1.4 The Big Theory: Natural Common Descent
Enter Charles Darwin, to make sense of so much the creationists of his time slipped past.
Getting back to Lamarck, the important thing to remember about his contribution (or rather lack of it) to scientific thinking was that he wasn’t some sort of proto-evolutionist in our modern sense of the term. Indeed, he tended to think in terms of change only within separate fixed blocks of life, with any internal changes due to the tinkering of “the supreme author of all things,” Quammen (2006, 70)—a view not unlike the gang at CreationWiki, though that may be ironically contrasted with the furious condemnation of Lamarck’s “own bitter hatred of the Bible and Christianity” claimed (without documentary support) by fellow creationists Morris & Morris (1996c, 41). While the venerable old Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers by Wheeler (1889, 196-197) had a listing for Lamarck, no examples of biblical animus were noted.
By the early 19th century, the progression of life through time no longer made much sense as a sequence of static regimes, and it was no coincidence that several halting steps towards an evolutionary perspective took place because of the evidence emerging from geology, Rudwick (2008). Lamarck tried to account for why the animals in the most recent layers of fossils he could see around him in the Paris Basin looked a lot more like what was currently alive than did the definitely extinct residents of deeper layers, as did Italian geologist Giambattista Brocchi (1771-1826) regarding even more recent deposits in Italy in which around half of the fossils seem to be still represented among living forms, Eldredge (2010, 493), with fuller discussion by Dominici (2010) and Dominici & Eldredge (2010).
Studying the past with one eye cocked on current life, though, Lamarck and Brocchi tended to marginalize the many extinct dead ends they found preceded them, and were also quite content not to speculate too much about what mysterious means a Creator or Nature might have used to accomplish this apparent succession of forms. Darwin was well aware of these churning speculations (his mentor, Robert Grant, leaned toward Lamarck’s position), and by the time he sailed on HMS Beagle in the 1830s he was primed to test their competing predictions (whether species were arbitrary constructions as Lamarck thought, or more stable as Brocchi imagined) against this wider background, a Deep Time freed from the philosophical need to navigate by the limited filter of living forms, Eldredge (2009a).
The major difference between Darwin’s thinking and that of Lamarck (or the poetic speculations of granddad Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia forty years earlier, for that matter), as Darwin biographer Janet Browne (2002, 61) reminded, was that Darwin didn’t suppose there had to be a goal to the evolution of life, that it necessarily had to be progressing towards whatever happened to be alive today (particularly us), rather than simply a surging sea of life changing as circumstances ebbed and flowed, with contemporary forms only that thin slice of time we happened to be around to look closely at. Contingency and opportunity, not teleology, governed the Darwinian view. As David Zeigler (2008) summarized it: “the evolution of life is not a story of progress but rather one of success of the very few and failure of the many,” and not even a case of all the losers being “unfit,” given the many mass extinctions that have slammed life on earth (as covered back in section 1.2). This is a sobering Deep Time perspective guaranteed to be philosophically disquieting to many.
As for the content, this new “Darwinian” evolutionary theory can be summed up in a single sentence: all life is related by common natural descent. And that means everything ... from aging singer Madonna to the mushroom residing on her dinner salad—though which one (fungus or pop star) ought to be more upset at this relation is anybody’s guess. But since there has been such substantial and observable change, evolution means more than just genealogy. It signifies descent with modification, generated as a product of natural reproduction, and together with common descent that idea constitutes what might be called the General Theory of Evolution. Darwin’s special contribution concerned supplying for the first time a plausible (and potentially observable) naturalistic candidate for the engine responsible for preserving and channeling all this modifying: the principle of “natural selection” whereby organisms whose inheritable features (gained by a variety of internal processes) improve their reproductive success (a critical distinction not to be confused with the more general idea of “fitness”) will tend to be favored in the procreation business and get passed on to their descendants, and that the big changes of life (from multicellularity to eyes and wings and big brains) ultimately represented the acquisition of lots of incremental improvements.
There are many treatments of the history of evolutionary theory and Darwin’s contribution to it: Edey & Johanson (1989), Mayr (1991), Schwartz (1999, 4-10), C. Zimmer (2001g, 3-55) or Gould (2002a, 503-591). Primary biographies of Darwin include Desmond & Moore (1991; 2009), Browne (2002), Eldredge (2005) and Quammen (2006). Van Wyhe (2008) aimed at a general readership for National Geographic, profusely illustrated with reproductions of documents and photographs to get a better sense of Darwin and his time. For a humorous aside, there is the Flying Spaghetti Monster take on Darwin’s life in Henderson (2006, 84-88).
