theory. Kohn 1985 brings together historians and philosophers of science to discuss, in detail, various aspects of the reappraisal of Darwin’s thinking and his manner of presentation in The Origin and beyond. Mayr 1985 provides a convenient breakdown of the components of Darwin’s overall theory.
Bowler, Peter J. 1988. The non-Darwinian revolution: Reinterpreting a historical myth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
The author argues that, after 1859, many people were won over to evolution as an explanation for the origin of diversity but not to Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection for how it occurs. Identifying the major Darwinian mechanism as “purposeless” variation, Bowler argues that most major biologists from T. H. Huxley to Richard Owen and others “stubbornly” clung to other mechanisms for evolutionary change.
Bowler, Peter J. 2009. Evolution: The history of an idea. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
Intended primarily as a classroom text, covering the whole history of evolutionary thought, Bowler’s book is well written, requiring no special scientific background. Chapters 6–9 provide among the best general introductions to the scientific, religious and social reactions to Darwin.
Ghiselin, Michael. 2003. The triumph of the Darwinian method. New York: Dover.
Originally published in 1969. Well versed in both contemporary evolutionary theory, systematics, and the history and philosophy of science, Ghiselin examines the way in which Darwin’s methodology—rational appeal to natural causes and consilience theory (the appeal to evidence from various, independent fields)—transformed the study of biology as a whole, as well as evolutionary biology in particular. The author claims that this was ultimately Darwin’s most important contribution to natural history.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 2002. The structure of evolutionary theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
An extensive compendium of ideas on evolutionary theory sprinkled with historical considerations of both the pre- and post-Darwinian era.
Kohn, David, ed. 1985. The Darwinian heritage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.
A major compendium of articles that treat aspects of Darwin’s theory from its genesis on the Beagle voyage to the relationship with Wallace and the writing of The Origin (Part 1) to the Victorian scientific and cultural context (Part 2) to the comparative reception of Darwin’s work (Part 3).
Mayr, Ernst. 1982. The growth of biological thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
Although this is a comprehensive treatment of evolutionary ideas from the pre-Socratics to the later 20th century, Mayr devotes considerable space to the reactions to Darwin’s ideas on evolution in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.
Mayr, Ernst. 1985. Darwin’s five theories of evolution. In The Darwinian heritage. Edited by David Kohn, 755–772. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.
Outlines the five major components of Darwin’s theory: evolution as such, common descent, gradualism, multiplication of species, and natural selection. This breakdown is useful in sorting out the various reactions to Darwin in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.
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