What if Darwin had died on the Beagle? That’s what Peter J. Bowler asks in his book Darwin Deleted, concluding that maybe evolution would be a more accepted theory as a result. According to Marek Kohn’s review:
By 1900, Bowler argues, scientifically informed opinion would have absorbed the idea that living forms evolve, without recognising that this happens through natural selection. In fact, as Bowler has demonstrated in his previous work on the history of evolutionary thought, that is pretty much what did happen. Although Darwin’s theory of natural selection transformed the understanding of life by turning all eyes to evolution, the subsequent decades saw a successful effort to sideline it in favour of less disturbing candidates for mechanisms of change.
What I don’t understand is why the credence of natural selection rests with an adherence to Darwin in the first place. It’s not that he wasn’t integral to its popularization among scientists and then the general public (and for that he should be rightly lauded), but that natural selection is happening with or without him, i.e. regardless of whether anyone believes it’s happening or not. Darwinism, then, is a mendacious name for the natural, non-anthropocentric process it describes, and only causes emotionally clouded responses to invocations of the science and its implications.
What does it mean to be called a “Darwinist”? Surely “Social Darwinist” is somewhat of a precise term, but Darwinism isn’t a set of political ideas, and indeed may refer to ideas that Darwin himself didn’t even hold. Perhaps Darwinist could be a term to differentiate (as opposed to Gouldists, for example), but even then it doesn’t function like many on the Right intend, as if the truth of natural selection as a process rested on the number of Darwinists there are at any given time, or on bad things done by Social Darwinists throughout history.
Unfortunately (for them), natural selection does not require a single person to understand it, let alone profess to believe in it. Convincing someone that evolution is “just a theory” doesn’t stop the process from occurring. No non-human animals that I know of, for instance, have read On the Origin of Species, and yet they’re all part of the chain of beings.
Darwin did not invent evolution. Nor, for that matter, did he single-handedly discover it. He was an iconoclastic thinker, a fluid writer, and an important pioneer of science. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, the theory he helped develop in order to explain the complexity of life on Earth was (and is) so elegant that it could be said in one word: heredity. For that we owe him a great debt.
But natural selection created Darwin, not the other way around. It may seem silly or redundant to write that, but reading about Creationists continuing to try to infiltrate science classrooms makes me wonder if they and their apologists still haven’t made this distinction.