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‘A theory to work with’: On The Origin of Species and its contemporary reception

Paper presented by Professor Paul Turnbull, Griffith University
Darwin symposium, National Museum of Australia, 26 February 2009

ROBYN WILLIAMS: I will introduce Dr Libby Robin, who is an historian of science in environmental ideas, a senior research fellow at this museum’s Centre for Historical Research and senior fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University - and I am delighted to see Frank Fenner amongst us.

Dr LIBBY ROBIN: Hello and welcome back. It is my pleasure this morning to introduce Paul Turnbull. He does all sorts of interesting things including having an interest in Aboriginal body snatching. But today he is not going to be talking about that. He is going to give us ‘”A theory to work with”: On the Origin of Species and its contemporary reception’.

PAUL TURNBULL: Some years ago, I sought to trace the involvement of Robert Brough Smyth, mining engineer, amateur ethnographer and author of the compendious Aborigines of Victoria in the illicit removal of the skeleton of a senior elder of the Kulin Nation from the Melbourne General Cemetery. In Smyth’s papers, which are now preserved in the State Library of Victoria, there is a fragment of a handwritten page strongly suggesting that Smyth had indeed wanted to see the Kulin elder’s remains removed under dead of night. But in the papers there is no evidence that in fact the remains ended among the bones of some 2000 Aboriginal people that by the late 1920s were to be found in Australia’s museums and medical schools.

Amongst Smyth’s papers, I also found some notes relating to a lecture on Darwin’s Origin of Species that Smyth had given at the Bendigo Working Men’s Club in 1886. It seems that Smyth had begun his lecture by declaring that Providence had bestowed on man two books of supreme wisdom: the Bible and the Origin of Species. Darwin’s masterpiece a gift of providence? Well, since that day in Smyth’s papers my interest in teasing out what connections there were between what Darwin argued in the Origins, how his ideas were understood and scientific theft of Aboriginal bodily remains has led me on various paths through archives and libraries - one result of which has been to see that Smyth’s pairing of the ancient book of Revelation with the new book of evolutionary nature was possibly less odd in the late nineteenth century than we may now think.

Darwin was a careful thinker. But he was obliged to write the Origins of Species hurriedly, as Iain has wonderfully explained this morning, thus allowing both his critics and admirers greater freedom in interpreting what he said than may have been the case had he the time to write the large formal treatise setting out the argument for evolution by speciation he had originally intended.

Darwin’s desire to be understood precisely is reflected in his choice of title. When we talk about the Origins and the obvious and also many subtle ways in which it has influenced our understanding of the natural world and the place of our species in nature, we tend to refer to it as the Origin of Species or On the Origin of Species or simply the Origin. But it is worth recalling that Darwin’s choice of title was The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Looking at the title page of early editions of the Origins further serves to remind us that, as Darwin himself stressed, he wrote the book as ‘one long argument’. Darwin’s hope was that this one long argument - condensing more hurriedly than he wished many years of research and reflection - would convince his readers that the evolution of earth’s myriad life forms occurred through a process that he termed ‘natural selection’ that enabled the preservation of favoured races in a struggle for life.

There were two main ideas in Darwin’s long argument. The first was that species were neither fixed in form nor number. Darwin believed that some species had suffered extinction while others had continued essentially unchanged, or at some stage in the earth’s history had been ancestral forms from which one or more new species had emerged.

Darwin thus saw life on earth as a dynamic continuum that could plausibly be likened to a tree. Species could be imagined as branches growing in profusion out of older branches, which in turn had grown out of major limbs that early in the life of the tree had sprung from its trunk. Darwin was not entirely happy with this arboreal analogy. He remained agnostic on the question of whether all species derived from a common ancestral organism, but he did believe it highly probable that all animals were descended from no more than four or five ancestral forms and that plant life probably descended from one of four common ancestors.

Darwin’s evolutionary tree was controversially at odds with received explanations of the diversity of form amongst plant and animal species. For Darwin proposed that the cumulative complexity of animal and plant life came about through organised matter’s self-regulated adaptation to external material forces. This self-adaptation, moreover, he saw as non-purposeful in any conventional teleological sense. It operated simply to strengthen the odds that individuals within a species better fitted to their environment would survive to reproduce.

