Darwin's revolution

(Investigator 130, 2010 January)

2009 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th of the publication of his seminal "On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection".

Most articles about Charles Darwin perpetuate the flawed Victorian-styled philosophy that perceives 'progress' in any field as originating in the minds of a few men (or women) of genius – unrelated to the historical societies in which these ideas found expression. I hope to nudge the reader into an appreciation that Darwin's contribution was determined by the world in which he lived; although he saw himself as a respectable middle-class Victorian gentleman (which indeed he was!), standing outside of society, and would have been horrified to be described as a 'revolutionary'.

In fact his findings were to undercut Victorian society in many ways as intelligent spokesmen of the status quo correctly recognized at the time. Indeed, the Darwinian 'revolution' remains incomplete. Arguably, only the minority of today's scientists (working in the biological/digital field), fully appreciate the extent to which Darwin forces a fundamental 'redefinition' of the human being.

Charles Robert Darwin died on April 19 1882. Plans for his funeral, in his quiet Kentish village, were quickly interrupted when influential figures called for him to be buried at Westminster Abbey. A House of Commons petition stated this "would be acceptable to a very large number of our countrymen of all classes and opinions" — and so it was: Darwin was buried alongside the cream of the British Empire; one of less than half a dozen non-royals to be buried in Westminster Abbey in his century. Today, it is hard to avoid Darwin. Bank notes and coins bear his face, whilst towns, universities and national parks are named after him. The anniversary of his birth has led to a torrent of articles, television and radio programmes.

Young Darwin's life and times

Evolutionary speculations were already very much 'in the air' in early Victorian society. "Freethought" was increasingly attractive to middle-class intellectuals, no longer satisfied with the Biblical explanations of human origins.

Specifically, within his family, it could be argued young Darwin was a synthesis of his two grandfathers: Erasmus Darwin was a personification of the enlightenment in Britain; in Zoönomia and the epic poem Temple of Nature he advocated a loosely defined evolutionism, reflecting his belief in reason and progress. His maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgewood, was a rich Unitarian pottery industrialist. Four first-cousin marriages connected the Darwins and the Wedgewoods — they personified the increasingly influential Unitarian Whig bourgeoisie — although wealth would push them towards Anglican respectability.

Darwin's father complained of him as a young man: "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family."(1) Quickly bored with his medical studies at Edinburgh University, he chose instead to attend the debates and collect marine invertebrates on the shore of the Firth of Forth. He transferred to Cambridge University, then a deeply religious and conservative institution, as a step towards a career with the Church of England. In his spare time (there was much more of it than at Edinburgh), he continued collecting beetles; on Friday evenings he would attend Reverend Henslow's dinner parties, for discussions on natural history.

In 1831, the 22-year-old Darwin set off on a five-year voyage around the world. HMS Beagle, bristling with the latest technology, and a not insignificant amount of firepower, was to survey the South American coast. (The 'sun never set' on the British Empire of those days and this entailed regular and increasing explorations of the lands far distant from the British homeland. Considerable British capital was already invested in South America!)

As readers of the (still) 'best seller' The Voyage of the Beagle will be aware, Darwin hit foxes on the head with his geological hammer, knocked hawks off branches with the barrel of his gun, tormented lizards and shot anything too slow to get away. On one occasion, he was looking for a rare species of bird, only to discover he had just almost finished cooking and eating one! Despite the 'savages', he was pleased to note that "little embryo Englands are springing into life".(2)

The changing Society

Returning to Britain in 1836, Darwin found important political changes had taken place. The Reform Bill had finally been passed in 1832; the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act introduced the dreaded workhouses. Even more fundamental changes were set in motion — a growing chorus of voices called for professional scientists, not the traditional gentlemen-amateurs. The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded, in opposition to the conservative Royal Society. Darwin and many others came to embrace Comte's positivism — no longer would nature be explained by God's random interventions, but rather by fundamental laws. (Perhaps God had initiated the laws of nature, but for an increasingly secular science, that was a secondary, philosophical question.)