It took Darwin quite a while to come up with the double-barreled idea, though, and here the pivotal experience was his lengthy sea voyage as secondary naturalist aboard the Beagle, neatly summarized by Van Wyhe (2008, 16-31, 34-39) regarding the voyage and subsequent scientific publications. Having just been exposed to Lyell’s new uniformitarian geology, it was the biogeographical epiphany he experienced en route that provided the first pieces of the puzzle. Unlike museum-bound experts like Cuvier, meticulously examining specimens submitted from afar, Darwin was bumping firsthand into life in the raw. The patterns of life came into sharpest focus on islands, particularly on the GalÃ¡pagos in the Pacific, recounted by Grant & Estes (2009), where each featured inhabitants simultaneously distinctive, yet curiously restricted only to types that might have migrated there naturally. And these in turn were so suspiciously similar to those of nearby landmasses to further suggest not only where the newcomers had migrated from originally, but that, once arrived, they had evidently adapted to their special environments by somehow becoming separate species.
One of the things that set Darwin off on the road to evolutionary thinking involved the bird specimens he had brought back on the Beagle, Mayr (1991, 5, 18-19) and Shermer (2006, xiv-xvi), with Frank Sulloway (1982) for more detail. Darwin had collected a trio of what he took for varieties of mockingbirds, along with a host of specimens that he tried to identify as best he could, as Fringilla (true finches), Icterus (a broad bird family that includes blackbirds, meadowlarks and orioles), Gross-beaks and Wrens. The mockingbirds differed so much that Darwin thought they might undermine the fixity of species, but Darwin wasn’t an ornithologist and knew his limits, so in March of 1837 he consulted a leading one: John Gould (1804-1881). Most ironically, Gould was a devout creationist, but what he told Darwin about his GalÃ¡pagos birds helped set the evolutionary embers alight.
The mocking birds were the first to fly the “fixed type” coop when Gould readily identified them all as distinct species, beyond the varieties Darwin had initially thought. And then Gould began to marvel at how many finches Darwin had brought back. Darwin hadn’t paid much attention to which of the islands he had found them on (an oversight he regretted later as he tried to reconstruct their provenance back in England, and which vexed subsequent scholars like Sulloway) because he hadn’t realized at the time they were all “finches”—their highly variable beaks had thrown him off as plumage patterns were then deemed more relevant. Gould even called attention to how they resembled the finches seen in South America, which would set in motion an obvious biogeographical prospect (for Darwin and later evolutionists at least, if not for the creationist Gould): so many finches out in the middle of nowhere on the GalÃ¡pagos would make sense if they had varied over time, island by island, from a common finch-like ancestor deriving from one of those mainland varieties. Fortuitously, the Beagle’s visit to this fairly recently formed islands had captured a living snapshot of an adaptive radiation:
Through this four-part process of geographic isolation, speciation, recolonization, and ensuing adaptive radiation, the Geospizinae have evolved a remarkable disparity in the form of their beaks, from one as massive as that of a grosbeak to one as small as that of a warbler. There are three species of seed-eating ground finches with large, medium, and small beaks; another ground finch with a sharp, pointed beak; two species of ground finches that feed on cactus; a vegetarian tree finch; three species of insectivorous tree finches; a mangrove finch; a finch that closely resembles a warbler in both habits and morphology; and finally a ‘tool-using’ “woodpecker” finch, which employs twigs and cactus spines to extract its prey from crevices in tree trunks. Sulloway (1982, 3).
“Darwin’s Finches” grew into a shorthand example of the whole evolutionary argument, “one of the most widely circulated legends in the history of the life sciences, ranking with the famous stories of Newton and the apple and of Galileo’s experiments at the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” Sulloway (1982, 39-40). Steven Spielberg’s excellent Lincoln dangled the finches in this way in a hallway conversation involving Lincoln’s bookworm son Tad, which Branch (2014c) chalked up as something of a technical error: although science buff and occasional inventor Abraham Lincoln had Darwin in his library along with a lot of heavy science tomes, he apparently hadn’t read through it fully (rather a lot of activities on his plate at the time to devote too much attention to it, I would suggest)—and even had he done so, The Origin of Species had not given the finches the evidential weight they would be accorded later on. Though Sulloway (1982, 3-5, 36-38) noted that by the second (1845) revised publication of his Journal of Researches Darwin had come to realize some of their significance, Darwin hadn’t dwelt on them at the time because he couldn’t identify the adaptive reasons for their beak variations (a hundred years later, scientists’ field work on the GalÃ¡pagos would settle that side of things).