So envisaging the natural history of plants and animals, including humanity, was not wholly incompatible with Christian traditions of belief. Unitarians, for example, could see providence at work in the self-regulated motion of matter. Indeed, there are grounds to think that at the time of the Origin’s publication, Darwin himself believed that what he was arguing was compatible with the theistic supposition that organic diversity had resulted from designed laws. However, especially within the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and also leading scientific communities such as the Royal Society and the Royal College of Surgeons, Anglican faith and philosophical idealism had come together and become deeply engrained in the minds of these scientific institutions’ most influential practitioners. They could only see Darwin’s accounting for the diversity of earth’s myriad life forms as a confused and disturbing restatement of earlier materialist doctrine.

Regardless of whether Darwin was still a theist when the Origins were published or just wanted to avoid being tarred with the brush of materialism, most critics rejected his argument on one of two grounds. The first camp, which included senior Anglican clerics and prominent figures in established scientific circles - Richard Owen, for example - dismissed the concept of evolution by speciation outright. It was not that they believed that species had remained unchanged since the time of their appearance upon earth. Rather, they held that species had remained unchanged in their essential form since what they more or less implicitly assumed was their creation by divine fiat.

On this point these critics owed much to George Cuvier, the great French comparative anatomist. Cuvier’s scientific achievements were many, but among his greatest contributions to nineteenth-century biology was his breaking with earlier naturalists to re-conceptualise the animal kingdom as divided into four branches, each conforming to a divinely conceived distinctive plan of organisation. Cuvier held that within each plan the nervous system was the fundamental element, responsible for determining the structural arrangements and functionality of all major bodily systems. He further believed that within each plan, the form and functional interrelationships of these fundamental systems were eternally fixed; though it seemed to Cuvier reflective of divine intent that variation could occur in those parts of an animal contributing to or aiding their bodily processes or activities in minor ways, thereby perfecting their ability to live and reproduce within specific environmental surrounds.

Cuvier was uncertain how this variation actually occurred. What was the ultimate cause of it? In the end he accepted the reasoning of earlier naturalists - notably Buffon, the great Enlightenment naturalist - that it was caused by environmental forces but in an attenuated form. Cuvier believed it likely that variations became shared characteristics through being favoured in sexual reduction, as was clearly the case with the creation of distinctive breeds of domestic animals. However, Cuvier did not rule out external factors such as climate and diet continuing to play a role in variation, being unable to discern through physiological investigation any sign of a mechanism by which variations of form were inherited and then successively reproduced.

Whatever the cause of variation, Cuvier was firmly of the view that they were trivial and often impermanent changes to only superficial characteristics of an organism. He was convinced by his research on fossils and thinking over many years about the nature of geological change that, where a species, or a specific population within it, encountered environmental forces powerful enough to produce inherent functional change in the essential organs of its nervous, digestive or reproductive systems, this would so destabilise the harmonic functioning of the bodily economy of this animal as to cause its extinction.

It is also important to note that Cuvier’s explanation of organic variation enjoyed widespread assent within scientific circles. But there were also other scientists who, from the late eighteenth century onwards, challenged the idea that species were immutable. Iain has mentioned this morning Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the most influential figure who, at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, had argued that organisms were capable of open-ended change by passing on inherited modifications to their offspring that improved their chances of survival and reproduction in specific environments. Lamarck’s evolutionary theorising gained few adherents during his lifetime but was greatly to influence the thinking of a younger generation of scientists, probably the most important of which was Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the Parisian comparative anatomist and antagonist of Couvier who proposed that organisms possessed an innate potential that over time caused them to experience a trajectory of transmutation into increasingly sophisticated forms.