These were the 'new' conditions under which Darwin began to condense his thoughts and observations on 'transmutation' (evolution) in 'secret' notebooks, in 1837.(3) [These were also the years of Chartism. Darwin's cousin, Emma Wedgewood, whom he married in 1838, presumably summed up their shared feelings when on reading Thomas Carlyle's Chartism pamphlet, declared it "full of compassion and good feeling, but utterly unreasonable".(4)]

A variety of factors held Darwin back from publishing his ideas, not least of them being family and friends who would be shocked. It seems clear he didn't realize the extent to which his ideas, if fully developed, represented a serious challenge to the very essence of bourgeois society.

His intuition regarding 'natural selection' had come (he claimed) from the then popular work of Rev. Thomas Malthus, Essay on the principle of population. Malthus was a reactionary spokesman for the existing ruling class; his book went through six editions between 1798 and 1826 — the anonymously published first edition was a frontal assault on the enlightenment. In later editions, the focus was on the Poor Laws and anything else that might help the workers to survive and multiply. Malthus's ideas boiled down to 'do nothing'; help for the impoverished workers now would only make things worse later. [Malthus famously claimed that, whilst population increased geometrically (eg, 1, 2, 4, 8...), resources, primarily food, could only increase arithmetically (eg, 1, 2, 3, 4...). Both of these assumptions are flawed; contraception and artificial fertilisers, to name just two things, upset his neat schema.]

Given the unsettled times Darwin was also concerned his ideas might be appropriated 'from below'.  His fears were understandable — 'people's philosophers' were skilled at 'plagiarizing' the work of the bourgeoisie for progressive ends. Aside from the Chartists, there were 'illegal' newspapers, like the Oracle of reason, expounding atheist and evolutionary ideas.  [Editor after editor was jailed for blasphemy.]  In August 1838, the latest editor of the Oracle (and the man who coined the term 'secularism'), George Holyoake, went on trial and transformed the event into a propaganda epic. From the dock he spoke for eight hours on atheism and socialism; he was sentenced to six months in prison! That summer witnessed a huge and prolonged Chartist-inspired general strike. Troops marching from London to put down disorder in Manchester passed Darwin's street, followed by screaming crowds, who shouted at the soldiers, "Remember, you are brothers —  don't go and slaughter your starving fellow countrymen."

For a respectable Whig like Darwin, these manifestations of the growing 'class struggle' must have been terrifying experiences.

By 1842 Darwin had produced a basic outline of what would become On the Origin of Species. Yet he compared discussing his ideas to "confessing a murder".(5) However, by the mid-1840s evolutionary ideas were beginning to gain respectability even in 'polite society'. The anonymous publication in 1844 of Vestiges of the natural history of creation by Robert Chambers, written for a popular audience, led many to accept that species could and had changed over time, and was crucial for preparing the way for Darwin's more properly researched material.

In 1845, Prime Minister Robert Peel embraced 'free trade'. The following year the hated Corn Laws were repealed. Darwin turned his attention to that most pressing of subjects, barnacles! It demonstrated that the man, who up to now had largely lived on his father's money, could also do 'proper science', and not merely theorize in the abstract.     

Then 1848 happened. The French King fled to Britain and Europe exploded in revolution. Thousands of Chartists planned to meet on Kennington Common in April. The upper class engaged in an extensive programme of arming and fortifying buildings — even the geologist, Reverend Buckland, now Dean of Westminster, wielded a crowbar, ready to bludgeon any undesirables who entered the Abbey.(6) As it turned out, the Chartist demonstrations were peaceful, a period of calm was ushered in; the economy boomed in the 1850s.

On June 18 1857, a long letter landed on Darwin's doormat from Alfred Russel Wallace, a working class socialist, born at Llanbadoc, near Usk, in South Wales (an Englishman born in Wales!). He had some ideas for the respected English naturalist to look over. Little had he realized how closely they paralleled what Darwin had been working on 'in secret'. Darwin panicked, and rushed to publish his own ideas.

On the origin of species

On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life was finally published on November 24, 1859.

It was a surprise bestseller alongside Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in the context of the French revolution, and Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King (superficially a retelling of the Arthurian legend, widely interpreted as an allegory of the class struggle). The popularity of such works tells us much about the attitudes of Victorian Britain.

