January 1, 2020


REVIEW: of The Triumph of Evolution: Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution by Gertrude Himmelfar  H. R. Trevor-Roper, september 1959, Commentary)

The protective piety of his family (or rather, of his wife and daughter) has now been pierced, and Darwin's own faults of memory or errors of reconstruction have been corrected. Miss Himmelfarb is particularly skillful at such correction. Where Darwin looked back for the origin of the Origin, and found it in the voyage of the Beagle, she works scrupulously forward from the Beagle and finds no such thing. Where the Victorians looked back for the revolution which shattered their faith and arrived at Darwin, she looks forward from Buffon and Hutton and finds Darwin not at the beginning but at the end of the revolution: "that there was a Darwinian revolution, there is little doubt. But what kind of a revolution was it that was so generously prepared for beforehand and so strongly resisted afterwards? . . . many of his enemies must have agreed with Butler: Buffon planted, Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck watered; but it was Mr. Darwin who said, "That fruit is ripe" and shook it into his lap.'"

This is not, of course, to deny Darwin's genius, but it is to see it in a new light. What Miss Himmelfarb most clearly shows is Darwin's marvelous fertility in theorizing. Darwin thought that he proceeded from observation, believed, in retrospect, that his observations in South America had put into his mind the idea of natural selection. In fact, Miss Himmelfarb points out, all his observations in South America had been directed toward geology, not zoology. But he was (as his own son remarked) "charged with theorizing power ready to flow into any channel on the slightest disturbance, so that no fact, however small, could avoid releasing a stream of theory"; and afterwards--to be precise, in 1837--he thought, a priori, of his theory, and having written a first theoretical sketch of it in 1842, turned back to his South American experiences to find, there as elsewhere, a multitude of facts on which to rest it. To be fair, this is generally the way of genius: perhaps the only way. But it does no harm to see it documented.

Miss Himmelfarb documents it very thoroughly. The hypothetical nature of Darwin's reasoning is exposed by her, at times, with almost as much subtlety and virtuosity as she discovers in him. She shows how powerfully Darwin was influenced by Malthus: the intellectual stimulant which also inspired Wallace almost to forestall Darwin with the same theory. She shows how evolution, as distinct from natural selection, was accepted by most scientists before Darwin, and how the mutability of species, by other means than natural selection, had been advanced before him. Having thus carefully limited Darwin's originality, she shows how his own thesis fails by every applicable test, and how it was defended by Darwin with reasons so abstruse, so hypothetical, and so contradictory that in the end, even by his own admission, there was little left, and the "Darwinism" which he ended by establishing was not his own theory of natural selection but the theory of evolution which he had merely assumed and illustrated. In this victory--for undoubtedly it was a victory--it must be added that he was helped as much by the intellectual bankruptcy of his opponents as by his own strength. The theory of creation was a weak adversary for the massive forces of evolution, given temporary form and motion by the novel but inessential theory of natural selection.

The observations that actually drove his theory were of how farmers breed their animals, demonstrating the opposite of his theory.

Posted by at January 1, 2020 7:31 AM