Even so, both Lamarck and Geoffroy’s evolutionary schema differed fundamentally from what Darwin proposed in his long argument, not least in conceptualising species as having evolved from different ancestral forms along separate lines of evolutionary development. Indeed, Darwin was particularly disturbed by the implications of these schema for how differences between the peoples of the earth were construed. For by the late 1830s ideas and arguments derived from Geoffroy and his circle were being used to justify the continuance of African-American slavery on the grounds that Africans did not have a common ancestry with Europeans but were a separately originating and biologically inferior species. One of the most influential figures to populate these ideas in Britain was the notorious comparative anatomist Robert Knox who, during the 1840s in particular, lived as an itinerant lecturer on race and was the guiding spirit in effect behind groups such as the London Anthropological Society in the 1860s.

Lamarck and Geoffroy’s evolutionary ideas were contemptuously dismissed by leading figures within established British and European scientific circles, not least because many champions of these ideas openly contended that only radical social and political reform would enable man to achieve his full evolutionary potential - and that was another argument that greatly disturbed Darwin. But the science of Lamarck and Geoffroy was also dismissed as deeply flawed. Opponents were quick to point out that evolutionists were at a loss to answer the question that had first been put to them by Cuvier: if the essential form of a species has the capability to become perfectly suited to its environment, what would be gained by its developing into one or more new species beyond a greater risk of extinction? This was also a question that Darwin wrestled with and sought to answer in his long argument by proposing that new species arose through a process of natural selection. The idea of natural selection came to Darwin, as he was to recall in his autobiography, on reading the dismal account of human nature and prognosis that humanity would never achieve ‘any great future improvement of society’ that was put forward in the last years of the eighteenth century by the pioneer political economist Thomas Robert Malthus.

In his first and most famous book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus had argued that there was a natural tendency for populations to increase in what he called a ‘geometric ratio’. Left unchecked, this geometric ratio would result in population doubling in size within 25 years. But as Malthus cautioned, food supplies could increase only in an arithmetic ratio; that is, by gradual increments. Hence the history of humanity was essentially the story of populations being kept in balance with available food and other resources through what Malthus termed ‘positive and preventative’ checks. Positive checks were those that increased the rate of death such as war, famine and disease; preventative were those that reduced the birth rate such as contraception and delaying marriage.

Malthus’s vision of human history and its lessons for the future of a society like Britain in which commerce and urbanisation had stimulated a hitherto unimaginable increase in population proved especially attractive to politicians, churchmen and intellectuals wanting progress to be managed so as to preserve key elements of the institutional framework of church and state inherited from the long eighteenth century. As the poet Robert Southey put it more succinctly and not unjustly, Malthus’s essay became a ‘political bible of the rich, the selfish, and the sensual’.

For Malthus argued that those who agitated for radical social and political reform defied God by going against his will as expressed in nature. Famine and disease were natural mechanisms providentially designed to focus humanity on pursuing serious and holy lives in which the effects of these calamities could be mitigated by sexual abstinence, delayed marriage and other preventative forms of moral restraint.

Darwin was to recall in his autobiography that in October 1838, some 15 months after he had begun thinking systematically about how species became peculiarly suited to their environment, he happened to read Malthus’s essay on population ‘for amusement’ - re-read it, I suspect, is more the case. Darwin was no reactionary, but he was a gentleman with a private income courtesy of birth into an extended family of commercial entrepreneurs, pioneer industrialists and agrarian capitalists. He was greatly troubled by political radicalism and, like his older relatives, supported parliamentary reform only so far as it strengthened the pursuit of free trade and allowed markets to operate as self-regulating arenas of competition - economics read in tooth and claw.

In his autobiography, Darwin was to recall that by late 1838 many years spent observing the lives of plants and animals had left him ‘well prepared to appreciate’ that every species of organism struggled to exist as a result of more of their kind being produced than could ever survive to reproduce successfully. What Malthus crystallised for Darwin was that this struggle for resources that was allowing it enabling survival and reproduction in human populations was true of every species of animal and plant.

Moreover, Darwin was to extend Malthus’s logic to a radical conclusion that the political economist and many of his admirers would have decried. Whereas Malthus held that famine and poverty were natural phenomena purposely designed by God to underscore to humanity his command that they practice moral restraint in accordance with the teachings of scripture, Darwin saw nature as a self-regulating arena of competition in which individuals within a species with variations that favoured their survival and reproduction were in effect selected by prevailing environmental conditions to do so. But it was a theory. It was a theory nonetheless that required careful elaboration.

