Term Paper: Bowler, Charles Darwin Peter

Pages: 6 (2326 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 2  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Evolution  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] In the first half of the nineteenth century, geologists had been particularly active in developing a body of knowledge that required some sort of interpretation: as Bowler notes, "In the course of the half-century from 1800 to 1850, the modern outline of the fossil record had been put together, revealing the ascent of life from primitive fish and invertebrates through the Age of Reptiles to the Age of Mammals and the world of today." (Bowler 19). Beyond this expansion of knowledge, though, at the time of Darwin's voyage on the Beagle, geology itself was in the midst of a paradigm shift between two rival views of the earth: catastrophism, which was the notion that the earth's surface was the result of a single catastrophic event (like a flood) which left mountains and valleys and so forth in its wake, and the more-recently proposed uniformitarianism. The uniformitarian view had been put forth by the English geologist Charles Lyell, who suggested that the earth's surface was the result of a much longer and slower process of erosions, earthquakes, glaciation, and other smaller events that eventually resulted in the observable variations of geological features. Bowler summarizes thus Darwin's reading of Lyell's Principles of Geology, which advocated the rival uniformitarian view in which all elevations and subsidence's of the land were due to the accumulated effects of observable causes such as earthquakes and erosion….Evidently Lyell's arguments took some time to convince Darwin but the Concepcion earthquake played a decisive role. (Bowler 61)

In other words, Darwin had to actually witness an earthquake -- and see the sort of changes it wrought upon the geographic surface -- in order to accept Lyell's thesis. Because the chief objection to Lyell's thesis had been the amount of time it would require to create such variations on the earth -- the processes described by Lyell would clearly require millions rather than thousands of years, which contradicted the widely-accepted view of the earth's actual age -- once Darwin had accepted Lyell, he had accepted a much longer view of natural history, in which processes could play out over millions rather than thousands of years.

The final point we must consider, though, in terms of how Darwin's theories played out in the mainstream of Victorian conceptions of science and of history is the notion of progress. Progress was a crucial assumption, as it conformed to the notion that the position of humans on earth was special. Yet in terms of evolutionary thinking, progress is more readily associated with the earlier work of Lamarck and Robert Chambers, both of whom suggested humans had emerged as a form of biological progress from lower forms of animals. Natural selection -- despite the uses to which it would be put by so-called "Social Darwinists" -- actually offers no such support for the idea of progress. Indeed Bowler indicates Darwin's own "need to see evolution as a branching tree rather than a ladder of progress" (Bowler 57). The Galapagos finches do not imply a straining upwards toward some kind of ideal finch -- instead they indicate a number of different responses to different conditions, and a sort of scattering of the idea of progress.

Bowler's work thus corrects misinterpretations of Darwin and situates him completely within his historical context. Darwin is seen as having emerged from earlier evolutionary thinking -- like that of Lamarck and Robert Chambers -- with a crucial difference in terms of the mechanism whereby it occurred. Darwin's proposed mechanism emerged from his own observations of natural phenomena -- not only the finches of the Galapagos, but the Concepcion earthquake which persuaded him of the plausibility of Lyell's uniformitarian view of geology. By accepting Lyell, Darwin accepted the possibility of a process that took millions of years -- something that previous evolutionists like Lamarck (who seemed to suggest that a giraffe could evolve in the amount of time that has been required for human beings to take a single dog species and artificially select its features to create dogs as radically different as an Irish Wolfhound and a Pomeranian) had not considered. But in discarding the shorter time frame of Lamarck and Chambers, Darwin also discarded (crucially) the idea of progress: natural selection instead becomes a long-term, impersonal, non-goal-oriented, and largely random process whereby small variations and mutations could produce different species. It was the idea of progress that Darwin's Victorian contemporaries found most challenging, and the general result was a misinterpretation of the fundamental nature of his theory of Natural selection in order to preserve a belief in progress. In reality, Darwin believed in no such thing.

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