Charles Darwin: Revolution of evolution

Issue section: 
(333)

Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace formulated the theory of evolution and fought for its acceptance across the scientific community, writes John Parrington.

I recently made a pilgrimage to Westminster Abbey. I was not there for religious or aesthetic reasons, but to visit the grave and honour the memory of Charles Darwin, who was born 200 years ago this month.

I have always found it rather ironic that Darwin is buried in such an important religious institution, given that his theories provided the first scientific support for the idea that life on earth arose by a purely natural process, and not through the design of some supernatural being, thus removing one of the main justifications for god. But as a pillar of the British establishment and a friend of many clergymen, Darwin's life was full of such contradictions.

So nervous was he about the revolutionary nature of his discovery that he held off from publicising his ideas for many years. In fact Darwin might never have published his famous book, On the Origin of Species, had it not been for a certain Alfred Russel Wallace. It was Wallace who independently came up with the idea of evolution by natural selection, communicated this in a manuscript that he sent to Darwin, and thus pushed the latter into finally putting his theories in print.

Yet although Wallace's joint role is honoured by a small plaque in Westminster Abbey, most people know Darwin's name but few will have heard of Wallace. Unlike Darwin, Wallace was a socialist who campaigned against capitalism and imperialism. It ought therefore to be of interest to socialists
in this year of celebration of Darwin's achievements, to learn more about Wallace, the fame he acquired as the co-discoverer of natural selection, his subsequent lapse into obscurity, and how this has affected the development of evolutionary theory and its influence upon society.

Charles Darwin was born on 12 February 1809 into a rich and powerful family. His paternal grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, a famous scientist who came up with his own theory of evolution, while his maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, of pottery fame. Despite this, for the first decades of his life Darwin failed to distinguish himself, first dropping out of medical studies in Edinburgh because he hated the sight of blood, and subsequently entering Cambridge to study for the profession of clergyman very much as a second option.

Yet Darwin was gaining great skill as an amateur naturalist, and it was this that allowed him to seize the opportunity presented when he was offered an unpaid position as scientist on board the Beagle, a naval surveying ship bound for the farthest corners of the globe. The five-year voyage was the making of Darwin, providing him with the wealth of observations of the natural world that established him as one of the foremost scientists of his age and provided the raw material for his revolutionary theory.

But despite coming up with the idea of natural selection as early as the late 1830s, Darwin kept his ideas out of the public domain for more than two decades. The fact was that evolution by natural means was viewed as a dangerous and subversive idea in early Victorian society. At a time when the Chartist workers' movement was challenging the established order in Britain and revolution was raging on the continent, for Darwin to associate himself with such radical ideas would have seemed a very risky proposition to someone of his social position. But then, in 1858, he received Wallace's manuscript.

Wallace was far less worried about offending respectable Victorian society as he already held many radical views. Born on 8 January 1823, the eighth child of a family that never had much money to spare, Wallace had to work for a living from an early age and gained most of his education at evening classes run by the Mechanics' Institutes for working people. It was there that he was exposed to the ideas of such radical thinkers as Thomas Paine and Robert Owen.

Fascinated by the natural world, Wallace voyaged as widely as Darwin, first to the Amazon basin and then to Indonesia. But while Darwin travelled as a gentleman of independent means, Wallace's travels were entirely dependent on his being able to pay for them by selling books describing his travels and the animal and plant specimens he collected during them. It was a precarious existence, and one punctuated by various tropical illnesses that at times brought Wallace close to death's door. It was while suffering from one bout of malaria that Wallace came up with the theory of natural selection.

A popular idea about science is that new theories arise through patient accumulation of facts. But scientists also need some starting intellectual framework to make sense of those facts. In groping their way towards the concept of natural selection, both Darwin and Wallace became aware that in any species there is a great deal of variation. However, it was through reading a book - Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population - that both men realised that evolution could occur if some variants were more favoured in the struggle for survival than others.

Population

Malthus argued that poverty is inevitable given that populations increase exponentially while food supplies increase only arithmetically. This piece of intellectual nonsense conveniently ignored the fact that human society has the means to continually improve the means of food production.

It nevertheless served as a very useful justification for all sorts of reactionary measures in the mid-19th century, such as abolition of welfare support for the poor and their confinement in prison-like workhouses. However, for both Darwin who read the book after his voyage on the Beagle and for Wallace who remembered it while delirious with malaria, it served as the intellectual stimulus that allowed them to realise it was the struggle for scarce food supplies in the natural world that decided which variants of a species would survive to produce related offspring, and which would perish.

For Darwin, Wallace's letter was a wake-up call. As he put it to his friend, the geologist Charles Lyell, "If Wallace had my manuscript he could not have made a better short abstract! [...] So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed." He was almost ready to concede priority, but in a "gentleman's agreement" arranged by Darwin's friends, Wallace's manuscript and an unpublished essay Darwin had written in 1844 outlining his ideas, were both presented at the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858. Yet today we refer to the theory of natural selection as Darwinian rather than Wallacian.

So why has Darwin's fame grown ever greater since his death, while Wallace's name is now hardly remembered? A key factor is that Darwin did not only come up with the theory of natural selection but also spearheaded a worldwide movement that publicised and promoted the idea, and thereby led a revolution that ended up overturning previous conceptions of the natural world.

