What if a young Charles Darwin, stricken with seasickness, had been washed over the side of HMS Beagle on a dark and stormy night in 1832? Peter Bowler’s dramatic opening paragraph, complete with a nod and wink to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, sets a scene that would have averted the far higher drama that ensued from the publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species. How would biological science’s role in history have differed?
By 1900, Bowler argues, scientifically informed opinion would have absorbed the idea that living forms evolve, without recognising that this happens through natural selection. In fact, as Bowler has demonstrated in his previous work on the history of evolutionary thought, that is pretty much what did happen. Although Darwin’s theory of natural selection transformed the understanding of life by turning all eyes to evolution, the subsequent decades saw a successful effort to sideline it in favour of less disturbing candidates for mechanisms of change. People were ready to accept the idea of evolutionary transformation as long as it seemed orderly, progressive and purposeful. Lamarckian ideas, suggesting that individuals could improve themselves through their own striving and then pass on these improvements to their offspring, were a popular alternative. Other theories proposed that living forms were shaped by inner laws that guided change in beneficial directions. Arguments such as these did not confront respectable men with undignified implications about their relationship to monkeys, or threaten to make the universe look meaningless. By the century’s end Darwinism was in eclipse, as the biologist Julian Huxley later put it, but the cracks it had made in the foundations of existential belief were beyond repair.