Though much diversification and extinction has muddied the mainland record of the Darwin finches’ cousins, progress has been made nonetheless. Morphological studies homed in on several genera within a group of seed-eating birds in the Emberizidae family, the tanagers and grassquits, such as the West Indian black finch Melanospiza richardsonii and the more common grassquit Volatinia jacarina of Central and South America, noted by Weiner (1994a, 221). Genetic analyses have further pressed the Darwin finch origins through to the yellow-faced grassquit genus Tiaris as closest living relatives, Freeland & Boag (1999), Sato et al. (1999; 2001) and Burns et al. (2002).
This scientific research may be compared to the indifference (and rationalizing) going on among antievolutionists on this topic. Phillip Johnson (1995a, 71) briefly alluded to Weiner’s book, The Beak of the Finch, without stimulating detail (“Darwin himself did not seem to perceive their significance when he visited the islands”). Michael Behe (1996a, 14) touched in passing on The Beak of the Finch in a paragraph that appeared to accept Darwin’s finches as physically related, but did not ponder whether those GalÃ¡pagos birds might have been related to anything else beyond the island chain.
Over in YEC land, Morris & Morris (1996b, 238) cited Peter Grant (1981, 661) on the finches without ever mentioning any of the available relational suspects, even though this was a perfectly logical potential even for people enamored of fixed baramins. By the time we get down to Jean Lightner (2013) at Answers in Genesis’ technical venue, the Answers Research Journal, trying to figure out how many living bird “kinds” there are today (196 in case you’re wondering), Flood Geology literalists have functionally accepted the Darwin finch paternity suit by lumping the candidates into the “Sparrow/Finch Kind” that embraces over twelve hundred species! Lightner’s analysis pointedly excluded fossil birds, thus avoiding the troubling issue of whether such pigeonholing falls apart once extinct taxa are included. And thus are added yet more blurry pages to the antievolutionary Book of Bird Origins.
Anyway, while the Beagle experience supplied a whole world of new observations for Darwin to mull over, he only started connecting the dots with a mechanism in mind after he encountered the gloomy views of a social critic, the Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who argued more people (especially the “wrong sorts” that ended up in British poor houses) were born than could possibly survive. This got Darwin to thinking about the fate of variation generally among populations of animals. Since more offspring are usually produced than can live long enough to successfully reproduce, wouldn’t a factor in their making do have to include any inherited variations the individuals had? And just as human pigeon breeders use artificial selection to favor traits they like, wouldn’t there have to be a “natural selection” playing a part in which individuals survived to pass on any advantageous features to their offspring? Supposing that carried on long enough, given the observable range of variation in natural populations, could anything in principle prevent the adapting descendants of that population from differing so much from their ancestors they might eventually be termed an entirely new species?
This was one of those deceptively simple conclusions with far-reaching consequences, as Darwin himself evidently recognized early on. For there was nothing in this line of reasoning that restricted the proposed method from naturally selecting traits in any population of organisms. Like people, for instance. In one fell conceptual swoop, Darwin had found a general mechanism for a comprehensive descent with modification, and the social implications of including the human species in the equation were not lost on the otherwise cautious Mr. Darwin.
The appearance of an anonymous book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, in 1844 gave a clue how such ideas might be received, especially if it were not very well argued. Vestiges presented a breezy popular presentation of the idea that some form of theistic tinkering with life had led to transformations, Slotten (2004, 28-31), Eldredge (2005, 43-44) and Quammen (2006, 80-82). Very widely read (even by Abraham Lincoln away in America) it was also ferociously criticized by scientists for its loose evidential foundation (intermediates were imagined as simplistic chimeras, not unlike the way modern creationists approach the matter with things like crocoducks) and by social conservatives as a potential threat to the idea of a living world firmly fixed since creation—since if animals could transmute from their original station, so might people, no longer deferring to their betters.