Origin begins by discussing artificial selection. It was clear that selective breeding had strongly changed many species. Thus from the humble wild cabbage came Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower. From the wolf we bred the diminutive Chihuahua and the mighty Irish wolfhound. Darwin argued, by drowning the reader with examples, nature worked in the same way. All species were varied, and most have the ability, in theory, to rapidly increase in numbers. Yet this does not happen. There is therefore a "struggle for existence". The phrase 'survival of the fittest' originated with Herbert Spencer, and Darwin used it in later editions of Origin (as a less anthropomorphic alternative to 'natural selection').  

The biological term 'fitness' does not refer to one's 'personal' capacity for distance-running or weightlifting. 'Fitness' refers to the overall suitability of an organism for survival and, crucially, in today's scientific terminology, for passing on its genes. The fitness of an organism reflects its phenotype — the way the genotype is expressed in combination with environmental factors. Fitness is about adaptation to the changing local environment, not some supra-historical schema. With the rise of the 'gene-centred view of evolution', provocatively labeled by Dawkins as 'selfish gene theory', the way we understand fitness has changed considerably. What matters is that genes are passed on — an organism can therefore be 'fit' either by passing on these genes itself, or by helping another who shares the genes.

Many individuals have a problem with the idea of the 'selfish gene', but their confusion arises from a crass simplification and a 'moral outrage' at the label. The theory 'in the abstract' is neither 'progressive' or 'reactionary' if misapplied to 'social science' – a 'selfish gene' can be taken as support for the status quo (capitalism), or, on the other hand, by undermining the idea that selection takes place at the level of the individual or social group, it can equally support a progressive world view. Richard Dawkins described himself as "mortified" to discover that The selfish gene was Enron CEO Jeff Skilling's favourite book and that he took it in a social Darwinist way.(7) Dawkins repeats this message in the introduction to the latest edition of The selfish gene.

The essence of Darwin's Origin was the claim that gradual natural selection was the primary mechanism by which evolution occurred. The idea of gradualism was thick in the air Darwin breathed, and so long as 'change' was envisaged in this manner only (no 'sudden' leaps, no revolutionary 'leaps' of the dialectical kind suggested by Hegel and Marx), this philosophy, in so far as it went, posed no threat to the status quo. The bourgeoisie wanted 'progress' (eg, industrialization), but it did not want the proletariat to overstep its mark; archaeologist August Pitt Rivers put things somewhat more honestly than many of his contemporaries when he said the law that nature "makes no jumps" can be taught to the people "in such a way as at least to make men cautious how they listen to scatterbrained revolutionary suggestions".(8)

But gradual change is not necessary for Darwinism. T H Huxley — among many others — was critical of Darwin's repeated use of the phrase Natura non facit saltum ('Nature makes no leaps') in Origin. As Huxley quite rightly suggested, "We believe that nature does make jumps now and then, and a recognition of the fact is of no small importance."(9)

In the later editions of Origin and in The variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), Darwin sought to speed up evolution by a variety of mechanisms and advocated an increasingly multi-causal view of evolution.

The most controversial element of Darwinism for progressively minded people has been the idea of the 'struggle for existence', or 'survival of the fittest'. Darwin states in the Origin that he uses the expression 'struggle for existence' in a "large and metaphorical sense". There can be no simplistic moral application to human society of descriptions of natural processes; we need to remove our anthropomorphic spectacles when looking at nature. This debate has continued in recent years.

By definition, 'natural selection' is slower than the 'artificial' selection imposed by human intervention today — nature is blind, change is not teleological. Over time varieties became species. In conclusion, Darwin's Origin was a remarkable book, and the yet-to-be discovered genetics was the invisible 'elephant in the room' within it. Speaking personally, I find it impossible to read the Origin, today, without being ever conscious of the 'gap' in his theory, of which Darwin himself was so aware — a gap that was to be filled many years later, with the identification of the 'gene'.

One notable omission in Darwin's final opus was human evolution.  This is what ordinary people largely talked about; Darwin was quite clear, in private, on the implications of his work. He was not keen on a fight – and evaded the issue by concluding his text, "light will be cast on the origin of man and his history". Even so, the true social significance of the book was clear — a number of reviews of Origin and books such as the Duke of Argyll, George Campbell's Reign of law (1867) attacked Darwin, not only for undermining theology, but also the 'natural' basis of class society.