By the time he came to write the Origins, Darwin believed that the case for the existence and operation of natural selection was best put by showing natural selection was comparable in key respects to the means by which animal breeders and agriculturalists cultivated favoured variations to create distinctive races with desirable qualities within domesticated species.

This recourse to analogical reasoning was nothing new. In fact, it was part and parcel of the history of science back to Aristotle. Darwin was well acquainted with how it had been employed by naturalists and comparative anatomists since the mid-eighteenth century who had sought to understand how variations in wild animals and plants first arose and then became hereditary, and why the same parents in the course of their lives could produce both offspring with variant features and others that did not. He was also aware that this recourse to analogical reasoning had been necessitated by the absence of physiological knowledge allowing the formulation of any robust hypothesis as to what processes or laws might govern the appearance and inheritance of variation. Indeed, it remained an absence that he was very much aware of. In many respects, one can see his reaction to the Origin of Species as an attempt to patch up the framework, as it were, as this analogical reasoning that he puts forward comes under attack.

Nonetheless, this analytical reasoning allowed Darwin to draw upon a wealth of medico-scientific reportage since the late eighteenth century describing how - much like unusual domesticated breeds of dogs and sheep - strange variations existed in populations of wild animals that could only have become defining characteristics through a combination of geographical isolation and inter-familial breeding. Just as an aside, it is always intriguing that creationists, as Richard Dawkins recently observed, have an interesting tendency to avoid talking about islands or geographical isolation and what happens there.

But the problem for Darwin was that the parallels drawn by earlier naturalists between artificial and naturally induced variation were intended to demonstrate that a remarkable spectrum of variation could occur in plants, animals and also men, but that variation occurred within species. So the problem for Darwin was that he was actually working with an argument which effectively had been used to prove the fixity of species. Darwin was obliged to push so as to strain the analogy between natural and artificial selection by arguing that natural selection dwarfed the best selective efforts of man. As he was to declare in one of the more memorable passages of the Origins:

How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! How short his time! And consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods. Can we wonder, then, that nature’s productions should be far ‘truer’ in character than man’s productions; that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life, and should plainly bear the stamp of far higher workmanship?

An interesting quotation to ponder on. Darwin’s accentuation of the power of natural selection in its self-regulating operation proved the ground on which he was to encounter his second group of critics. Time here today doesn’t allow me to go into this in great detail. But it is important to note that among these critics there were quite a number who could cautiously accept that new species exhibiting more complex forms might have been successively produced by speciation. But if this were so, it was not through natural selection. It was always natural selection that was the problem here. These critics argued that natural selection was unable to produce the necessary pool of individuals exhibiting favourable variants to produce new species. They argued against it on empirical, logical and also interestingly mathematical grounds to argue that if one was to take Darwin’s theories it would be older than the earth and was clearly untenable on basic mathematical grounds.

All of this led them to argue that there had to be some creative, purposeful and divinely originating force at work regulating the course of evolution. Even amongst Darwin’s strongest supporters there were those who conceded that he was only partly right about natural selection. As Charles Lyell has observed, it had to be a force ‘quite subordinate to that variety-making or creative power to which all the wonders of the organic world must be referred’. Moreover, it did not help Darwin that effectively countering these arguments required a satisfactory theory of the inheritance of variation that he did not possess - and of course it was to come eventually via Mendel through to DNA.

Much more could be said, and has been said today, about the initial reception of the Origin of Species. But what I have been able to say here today hopefully is sufficient to suggest that, in its reception, the Origin of Species was subject to what we might be tempted to call artificial selection in which the favoured variant of Darwinism in the years immediately following the publication of the Origin of Species was one the existence of which could plausibly be attributed to providence in the minds of those who were arguing for the removal of natural selection out of the equation. It is probably true to say that it could be - certainly in that time - plausibly possible, as Smyth did, to exhort the respectable working men of Bendigo to read their Bible and their Darwin.

Date published: 30 April 2009