These social and technical details lend an ironic twist to John West (2014a) at Evolution News & Views fervently distancing Lincoln from Darwin’s god-free version of evolution. While Lincoln never got around to reading the heavier science writings of folks like Darwin (as noted above regarding Spielberg’s Lincoln), he did appear to be warming to the general idea of evolution as reflected in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which West strove to haul onto the antievolutionary landscape as a progenitor of Intelligent Design. By highlighting Vestiges’ theistic teleology aspect over its technical limitation, though, West unintentionally reinforced the historical tendency for designer-focused speculations to turn on relatively superficial if not sloppy popular treatments appreciated more readily by politicians and lawyers (Lincoln was both) than the scientists more directly familiar with the factual difficulties.
The fuss over Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation grew so intense that its journalist author, Robert Chambers (1802-1871), never admitted to writing it (though Darwin guessed correctly it was his work), and possibly inspired the controversy-averse Darwin to imitate Copernicus (prudently sitting on heliocentrism, which openly challenged Aristotle’s geocentric model of the solar system that the Catholic Church had embraced as gospel truth, until safely on his deathbed). Tucked away in his refuge of Down House outside London, surrounded by his growing family, the volumes of notes Darwin would collect in the years to come on his theory would help him withstand whatever storms of Vestiges-style reaction might rage in the event he ever got around to finishing the book version, which he had titled Natural Selection.
Though John West evidently missed it, the popular success of Vestiges reflected a gradual sea change in how transformism was being seen in Britain, filled as it was with an increasingly progressive urge for improvement in life as well as politics, coupled with a gradual decline in the acceptance of divine intervention as a default explanation for things better accounted for solely through the action of the “secondary causes” of natural processes—Charles Lyell’s new uniformitarian geology was just as devoid of godly meddling as Darwin’s evolution would be. So by the 1850s the British cultural milieu was a different place compared to when Vestiges had first appeared, Browne (2002, 19-22).
Add to that a detour: on the recommendation of his botanist friend Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), Darwin commenced a comprehensive monograph on the poorly known barnacles, considered perhaps some sort of snail (because of the shell), though in centuries past had even been deemed the babies of geese (based on a 17th century observer noting their resemblance to embryonic birds). S. Jones (2011, 130): “So embedded was the notion that for a time the barnacle goose was counted as a fish and could be eaten by Catholics on Fridays.” Darwin’s barnacle project soon ballooned into a massive taxonomical and analytical undertaking that kept him occupied for the next eight years, further delaying his resumption of the Natural Selection book, but ultimately established barnacles as highly modified arthropods, Desmond & Moore (2009, 229-230), whose sundry adaptations “have been achieved by rather tortuous modifications of ancestral morphology, as the organisms were not ‘designed’ from scratch for the new conditions,” Valentine (2004, 40).
And there matters might have remained, had Darwin’s hand not been forced by another younger naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). Perhaps because “Wallaceism” never caught on in the way the “Darwinism” term did (Wallace in fact was perfectly happy to let the elder figure be the point man here), Wallace’s place in the early stages of evolutionary thinking fell into eclipse in the 20th century, Edey & Johanson (1989, 70-83). More recent reassessments by Endersby (2003), Slotten (2004), Quammen (2006, 122-152; 2008) and Milner (2009, 291, 375, 415-416, 434-440) have moved to redress this, especially on the 2013 centenary of his death, Lyons (2014). Theory in Biosciences devoted a special issue to Wallace: Kutschera & Hossfield (2013) re Costa (2013), Hossfeld & Olsson (2013), Ibrahim & Kutschera (2013), Kutschera & Kleinhans (2013), Kutschera & Niklas (2013), Levit & Polatayko (2013), Ruse (2013), C. Smith (2013).
More impressed by Chambers’ Vestiges than Darwin or Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) ever were, Wallace was thinking of transmutation as a possibility as he launched his own fieldwork, first in South America (losing most of his specimens in a shipwreck on the way home), and later out past the Indian Ocean in the Malay Archipelago. Knocking about isolated islands on the opposite side of the world from the Beagle itinerary, Wallace independently ran into the same array of biogeographically distinctive plant and animal distributions, which led in 1855 to him formulating his “Sarawak Law” that new species are generated from existing models.
