Wednesday, April 7, 2010

4/7: The immediate impact of Darwin

Last Update: 04-08-2010 17:13:12

At the end of a year of Darwin celebrations one can imagine that the Earth shifted its axis in 1859. What did happen at the time? We know that there were other ideas about evolution already in circulation. Did they persist? Was there a big difference in the response of the scientific community and of the society at large? What ripples were apparent in various aspects of visual culture? How did the response differ among countries?

04-07-2010 09:56:28
In the case of Britain, scholars like David Hull and Alvar Ellegaard have shown that the response to Darwin in the periodical press and among scientists ran the full spectrum, from full acceptance to complete rejection. That was true as well among religious periodicals. They've also shown that while Darwin was successful at convincing his colleagues, especially younger ones, that evolution had occurred, he was not very successful at convincing them that natural selection had been the primary mechanism for it. Even T. H. Huxley, Darwin's "bulldog," mainly avoided reference to natural selection.

A prominent aspect of Darwin's presence in visual culture after the Origin was his appearance in the kinds of caricatures and evolution-themed cartoons (gorillas in evening dress, etc.) others have mentioned and posted. Darwin collected a number of them, as many exist in the Darwin Papers at the Cambridge University Library. The intent of these is often difficult to gauge--playful? critical? delight in the discomfort Darwin's ideas were causing?--but their humor often hinged on and reinforced popular misconceptions of Darwin's theory, especially ideas that evolution arose through breeding of different species, or that the transformation of one species into another occurred rapidly.

04-07-2010 13:51:09
It seems relevant to post the response of Charles Dickens to Darwin's publication on July 7, 1860 in the issue of All the Year Round. Here is the closing paragraph, courtesy of S.J. Gould in “A Seahorse for All Races”:
"Timid persons, who purportedly cultivate a certain inertia of mind, and who love to cling to their preconceived ideas, fearing to look at such a mighty subject from an unauthorized and unwonted point of view, may be reassured by the reflection that, for theories, as for organized beings, there is also a Natural Selection and a Struggle for Life. The world has seen all sorts of theories rise, have their day, and fall into neglect."

04-07-2010 23:06:35
Quote from an Oxford University Museum of Natural History publication on their Darwin Collection:

"…in 1859 published his famous and controversial book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. This sparked a furious debate between scientists and theologians, most notably the one between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce that took place in Oxford in 1860 at the newly opened University Museum. Darwin died at home in 1882 after suffering an extended illness and was buried at Westminster Abbey. The Archbishop was indisposed."

With beautiful British understatement of "The Archbishop was indisposed" implies the church state split at the time was significant. While the academic community supported the public debate, Darwin debated privately with Asa Grey and other noted scientists, the British government and public accepted and buried him as a hero.


04-08-2010 08:21:27
Dear Colleagues:

I would like to point out a series of of brief opinions featured in Nature magazine in 2009 that discuss the ways in which Darwin's ideas were received in China, Russia, the Muslim world and Latin America:
"Global Darwin: Revolutionary Road" by James Pusey
"Global Darwin: Contempt for Competition", by Daniel Todes
"Global Darwin: Eastern Enchantment" by Marwa Elshakry
"Global Darwin: Multicultural Mergers" by Jurgen Buchenau
As we are experiencing a move away from linear history, such a global perspective addresses
particular concerns about imperialism, government, identity, mass immigration and racial politics to name a few subjects embroiled in these discussions.

04-08-2010 17:13:12
As Janet Browne has noted, within ten years of its publication, On the Origin of Species had been translated into French, German, Dutch, Italian, Swedish, and Russian, and was widely discussed.

Its impact though was mediated by culture and politics. In France and Russia it was absorbed into Lamarckian trends in evolutionary thinking. Darwin himself noted various cultural responses. Though Haeckel ultimately took evolution in a direction different from that which Darwin had intended, at first he was enough of a follower that Darwin stated with apparent relief as early as 1861, "the support that I receive in Germany is my chief ground for hope that my views will ultimately prevail." (quoted by Marsha Morton in her essay in The Art of Evolution). Dawin's own ideas (not to mention his warming towards aspects of Lamarck) continued to be reshaped--for example, he placed increasing importance on sexual selection in his writings, even bringing up the unthinkable: that this mechanism may--at least to some extent-- play a greater role than natural selection. Darwinism was not a monolith.

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