The buildup for the 2009 bicentennial of Darwin's birth suggests that there is more here than celebrating the life of this Victorian gentleman scientist. An essay in Nature, marking the 150th anniversary of the short paper Alfred Russel Wallace sent to Darwin unveiling his thoughts on evolution by natural selection, gives some clues about the wider agenda for Darwin's acclaim.
Do we see the real Darwin? or do we get an image constructed by his heirs? (Source here)
Darwin communicated the striking convergence between his own thinking and that of Wallace in a letter to Charles Lyell on 18 June 1858. Lyell and Hooker urged a joint publication of the theory, so the article by Wallace and another from Darwin was read at a meeting of the Linnean Society on 1st July. At the time, it was not perceived as a landmark event in science. Neither Darwin or Wallace was present and their papers made little impact.
Thomas Bell, president of the Linnean Society, guaranteed himself an unfortunate footnote in the history books by writing in his annual review of 1858: "The year which has passed has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear".
The convergence can be attributed to intelligent design. Both men were thinking along the same lines and proposed essentially the same mechanism to explain evolutionary transformation. They were not alone as pioneers. In 1831, the plant breeder Patrick Matthew had proposed essentially the same theory in the appendix of a book on arboriculture - but he did not develop his ideas further.
"Exploring Wallace's role in the evolutionary story reveals a host of other figures who also deserve to be heard. over the past twenty years, the Darwinian revolution has been shown to be neither a revolution as commonly understood nor solely due to Darwin. Many people proposed developmental schemes, some as famous as Jean-Baptiste Lamark and Herbert Spencer, others relatively unknown but just as interesting. To remember Wallace is therefore to recognise that "evolution was in the air", and prompts one to wonder how Darwin's name rose so smoothly to the top."
Berry and Browne (the authors of the essay) refer to several factors explaining why Darwin became so dominant. The first concerns the honour placed on those who advance science: "precedence is everything; posterity ignores the second place". This is not particularly convincing, as Matthew has a justifiable claim for precedence, and both Darwin and Wallace agreed with joint publication of their ideas in 1858. Secondly, "major changes in scientific theory are not just about the formulation of new ideas, but also depend on circulation and discussion." Whilst there is no doubt that Darwin's work did trigger discussion, we should note that many of the responses were critical. His proposals were not received as the key to unlock the mystery of life, but many felt that his theory, where it could be tested, was not confirmed by the evidence. Thirdly, the authors point to Wallace's contribution to his own eclipse by adopting the term Darwinism and undermining his credibility as a scientist by becoming "a spiritualist". I have referred to these aspects of Wallace in a previous blog.
If we take Wallace on his own merits, he had many commendable strengths. "In fact, he was a superb scientist, whose contributions to many aspects of evolutionary biology and biogeography remain influential. His conduct in the evolution business is exemplary." So why was he eclipsed by Darwin? This comment deserves further thought:
"[T]he making of a new theory rarely occurs in isolation. Rather, it depends on the support of colleagues, social networks and interactions within the scientific community, as well as the power of the theory itself."
The key to understand this situation is that Darwinism is not just a scientific theory. Those who think this (and I am referring primarily to theistic evolutionists) appear to be blind to this analysis of history. Darwinism succeeded because it fitted into the next phase of Enlightenment rationalism. Up until Darwin, Enlightenment science was content to coexist with a modified Deism, where God was the First Cause and then left Creation to run as a giant machine apart from occasional interventions of destruction and recreation. Darwin's approach allowed these interventions to be excluded and God was restricted to acting as the First Cause and science became autonomous. Of course, there were a growing number of science leaders, including Darwin, who were prepared to contemplate agnosticism about God and wanted to promote the secularisation of science. Wallace was not part of this ideological shift, so he remained an outsider. Darwin was a prominent node in the network of Victorian science, and it suited his colleagues for him to be the front-man for their ideological revolution.
Why are these things important? It is because there continue to be many who think that ID advocates have invented the concept of a culture war. They think that Darwinism should always be considered as a "pure" scientific theory. The flaw with this is that it never was and it cannot today be defended purely on science grounds. There have always been significant doubts as to what variations (mutations) and natural selection can accomplish. However, to acknowledge this should not be isolated from the ideology underpinning Darwinism - which is where the real drivers are in these debates. That is why Wallace, with his teleological world-view, did not find a place in the emerging secularised scientific culture.
The other beetle-hunter
Andrew Berry and Janet Browne
Nature 453, 1188-1190 (26 June 2008) | doi:10.1038/4531188a
Abstract: Thanks to a fateful letter, the theory of evolution by natural selection was unveiled 150 years ago this week. Andrew Berry and Janet Browne celebrate the letter's writer, Alfred Russel Wallace.
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