Though Darwin had not given much attention to Wallace’s Sarawak paper, Lyell warned Darwin that Wallace was apparently hot on the same course and urged Darwin to get off his duff and start publishing his ideas before Wallace beat him to it. Meanwhile Darwin maintained a warm correspondence with Wallace in 1857, Quammen (2006, 144-147), by which time Wallace was explicitly applying Lyell’s own concept of gradual uniformitarian change to the speciation issue, even though Lyell’s three-volume Principles of Geology (1830-1833) had rejected Lamarck-style transmutation of species, Costa (2013). When a bout of malaria laid him low on the island of Ternate in 1858, Wallace made use of the recuperation time to rethink the problem and, just as Darwin had years earlier, realized the implication of Malthus to arrive at a natural selection mechanism for evolution. He then worked up a concise summary of his view and mailed the Ternate paper off to Darwin in the spring of 1858 with the request that the famed elder expert might pass it on to the even more renowned (and scientifically connected) Lyell for consideration and possible publication.
And thus was the jig up, leading Lyell to arrange for Darwin and Wallace’s arguments to be presented jointly to the Linnean Society later that year, which some editor at the Society’s Proceedings subsequently misleadingly lumped together as one publication, Darwin & Wallace (1858). As an off-season meeting, just thirty people attended (less than 10% of the members) and neither author was present for the occasion. Wallace (technically not a member of the Linnean Society at all) was still half a world away, and Darwin was preoccupied with very personal matters: his youngest son Charles died from scarlet fever on June 28th, just as Wallace’s manuscript arrived, and his daughter Henrietta (Etty) was down with diphtheria as well, Browne (2002, 33-37, 40-45), Slotten (2004, 155), Quammen (2006, 158-162), Desmond & Moore (2009, 305) and Van Wyhe & Rookmaaker (2012).
An aside on the long-distant nature of the Darwin-Wallace interaction: Darwin and Wallace appeared to have bumped into one another in person briefly at a museum sometime in 1853 or 1854, but first met formally face-to-face only in 1862, and thereafter only sporadically, Slotten (2004, 91, 191-194). The inveterate letter writer Darwin kept in touch with Wallace over the years, of course, and they actively read one another’s publications. Of further note: in 1881 Wallace was in trouble financially, and Darwin and Huxley helped secure him a Â£200 annual civil pension (modest, though something like $50,000 in terms of today’s purchasing power) of a type previously awarded to Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and James Joule (1818-1889), Slotten (2004, 361-364). Even Flannery (2011a, 74-76) couldn’t find anything to say against Darwin on that matter.
The joint 1858 Darwin-Wallace paper caused no more of a stir than Wallace’s Sarawak paper had in 1855. Wallace Arthur (2006, 114-117) suspects some of that was due to the dry title of the Linnean presentation: On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection. Arthur suggests that had the meat of the argument not been buried under the tarp of stolid Victorian prose, but reversed instead to a simpler On the Tendency of Varieties to Form Species, the revolutionary implications of what Darwin and Wallace were aiming at might have been recognized sooner.
In any case, the forcing of Darwin’s hand in this way meant he had to give up on the big evolution book he’d been working on for so many years, and cobble together instead a quickie summary of what he had in mind, shorn of all the documentary referencing. Darwin incorporated about a third of the original Natural Selection project in what he now titled (still Victorian wordy) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (and leaving the reworking of a lot of the remainder for his later books), Van Wyhe (2008, 52-53, 56-57) and Desmond & Moore (2009, 310). It’s a measure of how Victorian science writing differs from today’s Internet blogging (let alone twittering) that the hundreds of meticulously detailed pages of the Origin constituted for Darwin the dashed off short version!
The Origin of Species, along with Darwin’s other books and journals, are readily accessible online these days (e.g. darwin-online.org.uk) though not always easily used, as Goldstein (2009) cautioned in his survey of three major online resources. For print versions, the new 2008 illustrated edition of Darwin (1859) with notes by David Quammen is most informative, and is the version I will be using for Origin citations.
Unlike the ho-hum response to the joint Linnean papers, the 1859 publication of the longer Origin was quite another matter. The reputation Darwin had as a careful and solid scientific thinker paid off, and the book not only became a hot seller, it quickly took hold in the sciences, Van Wyhe (2008, 48-49). For a fitting touch of turnabout irony, Robert Chambers was one of the earlier favorable reviewers, in his Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal in 1860, Browne (2002, 101).
