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Social reactions to Origin

Paper presented by Dr Barry Butcher, Deakin University
Darwin symposium, National Museum of Australia, 26 February 2009

Dr LIBBY ROBIN: It gives me great pleasure to welcome a fellow historian of science Barry Butcher. We actually did our PhDs in the same department. Barry wrote his about Darwin and we are going to hear a bit about some of the people who were affected by Darwin’s Origin.

Dr BARRY BUTCHER: This paper is going to seem a little out of left field. I am not going to mention Darwin very much but I am going to mention some of his disciples in Australia. I want to briefly outline the work of four nineteenth-century Australians who contributed to the growing corpus of Darwinian science from the 1860s until the 1890s.

My purpose in doing this is to draw attention to the fact that Australia was not just the place Darwin visited on the Beagle nor just a quarry for material for his developing evolutionary ideas. Instead, I want to suggest, albeit briefly, that there were in Australia workers in science able and confident enough to make contributions to what we might call the Darwinian project. In doing this I am questioning long-held ideas about the tyranny of distance and the easy conflation of geographical isolation with intellectual isolation. Being on the periphery does not mean being marginalised, as I hope to show. Let me say at the outset that a number of writers other than me have written about the four individuals I have chosen, but none I think have done so with my objective in mind.

My first Australian is William Edward Hearn. Hearn was appointed as the first Professor of Modern History, Literature and Political Economy at the University of Melbourne in 1857. In 1863 Hearn published what is said to be the first work of political economy to draw its inspiration from Darwin’s evolutionary ideas anywhere in the world. Entitled Plutology: or the Theory of the Efforts to Satisfy Human Wants, the book was praised by Herbert Spencer, William Jevons, Leslie Stephen, and in America by the disciple of Spencer, John Fiske. It was actually used as a textbook in parts of North America. Hearn used a rather generalised version of both Darwin and Spencer to paint an evolutionary picture of the development of industrial society. His main aim was to produce a work suitable to be used as ammunition by those such as himself who were firm believers in free trade and laissez faire capitalism.

To put this in a local context, in Victoria in the 1860s a great deal of political heat was generated by the supporters of free trade on the one side and protection on the other. For Hearn, Darwinism proved a modus operandi for understanding how, through competition and struggle, society evolved to a level where industrial civilisation arose. That society was to be understood as an organism, so this use of Darwinian terms was more than merely metaphorical. The law of evolution can be seen, says Hearn, in the manner in which political groups begin to emerge in human history and the organs of society become more marked. Social progress is inevitable so long as governments keep out of the way:

Just as in nature the weakest are eliminated so the feebler and unskilled tradesman falls before his superior competitor ... what death does in nature, insolvency effects in society.

In a direct reference to Darwin, Hearn says:

… of society as well as of organic nature it may well be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising throughout the world, every variation even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good.

There is a great deal more in this vein throughout Plutology but I have not the time to deal with it here. Fifteen years later Hearn published The Aryan Household in which he traced the history of the Aryan race which he saw as ‘the foremost in the world’. He traced that history through clans and their development into combinations that eventually led to the arrival of states. Turning again to political economy he claimed it was:

A true science...its phenomena can be traced to ultimate laws of human nature.

We have here, I suggest, a true Darwinian: a believer in the power of science to illuminate every aspect of social, political and most importantly economic life. By true Darwinian I mean a believer in Darwinism in its broadest sense, not just natural selection but the full kit and caboodle - struggle, selection, progress, racial hierarchies - the lot. And he produced his work in a colony 12,000 miles from Down House unhindered apparently by any putative tyranny of distance. And just as an aside, Hearn remained an active member of the Anglican church in Melbourne.

My second Darwinian is rather different though in his own way just as illustrious. Robert David Fitzgerald is remembered, if at all, as being the grandfather of the Australian poet RD Fitzgerald, or perhaps if you are orchid lovers who are aware of his stunning work on these most peculiar of all the flowering plants. And it is with orchids that we are concerned here. Fitzgerald was a colonial surveyor in New South Wales, born in Ireland in 1830 and who emigrated to Australia in 1856. In Ireland he had come to despise sectarianism and turned in Australia to a kind of nature worship. He was a passionate part-time naturalist and after finding a Dendrobium orchid while out bird collecting became obsessed with the family. Fitzgerald had already read Darwin’s work on the subject of orchids published in 1862 as The Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are fertilised by insects …, and it goes on and on. He proceeded from then on to investigate the Australian branches of the orchid family in order to add his own findings to those of Darwin.

