Darwin: Imagine a World Without Him
A new book tries to imagine how different the world would be, had Darwin as an individual not lived to promote his particular views on evolution.
With a title reminiscent of Dinesh D’Souza’s recent book and movie, America: Imagine the World Without Her, Peter Bowler just published a book on a different counterfactual note: Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World Without Darwin. Ana Marie R. Almeida reviewed the book in Nature under the headline, “Darwin Who?”
Bowler feels that the world would be quite different had Darwin not lived, even though many evolutionary beliefs were already popular in Europe and America. He doesn’t buy the “in the air” thesis, Almeida relates; Darwin was a special guy with a unique combination of interests and abilities. Had he not lived, other evolutionary ideas would have become dominant, but Darwin made evolution much more confrontational than other thinkers.
As Bowler writes, it is unquestionable that “Darwin presented his contemporaries with the harshest possible version of nature.” That contributed to his becoming the figurehead of what was perceived as an attack on traditional values. Bowler’s analysis makes it clear that without Darwin’s revolutionary in-put [sic], evolutionism would have developed in a less confrontational manner. Darwin-like ideas would not otherwise have gained currency for another 30 or 40 years, by which time the general idea of evolution would not have posed a threat to most religious thinkers. Thus, Bowler argues, the antagonism between evolutionism and religion might well be a “product of particular historical events rather than an inevitable conflict of irreconcilable positions.”
We’ll never know, of course, how things might have turned out. Historians might well question how accommodating conservative theologians would have been with any “Darwin-like” ideas, no matter who presented them, or how gently. But what of “Social Darwinism”? Here, Bowler lets Darwin off the hook a bit, according to Almeida.
In addition, Bowler’s mental experiment leads us to realize that many of the alleged consequences of what has been called social Darwinism would likely have taken place in a world without Darwin. In fact, “most of the effects … labeled as ‘social Darwinism’ could have emerged in a world that had no inkling of the theory of natural selection” and “some of those effects … might well have been even more strident in the absence of the Darwinian theory.” Far from being a consequence of Darwinism, the idea of progress and the allied theories of directed evolution were grounded in wider social and cultural forces.
Almeida does not necessarily agree with all of Bowler’s counterfactual world, but appreciates its ability to question assumptions. “Through his scenario in which the Origin never appeared, Bowler improves our ability to think about the assumptions underlying contemporary debates.”
On a related note, Nature interviewed science historian John van Whye, who has put online Darwin’s personal library aboard the HMS Beagle, allowing viewers to survey the books that influenced Darwin during that critical turning point in his thinking.
Bowler (who made some revealing comments about Darwin in CMI’s 2009 film The Voyage that Shook the World) may be partly right about non-Darwinian evolutionary ideas floating around. He’s correct that the “idea of progress” was in the air, given the visible advances of the industrial revolution. But after the embarrassment of Robert Chambers’ fact-free evolutionary speculations in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), industry leaders and politicians might have shied away from linking “progress” with “evolution.” Some theologians could just as well have continued justifying the pursuit of progress with Biblical references (e.g., Psalm 111:2, Daniel 12:4), as previous great scientists had done. Shuddering at Chambers’ empirical flaws, Darwin was keen to ground his theory in at least the appearance of observational support. That’s why he included so many personal observations of nature in his Origin of Species, whether or not they actually supported his views. Evolutionary theories might have fizzled without Darwin’s impressive detailed descriptions of plants, bugs, and animals.
It must also be remembered that Darwin attempted to formulate an evolutionary theory that was rankly materialistic at heart, devoid of any divine involvement or concept of design. The “directed evolution” ideas that followed, though not reliant on natural selection, might have taken on a theistic flavor, considering that Lamarckism had not gained the influence of Darwinism, and there were leading 19th century scientists of renown (Lord Kelvin, Adam Sedgwick, Robert Owen, James Clerk Maxwell and others) who were well placed to trounce any atheistic propositions put forth by also-rans lacking the Darwin propaganda machine. This is not to say that non-Darwinian evolutionary views would have been more religious (certainly not Biblical), but they might not have been as materialistic as Darwin’s.
Consequently, social movements without “Social Darwinism” might have been far less ruthless. It was the seeming escape into atheism offered by materialistic Darwinism that put the real cruelty into 20th century violence. How could eugenics, war, and genocide be rationalized on a theistic basis? Even if politicians and ethicists had leaned toward ideas of racial purity anyway, it’s hard to imagine anyone advocating such atrocities as genocide or positive eugenics with background beliefs in a wise, providential, loving God, whether or not they agreed with the Genesis chronology (which Lyell had already made unpopular earlier, in the 1830s). We say this with full knowledge that atrocities have been committed in the name of Christianity (Islam is another story; read the news). Historian Rodney Stark, though, has shown that even bad episodes like the Crusades and the Inquisition were not in the same ballpark of merciless cruelty that followed Darwin. Read about the Cambodian genocide, for example.
We see in real history, instead, that the movers and shakers of the 20th century justified their ruthless violence with reference to “survival of the fittest” and the “law of the jungle” Darwin championed. We mustn’t oversimplify, because there were other influential Victorian thinkers, notably Herbert Spencer and Thomas Malthus, who presented views that rationalized some of the pillars of Social Darwinism (e.g., the priority of fitness, the necessity of suffering and extinction for the majority, and urgency of preserving scarce resources for the few). After 1859, though, some of these thinkers were not enthusiastic about Darwin’s proposed mechanism of natural selection. But they loved his materialism!—especially Ernst Haeckl and some influential Germans. Darwin’s promotion of fitness as “nature’s law” of how things should be launched “Darwin’s Century” of unspeakable atrocities.
So we disagree with Bowler that Social Darwinism would have been just as bad or worse without Darwin. The veneer of scientific credibility Darwin presented offered scientific justification for the pursuit of fitness, removing all concern for mercy, justice, or love. Indeed, it was the rapacious who came to be celebrated, and the weak criticized as a drain on evolutionary progress. The worst offenders did not cite Malthus, Spencer, or Lamarck. Their champion was Darwin.