The effect of Darwinian thinking on the practical practice of science was profound, as Edward Larson (1985, 9-15) learned when he surveyed 19th century American science texts for his book on the legal tussle over evolution. Asa Gray (1810-1888) was the only American made aware of Darwin’s theory before its publication, and was to become an early convert to it. But before then, Gray’s pre-evolutionary botany texts were mere catalogues of plant types, reflecting his religious views more than the features of the flora. Until inspired by evolutionary thinking, Gray hadn’t even noticed individual plant variations didn’t invariably “revert to the original form of the species.”
Once Darwinism appeared on the scene, though, plant characters began to be perceived as clues to relationships and functionality. Nothing about the plant was just because the divinity felt like doing it that way, but because its survival necessitated the feature. Bellon (2009) and Hoot (2009) surveyed Darwin’s meticulous research into plants and its deep impact on subsequent scientific study, and Canadian biologist Daniel Brooks (2011c, 448) remarked on this clarifying nature of Darwin’s evolutionary revolution:
I recently spent a year in Europe, where a “sycamore” is a maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) and a “plane tree” (Platanus orientalis) is what I call “sycamore” (Platanus occidentalis). Darwin’s metaphor of natural classification being a phylogeny enables us to understand why North American sycamores and European plane trees resemble each other so closely, why their ecological preferences are so similar, and why they are able to hybridize so readily.
More significantly, science popularizers who still didn’t like evolution, like New York high school teacher J. Dorman Steele (1836-1886), nonetheless adopted the structure of the new evolutionary taxonomy for their books, even though the old creationist “natural theology” had nothing to do with developing it.
Carol Anelli has documented a similar revolution regarding the pioneering American entomologist Benjamin Dann Walsh (1808-1869), C. Sheppard (2004) and Anelli (2006). The old natural theology approach, epitomized by An Introduction to Entomology (first published in 1815 but reissued in 1860) by Reverend William Kirby (1759-1850) and William Spence (1773-1860), focused on illustrating “the great truths of religion” but offered only marginal insight into why specific insects were found where they were or why they acted as they did apart from it being by Divine Plan. This glee club approach to nature persisted in creationist apologetics, such as Harry Rimmer (1937, 48), asserting how “Flowers are common to all plant life, from grass to the tallest trees,” thereby wiping out of his mental existence all the many non-angiosperm flowerless plants known to science.
It is interesting also to consider the historical context for Kirby and Spence: in a presage of today’s Kulturkampf religious conservatism in service of tradition and the political status quo, the devout Kirby was unsettled enough in the tumultuous 1790s to help distribute pamphlets opposing the anticlerical Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Freeman (1852), and Kirby (1835) later affirmed “the Power and Wisdom and Goodness of God” in the animal world for the apologetic Bridgewater Treatises. Wearing his economist hat, Spence (1815) supported the British Corn Law that contributed to maintaining the landed aristocracy’s lucrative agriculture monopoly, Smart (1909). Dao (2008a) illustrated the contemporary Kulturkampf myopia on such historical context in an article for the ICR that extoled Kirby’s reverence for God’s design of insects but stepped gingerly around the contentious political milieu by noting Kirby’s application to be a botany professor at Cambridge “was denied due to his political views,” which a footnote explained cursorily as “Kirby was a Tory, a party that supported the authority of the British monarchy.”
Benjamin Walsh’s application of Darwin’s way of hypothesis formation affected American agricultural practice at the root by focusing on understanding insect pests as part of dynamic ecological networks and working tirelessly to spread the new way of thinking through education and farmer publications. In 1867 he even predicted the eventual spread of the apple maggot into the Pacific Northwest (which would indeed happen a century later) based on his understanding of what would ultimately be called sympatric speciation (which he termed Phytophagic Isolation).
For further contrast, back over in the Darwin-criticism camp, Windchy (2009, 27-28) decided The Origin of Species “was rejected immediately by virtually the entire scientific community” by quoting only the grumpy snap judgments of astronomer John Herschel (1792-1871) and geologists Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) and Louis Agassiz—a gloss which may be compared to the similar approach taken by creationist Richard Peachey (2002). But scientists who worked in relevant fields (as Gray and Walsh did) quickly seized on the practical utility of the Darwinian approach to nature (quite independent of their own religious proclivities, Gray being a devout Christian and Walsh definitely not), and as the “shock of the new” wore off, the spreading groundswell of practical support meant that by 1869 there were so few notable thinkers who disagreed with the general principle that all life was indeed related by common evolutionary descent that the scrappy Alfred Wallace complained there were no good discussions anymore, Slotten (2004, 260-261).
