On the Origin of Darwin’s Theory

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Joined  20-02-2006
26 March 2009 13:31

Charles Darwin’s great work, ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ didn’t just spring out of the primordial ooze of one man’s brain.  In the 1770’s, about the time Washington was crossing the Delaware, “Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a physician and philosopher, publicly declared that different species had evolved from a common ancestor.  He even had a motto, “E conchis omnia” (“Everything from shells”) painted on his carriage, prompting a local clergyman to lambaste him in verse:

Great wizard he!  by magic spells
Can all things raise from cockle shells.

In the 1794 book of his two-volume ‘Zoonomia,’ the elder Darwin ventured that over the course of “perhaps millions of ages . . .  all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament,” acquiring new traits and passing down improvements from generation to generation.”  (end quotes)

Click the site below to read a colorful article in Smithsonian Magazine in which author Richard Conniff explains how Wallace’s parallel work in Amazonia and Asia finally prompted Charles Darwin to publish his book.

And who wrote ‘Vestiges?’  “By the 1840’s, evolutionary ideas had broken out of the scientific community and into heated public debate.  The sensation of 1845 (when Thoreau built his cabin at Walden Pond), was the anonymous tract, ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,’ and it set both Darwin and Wallace on career paths that would converge in that fateful 1858 mail delivery.  ‘Vestiges’ deftly wove evolutionary ideas into a sweeping history of the cosmos, beginning in some primordial “fire mist.”  The author, later revealed to be the Edinburgh journalist and publisher Robert Chambers, argued that humans had arisen from monkeys and apes, but he also appealed to ordinary readers with the uplifting message that evolution was about progress and improvement.

‘Vestiges’ quickly became a popular hit, a rose-tinted ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ of its day.  Prince Albert read it aloud to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace . . . ”  (and I suspect Thoreau read it quietly on the shores of Walden Pond and later discussed it with Emerson and Channing).


Total Posts:  3
Joined  29-03-2009
29 March 2009 12:03

Would it be proper to say that Darwin’s theory is not the theory of evolution, but the theory of natural selection? As you point out the theory of evolution predates (Charles) Darwin.

Total Posts:  6114
Joined  20-02-2006
29 March 2009 13:24
trebor - 29 March 2009 04:03 PM

Would it be proper to say that Darwin’s theory is not the theory of evolution, but the theory of natural selection? As you point out the theory of evolution predates (Charles) Darwin.

That would be more accurate given the title of his book.  The headline on the cover of ‘Smithsonian’ (mentioned above) says, ‘DARWIN WINS.’  It seems likely that history, or the popular view, will always consider him the discoverer of evolution.  The article in Smithsonian concludes:

‘Characteristically, Darwin gave credit to Wallace, and also to Malthus, Lamarck and even the anonymous “Mr. Vestiges.”  Reading the book (ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES BY MEANS OF NATURAL SELECTION), which Darwin sent to him in New Guinea, Wallace was plainly thrilled:  “Mr. Darwin has given the world a new science, and his name should, in my opinion, stand above that of every philosopher of ancient or modern times.”

(the article continues) ‘Wallace seems to have felt no twinge of envy or possessiveness about the idea that would bring Darwin such renown.  Alfred Russel Wallace had made the postman knock, and that was apparently enough.’

chris madden
chris madden
Total Posts:  17
Joined  06-10-2008
10 July 2009 03:48

It’s my feeling that in all probability no one individual should actually be given the title of Originator of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, due to the principle that in almost every field of scientific (or other) advancement the progress made is a matter of the gradual accretion of ideas one on top of the other, with each person involved adding a relatively small contribution, rather than the more dramatic and appealing concept of a towering genius making a giant leap across a conceptual void.
The desire to attribute advances to individual people has more to do with our wish to put faces to events as a means of creating a relatively simple and dramatic narrative of history (rather than the less focussed and impersonal network of diffuse interactions that it actually is).

There are several contenders for the illusory title of Originator of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, and they are all British as far as I’m aware. There could be one of several reasons for this bias towards the Brits. One is that the contribution by individuals from other countries may not be so well documented, another is that the British (of which I am one) are deliberately ignoring contributions from abroad, or thirdly, it’s possible that Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was uniquely culturally in just the right position for the theory to emerge naturally.

One of the principal characters in the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection was Patrick Matthew, a Scottish landowner and arboriculturalist who published the theory over a quarter of a century before Darwin and Wallace.
He seems to be overlooked by history because of the fact that he didn’t push or publicize his theory to any great extent. Indeed, the fact that he didn’t push it is sometimes used an a reason to not grant him the title of originator of the theory. Personally I feel that that’s a rather mean reason for trivialising someone’s contribution to something - that his PR was inadequate.
It seems that one reason why Matthew didn’t publicise his idea much was that he thought that the idea was so blindingly obvious that it hardly needed stating. It was only when a fuss was made about it twenty five years or so later that he felt that he had to mention his contribution.

Essentially, several people were going to come up with the theory at some time during the nineteenth century. As indeed several people did.

On the subject of putting faces to history, here’s Patrick Matthew’s:

[ Edited: 10 July 2009 03:50 by chris madden]
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