The publication of On the Origin of Species played a central role in this process. This year also marks the 150th anniversary of this major scientific work, which was first published on 24 November 1859. Whereas the meeting at the Linnean Society went almost unnoticed by the public, Darwin's book became a literary sensation, selling out almost immediately and going on to become an international bestseller. Its success was due to the fact that it was written in a highly popular, readable style, but also because of the vast wealth of observations drawn from the natural world that Darwin presented to support his case.

The two decades that he had been working on his theory had been far from wasted. Darwin was an obsessive note-taker, even keeping a record of the scores of each backgammon game he played with his wife every night for most of their married life. He once joked to his friend, the botanist Joseph Hooker, that he was "a complete millionaire in odd and curious little facts" about the natural world. But such obsession was a great asset when it came to persuading others of a theory in which the devil was definitely in the detail.

Darwin also seems to have been a master tactician when it came to rallying others in support of his cause. He spent most of his life at his home in the quiet little village of Down in Kent, debilitated by a mysterious illness that some believe was due to the tropical Chagas disease, others to a psychosomatic disorder brought on by the burden of delivering such a controversial message to the world. But Darwin's apparent isolation in this provincial backwater was deceptive, for he turned his house into the hub of a social network that eventually reached deep into the global scientific community. Among his other activities, Darwin was a prolific letter writer, exchanging around 14,000 of them with nearly 2,000 different people in his lifetime. He used these exchanges to collect information to support his theories but also to recruit new supporters across the world.

Most importantly, Darwin collected around himself a group of mainly younger scientists who were willing to go out and crusade on his behalf - individuals like Thomas Huxley, who was so passionate about Darwin's theory that he said he was willing to "go to the stake" to defend it. It was Huxley who, when asked by Bishop William Wilberforce whether he claimed descent from a monkey through his grandmother or grandfather, famously replied that he would "rather be descended from a monkey than use great gifts to obscure the truth".

In fact the movement that grew up around Darwin was about far more than scientific theory - it also represented a challenge to the scientific establishment. Up to the publication of On the Origin of Species, the study of the natural world had been dominated by rich amateurs. But men like Huxley represented a new breed of middle class professionals whose dream was of a scientific meritocracy where talent, not birth or money, was the main factor determining success. The battle for the supremacy of Darwinism provided an opportunity for recasting science in this image by overturning the influence of the gentlemen scientists. That this revolution was presided over by a country squire living a life of leisure on his landed estate is merely another of the ironies of Darwin's life.

Wallace never had enough money to be a gentleman amateur, but he also struggled to find a place in the new scientific hierarchy, never managing to find a permanent position in a museum, university or other academic establishment. His situation was probably not helped by his radical views on subjects such as land nationalisation and women's rights, and his opposition to war and imperialism. Wallace eventually found financial stability mainly through the efforts of Darwin, who managed to secure a government pension for him in recognition of Wallace's contribution to science.

Perhaps it was partly gratitude for these efforts that led Wallace to accept the role of one of Darwin's loyal supporters, rather than trying to set himself up as his rival. But there also seems to have been a genuine admiration between the two men for each other's ideas that transcended any potential rivalry. Certainly Darwin was well aware that Wallace's scientific achievements extended well beyond his co-discovery of the process of natural selection and included recognition of the importance of natural boundaries in the formation of species and the use of colour by some animals to deter predators.

There remains one important difference between Wallace and Darwin in terms of their scientific legacies, and that is their views on human evolution. The question of how humanity itself had evolved was side-stepped by both men in their initial publications about evolution. But Darwin tackled the subject head on in his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, in which he argued that despite the apparent uniqueness of human behaviour and society, they too are ultimately a product of natural selection.

Remarkably, in this respect the country squire proved more of a revolutionary than the socialist. For despite his radical views on other subjects Wallace could never accept that the complexities of the human mind could have come about through a process ruled purely by blind chance. Instead he argued that spiritual forces must have helped guide human evolution, much to the dismay of Darwin, who told Wallace, "I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child!"

What Wallace did recognise was that human beings are quite different from any other species in that we have the capacity to learn from past generations and develop technologies that allow us to transform our environment in a progressive fashion. It is this that has allowed us to develop the marvels of modern culture - art, literature, music, computers, genetic engineering, space rockets, to name only a few - in a time period during which our biological make-up has hardly changed. What Wallace did not grasp was that such capacities could "emerge" without any need for supernatural assistance by a purely material route in which the growth of human culture and the development of the human brain mutually stimulated each other through a process of positive feedback.

Darwin himself never guessed the precise sequence of human evolution. This was left to Frederick Engels, who first realised that humans must have initially begun to walk upright, thus freeing their hands to use tools, before their brains could develop. Science has since proved Engels right, although it is rare to find any acknowledgement of his contribution in any textbooks.

In this year of celebration of Darwin's achievements there is still much to be learned from Alfred Russel Wallace. In the years since Darwin's death his evolutionary theories have been a key weapon in the fight against ignorance and superstition, which is why they are still hated by many on the religious right. But they have also at times been used to justify racism and imperialism, attacks on women's rights, and even the working practices of "robber-baron" capitalists like JD Rockefeller.

Wallace vigorously opposed such misuse of the theory of natural selection. In contrast to those who sought to excuse imperialist expansion by reference to the need to discipline and educate "savages", and even Darwin himself who could sometimes lapse into talking about "inferior races", Wallace argued that all human beings are essentially equal. Indeed he counterposed the morality of the "primitive" people he encountered to the "social barbarism" of Victorian England, and the harmonious manner in which they coexisted with nature to the environmental destruction being wreaked by the industrial revolution. In an age of global economic crisis, war and global warming such a message remains a most pertinent one today.