February 12, 2009 marked the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his monumental work, On the Origin of Species. These milestones were celebrated throughout the world in recognition of the profound impact of Darwin and Darwinian evolutionary theory. Both the man and his theory are objects of widespread praise and in-depth analysis. However, the man is usually treated as a timeless icon, and he and his theory of evolution are isolated from the historical context and process they reflect.

Indeed, Darwin’s contributions to human knowledge are often simply summed up as “survival of the fittest” and “humans developed from apes.” What is missing is the appreciation that the fundamental contribution of Darwinian evolutionary theory was not the actual fact of evolution, but the introduction of a new way of thinking about it. Darwin gave biology a history and a mechanism for change.

Explaining change

Darwin and Darwinian evolutionary theory were the culmination of a process fueled by the rapid advances in the natural and biological sciences during the 18th and 19th centuries. These advances reflected, in part, the growing application of technology to agricultural and industrial production. For example, in 1759, the Duke of Bridgewater had an eleven-mile canal cut between his Worsley mines and Manchester. The completion of the canal reduced transportation costs, and the price of coal in Manchester dropped by 50 percent. There was an ensuing explosion of canal building. 81 canals were dug between 1790 and 1794, which required the employment of geologists and surveyors.

While the developing canal system opened up the interior of England to commercial trade, it also revealed that the earth was composed of layers or strata that changed over time, indicating that the earth had a clear history. The vision of an evolving earth was concretized by the publication in 1830 of the Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell, one year before Darwin began his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle.

During his five-year adventure on the H.M.S. Beagle Darwin would amass the data on the geographical distribution and interrelationships between animals and plants which would form the foundation of Darwinian evolutionary theory. The analysis of this data was made possible by changes in the biological sciences during the 17th and 18th centuries.

In this period, plants and animals were catalogued and classified. The resulting concepts of species, genera and families revealed that the living organisms were different but yet interconnected, and that species had histories which included changing, or evolving, over time. The observations that, like the earth, living organisms changed over time gave rise to a number of evolutionary theories to explain them.

Between 1784 and 1802, Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) proposed one approach to evolution by asking “Are living creatures descended from a single common ancestor?” and “How are species transformed?” and an answer, “Competition and selection.” Erasmus Darwin essentially framed the key principles of the evolutionary theory that would be concretized by his grandson.

A different explanation of biological evolution was the “Theory of Inherited Characteristics” proposed by Jean Baptiste de Lamarck in 1809. In this approach, the physical characteristics of an animal could be changed by the animal itself in an effort to better adapt to its environment, and these changes could then be passed on to its descendants. To Lamarck biological evolution was a goal-directed or teleological process in which, as the historian Thomas Kuhn observed, “The ‘idea’ of man and of the contemporary flora and fauna was thought to have been present from the first creation of life, perhaps in the mind of God. That idea or plan had provided the direction and the guiding force to the entire evolutionary process.”

Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory abolished the teleological theories and replaced them with one containing two interconnected processes. One is a slow, steady accumulation of undirected haphazard changes (mutations) in an organism, producing a new organism with increased complexity and capabilities. The second is the interaction of the new mutated organism with the environment and its ability to survive and reproduce in relationship to the non-mutated organisms. The process was called “natural selection,” and the mechanism responsible for the changes was “the struggle for existence.”

With the publication of On the Origin of Species materialism replaced metaphysics and idealism as the fundamental basis of the understanding of natural science. Darwinian evolution was a unifying theory of life that incorporated natural and physical sciences and revolutionary change into the human understanding of nature. In addition, by bringing historical change into biological science, by providing a materialist approach to evolution, and by giving this process direction, i.e. from less to more complex, Darwin ignited an explosion in the biological sciences.

Man of his times

It is tempting to view Darwin as a solitary genius working in isolation and to consider only his impact on society and not society’s impact on Darwin. However, at the same time that Darwin was developing his evolutionary theory, Alfred Russell Wallace independently conceived the same basic explanation of natural selection.

In 1856, Darwin and Wallace presented joint papers at the Linnaean Society, and 15 months later Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Both had done extensive field work on the distribution of animal species, Darwin in the Galapagos Islands and Wallace in the Malay Archipelago. Both attributed the source of their evolutionary theory to the reading of “An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society” written by Thomas Malthus in 1798. In the Introduction to the On the Origin of Species Darwin writes that his theory of evolution is “The doctrine of Malthus applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.”

Malthus was writing during the consolidation of the Industrial Revolution in England, and his observations reflected the growing impoverishment of the working classes and the enrichment of the capitalist class. According to his theory, populations tend to increase geometrically unless constrained by famine, disease and death. Malthus coined the phrase "the struggle for existence” to describe an ever present fact of life in which those who grow rich are the fittest and win the struggle, and, conversely, the poor who, according to him, are doomed by nature to fail.

Darwin belonged to the rentier class, that section of the upper middle class that were considered among the "fittest.” He was born in 1809 and grew up during the consolidation of the power of the industrial capitalists, a process reflected by the history of the Corn Laws. The Corn Laws were passed in 1815 and banned all wheat imports when the price fell below a set price. Therefore they were tariffs protecting the agricultural sector of the economy. The laws also hindered free trade. They were repealed in 1846 and indicated that industry was the ruling sector of the capitalists and free trade was the rule.

The repeal had a positive effect on British manufacturing. For example, the export of Lancashire cottons rose from £141,000 in 1843 to £1,000,000 in 1854. This was related to the final victory of steam (ocean steamers and the railroad) over all other means of transport, and transport became four times faster and four times cheaper. British manufacturing based upon steam overwhelmed foreign domestic industries based upon manual labor. “Times were good for the British capitalists" the historian A.L. Morton wrote in A People's History of England", and they regarded their good fortune as a law of nature and expected it to last for ever.

Darwin’s philosophical and scientific contributions must be understood within the context of the society he lived in and to which he contributed. In the words of Ashley Montagu, “ In an age characterized by industrial competition in which no quarter was given, Darwin gave an explanation virtually entirely in terms of competition, in terms of the struggle for life or existence.”

Examining Darwinian evolutionary theory in this light allows us to see how the change in the ways humans produced their means of existence affected not only political relationships, but the analysis of the natural world as well. We can see how the growth of the natural and physical sciences and, in particular, Darwinian evolutionary theory, was used to affect the structure and defense of the developing political relationships. Thus, it is important to examine Darwinian evolutionary theory in the context of the inter-relationships between scientific advances, the resulting changes in production and the transformations in social and political relationships, and to determine what Darwin got right and what he got wrong. This will be the topic of a future essay.

Further Reading

Charles Darwin, On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection, John Murray, 1859.

R.E. Leakey and R. Lewin, Origins, E.P. Dutton, 1977

A.L. Morton, A People’s History of England, International Publishers, 1974

A. Montagu, Darwin, Competition and Cooperation, Henry Schuman, 1952


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Darwin at 200:
The Man, the Theory, the Times