It was Darwin's 'bulldog', Thomas Huxley, who took on the topic of human evolution most directly with his Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863). Darwin later showed the diversity of his thought in The Descent of Man and selection in relation to sex (1871). As this was being published, the Parisian working class 'stormed the heavens'; the Paris Commune was to be the most significant action of the lower classes until 1917. As a topical comment, The Times criticized Darwin's application of evolutionary ideas to humans, which it claimed would lead to "the most murderous revolution".(10)

Behind all this lay the struggle between supernaturalism (religion) and materialism. Philosophy had become mired in the 'scepticism' of Kant and Hume. A key role played by Hegel was in transcending Kant's 'thing-in-itself', but Hegel remained an idealist, chasing the Geist through history. Materialism was also troubled, being largely mechanical and contemplative. Darwin's ideas were powerful ammunition for materialist thinkers – hence the reaction of the Marx and Engels to Darwin's ideas. The former's initial reaction to Origin, in a letter to Engels on December 19 1860, was that, although "developed in the crude English style", Darwin's argument "contains the basis in natural history for our point of view". At Marx's graveside Engels declared: "Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history."(11)  Since then, Marxists have adopted a plethora of positions — for Dutch council communist Anton Pannekoek, the essence of Darwinism was valid, but he advocated a 'division' whereby Darwinism only applies until man appears (12), an approach that finds favour with this writer!

Darwin's Really Dangerous Idea

In his outstanding contribution, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett suggests that although Darwin's evolutionary theory originated to explain questions in biology, the theory 'threatens to leak out', offering answers in other fields. He is especially interested in the implications for theories of 'mind'. Consider, the example, a research study published in Science (1982), which found human neonates, of average age just 36 hours, effectively discriminated and imitated three of their mother's distinct facial expressions — happy, sad, surprised. This finding demonstrates much more than just the perceptual ability of the newly born infant — not only has the child identified the mother's expression, but has related it to themselves and proceeded to imitate it! In other words, less than two days after birth, the infant has some vague sort of 'self' concept.(13) How can we explain this amazing, 'innate' ability?

For the theist, this discovery is seen as further evidence of the 'divine spark' present 'in the soul' of each individual – from conception?   Dennett suggests an alternative answer. If we can explain the whole of human development through the algorithmic 'mindless' process of evolution, explored and described by Darwin, and can account for the breathtakingly clever artifacts of the biosphere, why must we assume the products of our own "real" minds must be exempt from an evolutionary explanation? Darwin's idea thus also threatens to spread all the way up, dissolving the illusion of our own authorship, our own divine spark of creativity and understanding.

In the modern scientific world it has become as unthinkable within science to credit any biological feature to a designer as it was previously unthinkable to do without one. According to Dennett, the origin of the human mind must be attributed to some process firmly anchored on the solid ground of materialism and natural selection (a crane), and not to a mystery or miracle (skyhook), but this does not mean that human behavior or mental activity can be understood directly on the basis of material concepts like stimulus and response or natural selection.

Although many aspects of evolutionary theory remain controversial, Dennett asserts confidently that the overall success of Darwinism-in-principle has been so impressive that the basic program — all the way up and all the way down — is established beyond question. Yet the resistance continues, mostly from 'religious people' determined to preserve some role for a creator (14).  
Undoubtedly the most important work carried out in this specific area is under the umbrella of Artificial Intelligence, where Dennett, as a philosopher, has been very active for many years. Essentially, work centres upon devising 'intelligent' computer self-learning programs, not dependent upon human instruction, with problems to solve which, had a human being solved them, we would describe the feat as 'intelligent'.   

Whereas a human child is 'born' with a built-in 'intelligence' (the outcome of millions of years of 'natural selection', within the genetic structure), we begin with a computer which has been 'programmed' (as the human child goes to school and learns how to read, etc.), with skills to 'learn' and 'remember' its own resultant experiences, as, for example, 'learning how to play chess' or whatever. As with many of the skills put to the computer, after a short space of time, the computer is soon better at these skills than the humanoid who 'taught' it.  (Most parents have a similar experience having taught the game to their own children!) As the human central nervous system handles 'information' digitally, so does the computer; there is much in common in the processes developed – remember, though, computers are NOT, as yet, biological. [Biological computers are being developed in Japan – significant advances will flow from this advance.]

