'Darwin's Metaphor: Does Nature Select?

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Author: Robert M. Young
Editors: Denise Kasinec and Mary L. Onorato
Date: 1997
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 23,286 words

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[In the following essay, originally published in The Monist, Young places Darwin's theory of natural selection in the contexts of intellectual history analyzing its scientific value, the objections it has elicited, and its philosophical, theological, and social influence.]


It is not too great an exaggeration to claim that On the Origin of Species was, along with Das Kapital, one of the two most significant works in the intellectual history of the nineteenth century. As George Henry Lewes wrote in 1868, “No work of our time has been so general in its influence.”1 However, the very generality of the influence of Darwin's work provides the chief problem for the intellectual historian. Most books and articles on the subject assert the influence but remain very imprecise about its nature.2 It is very difficult indeed to assess what it was about the Darwinian theory which was so influential and how its influence was felt. This problem in Victorian intellectual history intersects with a related one in the history of science. There has been a tendency on the part of historians of science to isolate Darwin in two related ways. The first is to single him out from the mainstream of nineteenth-century naturalism in Britain and allow “Darwinism” to stand duty for the wider movement of which it was in fact but a part.3 The second is the tendency to single out his evolutionary theory and to demarcate it sharply from those of his predecessors and contemporaries. According to this interpretation Darwin stood alone as a real, empirical scientist and provided the first genuinely scientific hypothesis for the process by which evolution might have occured.4 The theories of the other main evolutionists—Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Chambers, Spencer, and Wallace—were more or less besmirched by ideological, anthropomorphic, or other “nonscientific” factors or by the uses to which they were put by their authors. Charles Darwin is thus made to stand out as a figure of comparatively unalloyed scientific status and is treated in relative isolation from the social and intellectual context in which he worked and into which his theory was received.

Of course Darwin's theory was based on a more plausible scientific hypothesis than those of the other evolutionists, and he was much less interested in philosophical, theological, and social issues: he was primarily a naturalist.5 But when one tries to relate the accounts of historians of science to the problem of Darwin's place in intellectual history one finds a gap between the generality of his influence and the particularity of his theory. It is hoped that a very close look at the putatively most scientific aspect of Darwin's theory will help to shed light on his general influence. I shall concentrate on a very close analysis of the texts in an attempt to show that the fine texture of the scientific debate directly involves theological and philosophical issues. These were constitutive, not contextual. In approaching the problem in this way I hope to show that the scientific heart...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420012621