The answer may or may not surprise you, but no, Darwin did not invent the theory of evolution.1 In fact, during the time that Darwin was in the midst of constructing his account of evolution (mid 19th century), one of his contemporaries – Alfred Russel Wallace – was also busy constructing – more or less – the exact same theory. In fact their views were so similar that their findings were initially read together on the 1st July 1858 at meeting of the Linnaean Society in London before Darwin finally published his book the Origin of Species (of which we are all so familiar with) a year later in 1859.2
But we are getting a bit ahead. In order to flesh out the topic of this article we will need to look at evolution before Darwin. How was evolution perceived and what versions of it were being proposed in Britain (in the 19th century)? That will be the main aim of this short article.
Evolutionary concepts before Darwin
Evolutionary concepts had been in circulation long before Darwin’s theory came out. For example, Darwin’s Grandfather Erasmus Darwin suggested that all warm-blooded animals had evolved from a single ancestor.3 Ideas as such were rather common speculations before the Origin of Species however none became as widely accepted as Darwin’s theory. One reason for the non-success of pre-Darwinian accounts was because none of these earlier versions proposed a plausible mechanism for evolutionary development.
Before the release of the Origin of Species in 1859, a range of scientific stances permeated the community of 19th century Britain. For example, in geology a range of positions were promoted. Some scientists such as Andrew Ure and John Murray held that the earth was young; this was because in the early 1800s the Bible was still an authoritative text even within science (although it was not seen as a scientific book).4 the leading geologist in the 1820s Reverend William Buckland held that the earth was older but that in accordance with scripture, the earth had gone through a series of catastrophes, the last of which being Noah’s Flood. 5 Scientists such as Charles Lyell took a more liberal approach to geology (his book heavily influenced Charles Darwin’s account of evolution). Lyell was the first geologist to explicate a view known as uniformitarianism, which means the present is the key to the past. He argued that the earth was very old and that there were no worldwide catastrophes, instead the slow cyclical processes we see today in geology are the processes that have been going on since the beginning.6 Lyell wasn’t an atheist by any means, he still believed the Bible to be God’s word, however he wanted to separate geology from orthodox scientific interpretation.
Three theories of evolution before Darwin?
There were a number of proposed evolutionary ideas before Darwin however I will focus very quickly on just three that have been widely written on by historians of science.
Robert Chambers: Robert Chambers was a Scottish publisher and writer born at Peebles on the 10th July 1802. Chambers was not a scientist primarily, and he was already successful in his own right before he got involved in “evolutionary politics”. In October 1844 he published his highly controversial book Vestiges of the Natural history of Creation in which he suggested – in opposition to the mainstream view of life as created by God – that the origins of life could be explained by the laws of nature, and that higher developed forms such as humans could also be explained in this way too. Chambers knew just how unaccepted this view would be and so he initially published his book anonymously in order to avoid the direct criticisms that would undoubtedly follow. Again, Chambers was not an atheist, he believed in God, he just didn’t accept the geological explanation from the Biblical account in Genesis.7
Herbert Spencer: Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher, biologists and anthropologist born on the 27th April 1820. He was a dear friend of Darwin, however he published his initial thoughts on evolution in Chapmans Westminster Review just two years before Darwin’s version came out in his essay Progress: It’s Law and Cause. He further developed his ideas years later in his 1862 publication the First Principles of a new of Philosophy. It was Herbert Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the term ‘Survival of the fittest’.8
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was a French Naturalist born on the 1st August 1744. He released his theory of evolution decades before Darwin. Lamarck’s account was widely circulated in its time. He first published his theory in 1801 and there were two keys features of it: 1) creatures evolved not through the external environmental features (as Darwin would later propose) but rather through the environment acting upon internal structures of organisms, and 2) by the transmission of the modifications produced.9
Men such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would later adopt this approach in their own evolutionary constructions.
Conclusions about evolution pre-and post-Darwin
As we have seen, Darwin did not necessarily discover this breakthrough theory that once published reshaped science as we knew it forever. Rather as historian of science Michael Ruse has pointed out, the positions that people would adopt in reaction upon the release of Darwin’s theory of evolution were already set long before Darwin’s theory ever came out. Liberal Christians such as Baden Powell – as expected- praised Darwin’s theory whilst more conservative Christians such as William Whewell – as expected – criticized Darwin’s theory on scientific grounds. However, both sides were already widely family with evolutionary accounts of the world.10
So what made Darwin’s account so unique and why does it seem like such a milestone achievement today? Well there are a number of reasons for this, firstly, Darwin’s account was the first to produce a plausible mechanism of the evolution of organism and this mechanism is what is known as Natural Selection. Just like an animal breeder selects for the specific traits they want to survive in animals, nature selects traits that enable organisms to survive in their environment.
Secondly as I have described in more detail in my previous article Why Doesn’t Science Include God Today? Science and Religion in History, Thomas Huxley and the X club played a huge role in utilizing and promoting Darwinian evolution and naturalistic science in the latter part of the 19th century. Thomas Huxley was so successful in this maneuver that by the end of the 19th century, he had effectively rewritten the history of science to make it sound as if science had always been performed on naturalistic rather than theistic grounds.11
There are a multitude of other reasons for the success of Darwinian evolution however this brief overview should at least help us to more so understand the place of evolution and the sheer complexity of the culture within 19th century science and religion. History almost always reveals to us that there is much more to a story than first meets the eye.
1) Finlay, G., 2013. Human Evolution Genes, Genealogies and Phylogenies. Oxford: OUP. (p1)
2) Wallace, J 1998. The origin of Species. England: Wordsworth Editions. (p XIV)
3) Finlay, G., 2013. Human Evolution Genes, Genealogies and Phylogenies. Oxford: OUP. (p1)
4) O’Connor, R., 2007. Young-Earth Creationists in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain? Towards a Reassessment of ‘Scriptural Geology. Sage Journals, [e-Journal] 45 (4), (357-403). Available through: Sage Journals websitehttp://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/doi/abs/10.1177/007327530704500401#articleCitationDownloadContainer [06-March-2018]
5) Ruse, M., 1975. The Relationship between Science and Religion in Britain, 1830-1870. American Society of Church History, [e-Journal] 44 (4), 505-522. Available through: JSTOR website <http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/stable/3163829> [06-March-2018].
7) Barton, R., 2006. Robert Chambers. Oxford: OUP
8) Offer, J., 2014. Science and Philosophy: Herbert Spencer. In: W.J. Mander, ed. The oxford handbook of British Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: OUP. (pp.257-279)
9) Osborn, Henry Fairfield., 1905. From the Greeks to Darwin: an outline of the development of the evolution idea (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan.
10) Ruse, M., 1975. The Relationship between Science and Religion in Britain, 1830-1870. American Society of Church History, [e-Journal] 44 (4), 505-522. Available through: JSTOR website <http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/stable/3163829> [06-March-2018].
11) Stanley, M., 2014. Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s demon: From theistic science to Naturalistic Science. Chicago: University of Chicago press