September 19, 2017

The unfolding of Darwin’s thought

Book Review: The development of Darwin’s theory: natural history, natural theology and natural selection 1838-1859, by Dov Ospovat. Cambridge University Press 1981.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 12 No. 4, July–August 1982.


This book is beautifully produced on high quality paper with a number of fine engravings. About the author, Dov Ospovat, we are told very little, save that he was an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska, that he devoted perhaps more time than any other scholar to the study of Darwin’s manuscript material contained in a black trunk (known as the black box) at the Cambridge University Library and that he died tragically at the age of 33, before the publication of this book.

Had he lived, he would undoubtedly have reaped the rewards for his painstaking scholarship and very remarkable insights into what actually went on in Darwin’s head, as he developed his theory of evolution, for this book is undoubtedly a masterpiece.

Its thesis is that Darwin’s ideas underwent a very considerable change from the time he wrote his sketch of 1842 and his essay of 1844, in which he first set out his theory, to the time he wrote The Origin of Species, which was published in 1859. These changes were not the result of new empirical investigations carried out in isolation from other naturalists. On the contrary,

“his interaction with nature was mediated by assumptions and ways of perceiving nature that he derived from other naturalists, both his predecessors and contemporaries and from the culture in which he was educated and carried out his work.”

What is more, Ospovat considers that the ideas of his contemporaries were very much influenced by their social and political outlook.

At the beginning of his career, the reigning paradigm among naturalists both in England and on the continent, was influenced by the work of Georges Cuvier in France and by ‘natural theology’ in England, whose principal proponents were John Rag and later Paley. They saw the world as a well-adjusted mechanism, whose constituent parts both, organic and inorganic, were perfectly adapted to each other.

In order to illustrate this theme, as Ospovat points out, they filled the pages of their work “with instances of the adaptation of structure to function and of the whole organism to its environment”. They insisted that every living thing, even such lowly creatures as gnats, as Paley went to great lengths to point out, fulfilled some key role in the “economy of nature”. This perfect harmony they took to be evidence of purposeful design and thereby of an intelligent creator.

The paradigm of ‘natural theology’ is a very ecological one (though Ospovat does not discuss this point). As Donald Worster points out in his book Nature’s Economy the natural theologians must be regarded as the spiritual and intellectual ancestors of today’s ecological movement.

One of the main features of this paradigm was its radical teleology. Ospovat describes it in considerable detail. The role, goal, or “conditions of existence” of living things, was to contribute to the proper functioning of the ‘economy of nature’ and hence of God’s design. To know the goal or conditions of existence of any living thing within the ‘economy of nature’ was all that was required in order to understand it.

It is clear that the paradigm of ‘natural theology’ was irreconcilable with that of ‘science’.

  • To begin with it introduced the notion of an intelligent creator – a metaphysical rather than a naturalistic notion.
  • Secondly, since the world was perfect, there was no need to change it – the accent being thereby on stability rather than on change (and since the days of Bacon science has been committed to change, indeed to the transformation of the world we live in by means of technology and industry to serve our economic ends).
  • Thirdly, the scientific study of the mechanism underlying the functioning and development of living things (morphogenesis) has no place in this paradigm.

For these reasons it was destined to be radically transformed. Ospovat describes the changes that occurred in biological thought which slowly led to the abandonment of the paradigm of ‘natural theology’ and its replacement with one that better suited the requirements of the times and shows how Darwin’s thought was affected by each of these changes.

One of the many features of the paradigm of ‘natural theology’, which began to be rejected during this period was its teleology. From Darwin’s point of view, this was necessary so as to accommodate his idea of “transmutation”. Though he rejected the extreme teleology of the natural theologians, he never really rejected teleology in its less extreme form. He continued, for instance, throughout his writings to talk of “final cause”.

It is more accurate, as Ospovat notes, to regard Darwin as having succeeded in uniting “the morphological and teleological processes in the study of organic structure”. This is, in essence, what Asa Gray stated in Nature in 1874, and Darwin wrote to him at the time saying that “What you say about teleology pleases me especially”.

Another of the changes brought to the paradigm of ‘natural theology’ was the abandonment of the notion of ‘perfect adaptation’ which Darwin still believed in, even after he had rejected the teleology of the natural theologians. This change was very important to the development of Darwin’s theory since, so long as organisms were held to be perfectly adapted to their environment, change could only occur in order to assure adaptation to environmental change.

In such conditions natural selection could only be seen as applying intermittently. It was simply a means of adjusting organisms to temporary environmental changes. Once it was conceded that organisms were only relatively well adapted to their environment, then change could be seen as occurring on a continuous basis and natural selection, to which this change was attributed, could conceivably provide a theory of development as well as of adjustment.

Ospovat traces the effect on Darwin’s thinking of reading Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. He saw in the geometric growth of a population “a force like a hundred thousand wedges to force every kind of adaptive structure into the gaps of the Economy of Nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out bigger ones”.

Malthus’s influence, Ospovat regards as critical in determining the shape of Darwin’s final theory of natural selection. So much so that he distinguishes between Darwin’s pre and post-Malthus thought.

He also describes the effect on Darwin’s thought of the “branching conception of nature” as developed by von Baer, Owen and Milne Edwards; and the development of the notion of ‘divergence’, which is closely associated in the minds of the naturalists of the time with the already fashionable idea of ‘progress’.

The notion that as living things evolved so did they become increasingly diverse, so in fact was there among them an ever greater division of labour, was a key one for Darwin’s theory. This growing diversity Darwin took to be the criterion of ‘progress’ and this fitted in perfectly with the socioeconomic ideas of the times.

This growing diversity, Darwin attributed to the workings of ‘natural selection’ – a principle which complemented that of ‘relative adaptation’ and provided the basis of development rather than a theory of adjustment.

The transformation in the biological thinking of the times, in which Darwin played a key role, is described in this book in great details. As Ospovat points out, it transformed a paradigm that was suitable for a land based aristocratic society, into one which very much better satisfied the requirements of our fast developing urban-based industrial world.

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