Fitzgerald’s Darwinian project had two objectives: the first was to show that the extent of variation in the orchid family and the easy ability to hybridise in their natural state made a mockery of attempts to organise them into firm units of species or even genera. One example from Fitzgerald’s work will have to suffice here: the genus Lyperanthus he described as an ‘unsatisfactory intermediate genus’ whose status was disputed by botanists, some placing it in or near one genus and others into another according to which characteristic of the plant they wished to emphasise in classifying. Behind this approach lay Fitzgerald’s desire to undermine the creationist view that species and genera were separate and fixed entities - much the same as Darwin had sought to do in his own orchid book.

The second Darwinian objective that Fitzgerald followed was quite simply to undermine the whole design thesis. Again, I have time here for only one example. Fitzgerald claimed that adaptations could not be attributed to the workings of the divine mind, for structures which in one species of orchid could be explained by recourse to divine forethought due to their intricacy were often virtually useless in closely allied species. In some sun orchids for instance the blooms developed right up to the point of flowering but then never opened. What was the point of this? If design was to be invoked to explain the intricacy of this mechanism when it was the norm for the flower to open in some species, to what was this failure to open in others to be attributed? To Fitzgerald the answer was a simple Darwinian one: it was an example of the inheritance of a structure once useful to a plant but now fallen into disuse and continuing to exist only in a degenerate form.

Fitzgerald’s orchid hunting was usually done accompanied by two friends - the Reverend William Woolls, an Anglican and staunch anti-Darwinian; and Charles Moore from the Sydney Botanical Gardens, also an anti-Darwinian. Let’s leave aside the fact at the moment that this suggests this is rather an intriguing trio. The fact is, as Woolls himself pointed out in a eulogy after Fitzgerald’s death, Fitzgerald certainly had plenty of opportunity to hone his Darwinian skills and opinions against some severe and intelligent critics. And just for the record Woolls was a botanist with an international reputation himself.

Fitzgerald wrote on numerous occasions to Darwin, sending him copies of his own work on the Australian orchids as each part became available. Darwin was impressed and incorporated some of Fitzgerald’s findings into the second edition of his own book published in 1875. Joseph Hooker was another to be impressed. By any stretch of the imagination, Fitzgerald was in the thick of the fray in relation to Darwinism. On more than one occasion he was able to convince Darwin himself to change his mind on particular points to do with self-fertilisation. So there we have it: a man employed as a colonial surveyor carrying out investigations within a Darwinian paradigm and making a real contribution to the establishment of that paradigm.

My third Australian is Walter Baldwin Spencer. Spencer is well enough known for me to deal with him fairly quickly. I have included him here as one of my Australian Darwinians not for the fact that he opened the doors to the teaching of evolutionary biology at the University of Melbourne, which he did, but for the more important contribution he made, along with Frank Gillen, to the building of the science of anthropology - again, internationally. His many books detailing his fieldwork in northern and central Australia were of fundamental importance in the creation of the evolutionary model of anthropology through the work of Edward Tylor and George Frazer, along with the highly influential work on primitive classification by Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss.

Was it Darwinian though? Yes, in the broadest sense of that term. Spencer, like others of the time, saw anthropology as in part driven by the need to rescue what could be salvaged of existing examples of primitive culture. All such cultures were doomed to vanish, according to this view, as they came into contact with higher races and civilisations - some of you will remember that Darwin used that phrase in The Voyage of the Beagle - the fittest replacing the less fit in true Darwinian fashion. As late as the 1920s, Spencer could still write in his handbook to the national Museum of Victoria that the Australian Aborigines were, along with the platypus and kangaroo, creatures crude and quaint that show us at least in broad outline what an early man must have been like before he learned to read and write. Spencer, trained in Britain in the new Darwinian biology, turned that training away from his early biological work with invertebrates to document the culture of the Indigenous populations of Australia, work driven by the urgency of salvaging the last remnants of an earlier stage in human development.