Much of the resistance to Darwinism "all the way up" comes from scientists and philosophers who deny the capacity of natural selection to produce specifically human mental qualities like the capacity for language. To true-believing Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, the more intricately "designed" a feature appears to be, the more certain it is to have been constructed by natural selection — because there is no alternative way of producing design without resorting to God or chance.

These questions engender very real 'moral' questions for many people. Consider the position of Christian parents, not necessarily fundamentalists, suspecting the term "evolution" drips with atheistic implications. The whole point of Dennett's thesis is that the parents are dead right about the implications, and that science educators who deny this are either misinformed or lying. Do parents then have a right to protect their children from indoctrination in atheism, and even to insist that the public schools include in the science curriculum a fair review of the arguments against the atheistic claim that unintelligent natural processes are our true creator?

Dennett cannot be accused of avoiding the religious liberty issue, or of burying it in tactful circumlocutions. He proposes that theistic religion should continue to exist only in "cultural zoos," and argues that those who 'insist on teaching children falsehoods — that the earth is flat, that "Man" is not a product of evolution by natural selection — must expect that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe those teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this truth to the children at the earliest opportunity. All our future well-being depends on the education of our descendants'. It is not freedom of speech that worries the parents, rather the knowledge that in a fair playing field, the greater effective argumentative power of the atheistic materialists.

Social Darwinism

What came to be labeled social Darwinism stems from Herbert Spencer, particularly in his Progress: its law and cause (1857), published two years before Darwin's Origin.  Spencer took little from Darwin; instead his views were more a foul cocktail of the worst of Comte, Lamarck and Malthus; he took the bourgeois yearning for all-embracing natural laws to its logical conclusion.

The idea that the working class was 'unfit' was palpable nonsense and owed little to biology. The combining of social Darwinism with the modern idea of 'races', as advocated by people such as Ernst Haeckel, was equally unscientific. At heart the ideas of Spencer and Haeckel were largely about attacking the working class and socialism.

The eugenics movement, which sought, in effect, to 'improve the human gene pool', may have reached its zenith in Nazi Germany, but it was heavily influential elsewhere. Supporters ranged from HG Wells to John Maynard Keynes and to the highest echelons of American society. Indeed the second largest eugenics programme was directed by the Swedish social democrats.(15)

Clearly ideas on evolution have reflected what is going on in society as well as the 'scientific evidence' related to the topic under discussion. This is certainly the case with things like the 'worship of the gradual', which, as we have seen, was in many senses a key element of Darwin's original ideas. It is not, however, an essential element. The task facing us today is to disentangle the science from the reactionary politics. We must take scientific questions seriously —  not merely because they are 'interesting', but because they are the means for changing the world — hence the need to understand them. As Fred Engels put it, "The more ruthlessly and disinterestedly science proceeds, the more it finds itself in harmony with the interests and aspirations of working people".(16)

Bob Potter


(1)  Autobiography of Charles Darwin: Dover (1958) p 9.
(2)  Charles Darwin Voyage of the Beagle (1989) pp 173, 358.
(3)  Early Notebooks now in Darwin on Man by Howard E Gruber (1974)
(4)  A Desmond, J Moore Darwin (1991) p 288
(5)  Ibid p 314
(6)  Ibid p 354
(7)  Richard Dawkins The God Delusion (2006) p 246n
(8)  Antiquity 64 (1990) see pp 549-558.
(9)  J B Foster Marx's Ecology (2000) p 192.
(10) A Desmond, J Moore op cit p290
(11) Marx and Engels Selected Works (1951) Vol 2: p 153.
(12) Serge Bricianer Pannekoek and the Workers' Councils Telos (1978) p.15.
 (13) Field, Woodson, Greenberg & Cohen Facial Expressions by Neonates in Science (1982) 218, pp 179-181.
(14) The entire book deserves to be read:  Daniel C Dennett Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995).
(15) For starters on the IQ debate, the 'history' is well covered by Stephen J Gould's The Mismeasure of Man – although, in my view, the book has many flaws , misreports and misrepresents the work and views of numerous contemporary researchers. Not the best of Gould's works, written with a political axe to grind.          
(16) Marx and Engels op cit p 364.