Charles Darwin’s theory of how life on earth came to exist in the way it presently does, and his articulation of the causes which constitute it, has proven to be at once revolutionary and enduring. Most biologists and philosophers of biology accept that there will be no post-Darwinian biological theories. This is an exceptional achievement, one for which there is little precedence, and one with extraordinarily wide-ranging philosophical implications.
This article focuses on examining Darwin’s life and work, with an emphasis on some of the philosophical influences which shaped his thought. It begins with a discussion of Darwin’s family and the influence their beliefs had on him, before discussing his education and the events which led him to take part in the voyage of the H.M.S Beagle, on which he made many of the observations which would come to define his theory of evolution. The article then moves to discuss the formative philosophical influences on Darwin, and lastly attempts to situate Darwin within the backlash he experienced to his theory.
1. Charles Darwin’s Grandfathers Were Influential People
Charles Darwin lived from 1809-1882, through a period of British dominance both in intellectual and in geopolitical terms, as the British Empire expanded and further established a stranglehold over roughly a quarter of the world’s people. Many of the most important scientific developments of this time were made in Britain. Over the course of his life, Darwin would have seen an increased religious tolerance, paired with a growing appreciation for the importance of science. Indeed, his own work would prove to be a critical element of this transition.
Both of Darwin’s grandfathers were, in a sense, precursors to the coming change. One of his grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin, was a physician, whereas the other, Josiah Wedgwood, was in charge of a pottery factory known for its embrace of technological advancements in the distribution of labour and other aspects of the industrial process. Both grandfathers knew one another: they were members of the “Lunar Society,” which met to discuss technology and industry. This group, based around Birmingham, were also religious non-conformists (another sign of the times), greatly influenced by the major figures of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ of the late 18th century, whose leading figures included David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and James Watt.
2. Darwin Dropped Out of Medical School
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Darwin’s father, Robert, was also a doctor, and his mother Susannah was politically minded. Although he greatly disliked school, Charles and his brother (who was called Erasmus after one of their grandfathers) were enthusiastic amateur scientists from an early age, and Charles went to study medicine in Edinburgh at 16 – an unusually early age, even at the time.
Edinburgh was the most prestigious place to study medicine at the time, but Charles soon realized that he didn’t wish to become a doctor. Nonetheless, Edinburgh was a formative place for Charles – he was taken under the wing of Dr. Robert Grant, who encouraged Darwin’s research into marine invertebrates and, importantly, introduced him to the evolutionary ideas of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck was the first person to offer a comprehensive, scientific account of biological evolution, including the representation of environmental forces as contributing to the adoption or rejection of traits.
3. Darwin Embarked on a Journey Around the Globe at a Young Age
Darwin then moved to study Divinity at Cambridge. During this period, one of his close friends – Dr. John Henslow – encouraged Darwin to investigate some of the philosophical developments of the time. The consequence, as Darwin wrote, was that it “stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science.” This marks Darwin’s development from a man interested in scientific experiments to one who sees himself as contributing to a body of knowledge. John Henslow was also responsible for introducing Darwin to Captain Robert Fitzroy of H.M.S Beagle. Fitzroy was after someone who would keep a record of geological and biological discoveries made over the course of a circumnavigation of the globe. Darwin accepted the challenge.
The Beagle’s journey lasted five years and allowed Darwin to see and study an exceptionally broad range of ecosystems for himself. Whilst on board the Beagle, Darwin was greatly influenced by Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, the implications of which went far beyond geology alone. Lyell was concerned with articulating the underlying principles of historical science in general.
4. Darwin Was Deeply Influenced by a Book on the Principles of Geology
Several of Lyell’s conclusions proved extremely important for Darwin’s own theoretical work. First, that studying the underlying causes of historical change should be limited to those “now in operation.” This can be understood in a positive or negative light. On the one hand, it imposes a hard limit on how far we can understand our past, imposing a strict empirical constraint on our interpretation of the appearance of causes. On the other, it is – in a certain sense, an expression of faith in the intelligibility of our past, suggesting that we can understand it purely in terms of the causes which are presently at the disposal of our direct apprehension. Clearly, the deciding factor is how committed one is to the view that we can make sense of the world and its past prima facie (that is, how far this principle is pre-established for a certain investigation).