Move on to the 1880s and even an academic backwater like the United States could barely scrape together a handful of practicing naturalists who didn’t accept it, even if most couldn’t quite yet swallow the Darwin-Wallace teleology-free “natural selection” mechanism for it. Presbyterian theologian and geologist James Woodrow (1827-1907) reflected the sea change, emerging from Louis Agassiz’ antievolutionary shadow to regard natural evolution as a fact of nature that had to be accounted for theologically no less than the rock strata of geology, though it did rattle his position in the church for a time, Branch (2014f,h,j,l).
Many scientists of the time (especially ones with a strong religious motivation) were still hoping for some “progressive” form of evolution where animals would be aiming toward some adaptive goal, rather than a fully Darwinian model operating without plan or purpose (and which by implication would put us as just the latest and brightest of nature’s various contingent wanderings). Still others either had trouble with the natural selection mechanism as the primary driver of evolutionary change, or went to the opposite extreme (especially the German and small cadre of French “Neo-Darwinists”) to see natural selection as the only factor in generating adaptive change. Recalling that scientists at that time had no idea how genetic inheritance actually happened, by 1909 what we now think of as “Darwinism” had become only one position in a conflicting chorus of speculative science opinion about the nature of mutation and the inheritance of traits.
See Edey & Johanson (1989, 84-101) for 19th century scientific responses to Darwinism, Horenstein (2009) for some of the popular press reaction in the United States during Darwin’s lifetime, Bowler (1983), Lustig et al. (2004), Eldredge (2005, 182-187) and Quammen (2006, 216-224) on the ups and downs of its scientific popularity, and Largent (2009) for a scholarly antidote to the later science writer trope that Darwinism proper was in “eclipse” during this period.
Given how entrenched religious antievolutionism appears today, it may come as a further surprise to learn that 19th century American evangelicals were not uniformly opposed to evolution, covered by Livingston (1987) or Numbers (2007)—and even today creationism remains a minority position at American theological schools, Witham (2002b, 190-191). There were some exceptions, of course: Vanderbilt University geologist Alexander Winchell (1824-1891) was fired in 1878 for accepting pre-Adamic man breaching the traditional Genesis boundaries, and in 1891 the Reverend Howard MacQueary “won the dubious distinction of being the first person to be tried for heresy in the Episcopal Church” partly for accommodating evolution, DelFattore (2007, 34). But two main players—the British religious establishment and the Catholic Church—never formally objected to Darwin’s new book, which Kutschera (2009) suggested reflected Darwin’s resolve not to make his evolution baby an intrinsically anti-religious one, however much it did have implications for people of faith.
Not that much of this history has filtered down to the antievolutionary basement, though. For example, Joe Renick (2011) of the Intelligent Design Network New Mexico Division (which while ostensibly ID-oriented nonetheless enthusiastically recommends the “excellent articles and resources” at Creation Ministries International) contended that “The paucity of evidence supporting his theory greatly troubled Darwin but it served Huxley’s purposes quiet [sic] well in that it provided a blanket-of-ignorance to cover some of the troubling facts,” as though the fact-heavy exchanges Huxley and others engaged in with the likes of Richard Owen (1804-1892) over fossils and living forms never took place, such as primate brain features covered in Chapter 5 of Downard (2004).
Evidently unaware that he might need to acquaint himself with who the players actually were when it came to how American science engaged the evidential issues of evolution, Renick offered instead this curious list of Darwinian supporters: “Things went very well for Darwin in Europe, but what about America? Not so good...at least not out in the heart land. Suffice it to say that the academic world and elite progressives like Margret [sic] Sanger, Sigmund Freud, John Dewey, Alfred Kinsey and Oliver Wendell Holmes were enamored with Darwinism for all the same reasons Thomas Huxley was...its role as a secular religion.” All the ellipses and italics were Renick’s.