My fourth example is perhaps the most intriguing of them all. Alexander Sutherland was a member of a family of both artistic and intellectual individuals. His brother William was a renowned amateur physicist who corresponded with some of the biggest names in the field, including the Nobel laureates JJ Thompson and Ernest Rutherford. William has the distinction of being the only nineteenth Australian scientist to be included in the 12-volume Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Another brother George was a noted colonial geographer, while his sister Jane was a painter of sufficient stature to have her work exhibited in most state art galleries. His niece Margaret has some claim to being one of Australia’s greatest composers.

Both Alexander and William went to the University of Melbourne where at various times they fell under the spell of the social theorist Charles Henry Pearson and William Edward Hearn. In what was a real gathering of glitterati his friends at university included Alfred Deakin, Henry Bourne Higgins and I think possibly Samuel Alexander. Outside of university he collaborated with the historian and civil servant Henry Gyles Turner. I mention all this to illustrate that Sutherland had real advantages in his social and educational worlds. It mattered little that he was 12,000 miles from the action as it were. He was surrounded by progressive thinkers who shared his own excitement at the growth of science and its potential not only to revolutionise society through its application to technology but also, and perhaps more importantly, to revolutionise intellectual life and thought.

In short, Sutherland was a ‘total evolutionist’ to use Maurice Mandelbaum’s phrase. Evolution was to be the key to everything: the development of the entire universe would be understood only by the acceptance of continuities and the rejection of discontinuities. Incremental change and advance would bring about progress. Revolutionary movements would be impediments to that progress.

Sutherland wrote on everything from the body temperatures of reptiles to the relative size of women’s brains, from universal education to closing the gap between the inanimate and the animate, and the development of Australian literature - all from an evolutionary perspective. Even his poetry of which there is quite a bit, all of it pretty terrible, was concerned with development and evolution.

All this might be dismissed as yet another example of a misguided allegiance to Herbert Spencer, but it doesn’t quite jell. In 1898 Sutherland published a massive two-volume tome entitled The Origin and Growth of the Moral Instinct. It opened with a dedication to Charles Darwin, and Sutherland saw it as his attempt to extend Darwin’s own views on the subject that are to be found in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. There can be little doubt that it is fully Darwinian in intent and outcome. Sutherland traces the rise of the moral instinct in humans from an original growth of parental care through to the maternal instinct, individual and group sympathy, then up on to the lower order moral instincts, and finally to the situation of the present day when in the highest races - the Europeans - it has reached a high level though not the level it will reach if evolution is allowed to continue.

Sutherland provided an array of statistics relating to birth outcomes in animals to show that among the lower orders many thousands of offspring are produced most of which perish in the struggle for existence. Only in the higher mammals are live births limited in small numbers that allow for the rise of individual concerns - the maternal instinct. When it comes to the human species, Sutherland categorises the various races of man into higher and lower, and only in the former can truly human moral instincts replace survival instincts, because only among the higher races is there time and leisure to develop other than animal responses.

This is rather an inadequate account of Sutherland’s complicated story, but it suffices to give an inkling of its thoroughly Darwinian nature. And don’t take my word for it: Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton provided a peaon of praise to the book in a review in the journal Nature, particularly praising its Darwinian methodology and marvelling that such an astonishing work could be the product of such a new colony as Australia. Alfred Russel Wallace was another admirer, as indeed was Herbert Spencer. So what to make of Sutherland? Well, he is a total evolutionist. He is a disciple of scientific naturalism and he is probably a Spencerian as well; in other words, a believer in biological and social evolution and the power of science to explain and change the world. In short, a good Darwinian.

In conclusion, my aim in this paper has been to show that there were in Australia in the years following the publication of The Origin of Species a group of often amateur workers who embraced Darwinism in their own work and were not shy in placing that work before a national and international audience. The four examples I have chosen here became internationally acclaimed. Part of my purpose in doing this is to actually get Australia and Australians into this celebratory year. What I want to claim is that geographical isolation does not equate with intellectual isolation. Hearn, Fitzgerald, Spencer and Sutherland were co-workers in the enterprise surrounding the establishment of evolutionary theory and by extension the eventual triumph of scientific naturalism. Perhaps we should revisit the tyranny of distance. Thank you.

Date published: 30 April 2009