Lyell’s work also laid down a challenge to Darwin: given that the geological record indicates the ‘introduction’ and ‘extinction’ of various species, it is essential that we discover the causes of these changes. In Lyell’s view, only one scientist had at that time made a plausible attempt at an explanation – that was Lamarck, but his project was a failure (according to Lyell) because the evidence suggested that one species cannot transform into another, and species variability was limited.
Darwin’s own research over the course of his voyage convinced him that Lyell was quite wrong to say that one species cannot transform into another. Indeed, the way in which species were distributed could only be explained with reference to this process. And yet, Darwin was at the same time inspired to attempt a theory that met the methodological standards Lyell had set out.
To put the point clearly: Darwin saw himself as bound by distinctly metaphysical and epistemological commitments as he began to develop his theory. Once Darwin had returned from the Beagle’s voyage, he set himself to the business of supplying a theoretical justification for his view that the species distribution in the fossil record was explicable only with reference to the gradual change of species. One of the most enduring, and contemporaneously controversial, elements of Darwin’s theory was his thesis of natural selection.
James Lennox, a contemporary scholar, summarises natural selection and the argumentative steps leading up to it in the following way: “Some individuals will have variations that give them a slight advantage in this struggle, variations that allow more efficient or better access to resources, greater resistance to disease, greater success at avoiding predation, and so on. These individuals will tend to survive better and leave more offspring. Offspring tend to inherit the variations of their parents. Therefore favorable variations will tend to be passed on more frequently than others and thus be preserved, a tendency Darwin labeled ‘Natural Selection’”
5. Darwin Received Scathing Criticism from Fellow Scientists
The resistance Darwin experienced from the more religious of his scientific colleagues was something he expected. A friend of his and John Henslow’s, a geologist called Adam Sedgwick, offered the following, famously scathing appraisal of Darwin’s theory in his review of The Origin of Species, Darwin’s magnum opus:
“[I have a] deep aversion to the theory; because of its unflinching materialism;–because it has deserted the inductive track,–the only track that leads to physical truth;–because it utterly repudiates final causes, and therby [sic] indicates a demoralized understanding on the part of its advocates.”
For those familiar with the Marxian tradition, it is worth clarifying that the term materialism as Henslow applies it here has no ‘political’ connotations, but rather simply refers to the view that all that exists is matter, and that changes in the world are modifications to matter.
It is extremely striking as a 21st-century reader that even a scientist – indeed, one who was personally well disposed to Darwin before the publication of his theory – conceived of good science as non-materialist, as an attempt to provide a “moralized” understanding of the world. Indeed, much of the reception to Darwin’s work requires an awful lot of historical context to understand fully.
To conclude, it is worth unpicking one myth about Darwin and his relationship with the criticism his theories faced. The popular conception of Darwin often pictures him as the paradigmatic modern scientist. That paradigm includes a certain kind of neutrality with respect to the way the procession of science touches religious and political discourses contemporary to it. That was certainly not the case for Charles Darwin. His family’s religious non-conformity aside, he himself was a radical religious dissenter. He openly mocked Lamarck’s hierarchical conception of nature, in which la pouvoir de la vie (literally, ‘the power of life’ or life-force) contributes to the complexification of organisms over time, and explicitly challenged the tendency to conceive of animals and other living things as fundamentally different from human beings.
Moreover, as other ‘materialists’ faced a backlash both from the public and from their scientific colleagues, Darwin’s notebooks show us that he was brainstorming not just scientific or philosophical defenses of his theory, but rhetorical ones (‘mention persecution of early astronomers’ reads one of his auto-suggestions). He was sensitive enough to the political temperature of the period from the Great Reform act (1832) to the series of European revolutions in 1848 that he kept his theory to himself for a long while, and when he did tell those closest to him, he remarked that it felt ‘like confessing a murder.” Darwin was a brilliant scientist and felt bound by distinctly philosophical constraints. But he was also a political animal with a strong sense of the radicalism of his theories and their incendiary potential.