What we have here (besides the unreliable spelling) is not a catalog of geologists, paleontologists, or biologists, and their sundry reactions to Darwin or Huxley—let alone a perceptive take on the role of secular thinking in the spread of Darwinism—but a cursory laundry list of more contemporary villains that repeatedly crop up in the Kulturkampf sights. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) and Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) garner attention because of their connection to modern sensibilities on sex (AKA “begetting”)—a topic that has been a lightning rod for antievolutionists for some time, such as the efforts to censor a 1931 pro-evolution film documentary over its footage of animals doing their thing, Glenn Branch (2014an). Meanwhile, “natural law” jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) and liberal educator John Dewey (1859-1952) appear as icons representing what Renick imagined that “heart land” supposedly did not want back then.
Like most thinkers in the late 19th century, Holmes paid attention to Darwin, to the approbation of Nancy Pearcey (2001, 499-504)—more on her curious antievolutionary pedigree in section 1.7. Holmes’ defense of individual rights under “natural law” and suggestion that religious concepts ought to compete for success in the market place of ideas along with everything else earned praise from Freedom From Religion (2013d) while his refusal to think you can decide the oughts of moral belief by reason raised the hackles of Intelligent Design advocate Robert George (2003). Conservapedia (2011b) was more apoplectic in assessing Holmes’ impact, but like George tended to cherry pick quotes from Holmes for criticism rather than delving into the context of the cases he adjudicated in his long career.
One of “The Great Dissenter” Holmes’ rulings does stand out as justifiably notorious: Buck v. Bell in 1927, when the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) upheld the forced sterilization of a supposedly “feeble minded” woman. Akin (2009) suggests Holmes’ chief failing here was neither callousness nor prejudice but a misplaced confidence that the state of Georgia (and by inference the other states that would follow their precedent over the next twenty years) had established anything like the procedural safeguards necessary to protect the rights of the individual. More ironically, though, Buck v. Bell played a part in the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion ruling that today’s Kulturkampf warriors fret over, where the court rejected granting a woman an unlimited right over her own body in part based on the Buck v. Bell precedent.
Renick’s use of the “elite progressives” tag was another loaded oversimplification that says much more about his own conceptions than it does the turbulent world of reformist politics a hundred years ago. No less an antievolutionist Christian fundamentalist as William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) held populist progressive views, Kazin (2006, 146-147, 155-158, 223), such as government jointly owning the railroads, strenuously supporting organized labor, and favoring stiff income taxes on the rich—positions falling very far from the Tea Party tree today (in this respect Bryan was atypical, where antievolutionists historically have tended to be on the politically conservative side because that’s where the culturally conservative feel most at home). As for matters of faith, and trying to figure out where historical figures fall on today’s issues, believers like Conservapedia tend to peg the Unitarian Holmes as an atheist while the FFRF will not consider him truly “godless”—likewise even the strictly atheistic “naturalism” of evolutionist Dewey is not easily plotted on today’s “spiritual but not religious” spectrum, as explored by Shook (2013).
Closer to the Kulturkampf target is Holmes’ advocacy of eugenics, but even there, things are murkier than ideologues would like (more on that disreputable topic in section 1.6). Lots of people in the pre-genetic era bought into the logic of trying to “improve” the species through scientific breeding, until the Nazis showed just how nasty that sort of reasoning could get when fueled by paranoid racism. Akin (2009, 3) noted leftist African-American rights pioneer W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) supported eugenics, but so did Ronald Reagan’s favorite conservative president, Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933). Panama Canal-building and trust-busting Republican Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) did too, along with progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), who along with starting up the income tax and Federal Reserve, tossed leftist radicals in jail during WWI and (still carrying the weighty baggage of his Southern heritage) thought D. W. Griffith’s 1915 KKK love fest, The Birth of a Nation, was real history. This did not extend to rejecting evolution though, as Wilson (though less of a science buff than Lincoln) greatly admired his evolution-favoring uncle, James Woodrow. Wilson issued an explicitly pro-evolution statement in the early 1920s after one of his former students resigned as superintendent of schools in Santa Fe, New Mexico rather than succumb to the antievolutionist tide, a little known incident explored by Branch (2014f,h,j,l-m,p).
Given such a mixed historical bag, how exactly should one rank Holmes’ eugenics beliefs or the Buck v. Bell ruling and its effects compared to the ethical spectacle of the Christian antievolutionist Ku Klux Klan brazenly marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1920s or far too many racists lynching far too many blacks in the South all the way into the 1960s? It would have been instructive to see Renick try to detect even the slightest whiff of “Darwinism” or “secular religion” motivation in any of their escapades.