In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Darwinism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Evolutionary Biology Darwinism
Michael Ruse
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 May 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 May 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0037


The modern usage of the term Darwinism dates from the publication of On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, in which he argued for evolution through natural selection. Very soon after the appearance of the Origin (in 1859), Darwin’s great supporter Thomas Henry Huxley introduced the term Darwinism. The term—together with the related terms Darwinian and Darwinist—took root. The codiscoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, used the term as the title of a book expounding evolution: Darwinism: An Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection, with Some of Its Applications. Note that there seems to be a fuzziness about the term. Some identify Darwinism with evolution through natural selection. Others suggest that the essence of Darwinism is not selection per se but change or variation. Late in the 19th century, George Romanes coined the term neo-Darwinism to cover those for whom natural selection is basically the only significant cause of change. In 1930 Ronald A. Fisher, in his Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, argued that the newly developed theory of Mendelian genetics offered the required foundation for a perspective that made natural selection the central force of evolutionary change. Although the British were happy to call the Darwin-Mendel synthesis neo-Darwinism, in America the synthesis was known as the synthetic theory of evolution. This reflects that in the New World it was Sewall Wright who did the foundational work in bringing Mendelian genetics into the evolutionary picture and that he never thought of natural selection as being the force that Fisher took it to be. For Wright and his followers, especially Theodosius Dobzhansky, genetic drift was always a major component of the evolutionary picture, and as Fisher pointed out nonstop, this is about as non-Darwinian a notion as it is possible to have. By 1959 professional evolutionists (on both sides of the Atlantic) agreed that Darwin had been right about natural selection: it is the major cause of evolutionary change. Neo-Darwinism fell into disuse, as everyone now used the term Darwinism for evolution through natural selection. Mention should also be made of so-called social Darwinism, the application of Darwinism to persons and groups within society. The earliest use apparently was during Darwin’s own lifetime, by a historian discussing land tenure in Ireland. However, it was not a popular or general term, coming into widespread use only in the 1940s, with the publication of the American historian Richard Hofstadter’s book Social Darwinism in American Thought.

General Overviews

Darwinism is part of the story of evolution, and it is there we must start. Modern scholarship tends to direct professionals away from sweeping histories and toward more focused and limited topics. There are, however, a number of basic histories, and these are essential background reading. The best overall history of evolutionary theory is Bowler 2009. A shorter, snappier read is by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Edward J. Larson: Larson 2004. Among collections, still very important and useful is Kohn 1985. This should be supplemented by Hodge and Radick 2009. A more recent arrival on the scene is the very large Ruse 2013.

  • Bowler, Peter J. 2009. Evolution: The history of an idea. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Originally published in 1989. This is written as a text and, as such, eschews grand interpretation in favor of being both full and comprehensive. The work is much more reliable than some earlier histories, especially those written by eminent scientists in the declining days of their careers.

  • Hodge, Jonathan, and Gregory Radick, eds. 2009. The Cambridge companion to Darwin. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521884754

    This collection shows that historians and philosophers have been very busy in the quarter century since the appearance of Kohn 1985. The volume includes not only excellent material on Darwin himself and the genesis of his theory, but also strong treatment of the fate of the ideas in the years after the Origin. Those interested in Darwinism in the early 21st century will also find much of interest.

  • Kohn, David. 1985. The Darwinian heritage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    This large and influential collection is important precisely because it takes very seriously not only Darwin’s ideas in themselves, but also the development of those ideas by Darwin’s followers and critics as well as the dissemination of Darwinism across the globe and the ways in which it was modified for local audiences. It also includes good material on the state of play of Darwinism in the 1980s.

  • Larson, Edward J. 2004. Evolution: The remarkable history of a scientific idea. New York: Random House.

    This is the volume for the uninformed reader who wants a fast and accurate overview of Darwinian history. The book covers much of the same material as Bowler 2009, although expectedly from an author whose previous major work (Summer of the Gods) was on the Scopes “Monkey” trial Larson is particularly strong on religious questions in the Darwinism story and offers a somewhat more American perspective, as opposed to Bowler’s Anglocentrism.

  • Ruse, Michael, ed. 2013. The Cambridge encyclopedia of Darwin and evolutionary thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139026895

    This very large collection covers just about every aspect of the Darwinian story. The text is strong on the reception of Darwinism across the globe and also on the ways in which the ideas still function in the early 21st century. The work is lavishly illustrated and has a very full bibliography.

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