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The debate surrounding Darwin and the Origin of Species takes multiple contexts, firstly, the debate centralises around the nineteenth century Victorian context; how the religious were denied claim of divine supervision with the materialist response of Darwin’s natural selection claim. For example in the case of Richard Owen, the ‘most eminent man of Science in mid-Victorian Britain, as described by Dawson, he was a staunch opponent of Darwin when releasing the Origins, including Huxley. Owen was disgusted by the empirical nature of Darwin’s claims; he saw the reduction of the Human species to materialism through Darwinian concepts and believed the advocators of such a theory to be ‘supporters of Lucretian scientific views… unfruitful and with unhealthy and defective minds’. The evangelical opposition to Darwinian Theory can be uncovered as an argument by this statement, firstly, that Darwinism represented the decay of society, or rather the projection of a decaying society; secondly, that Darwinism was heretical in nature and opposed to the biblical teachings of a divine plan. During the 1860s and 1870s, a fear of society decay and vanishing virtues began to fear the Anglican Church and evangelical followers. This debate will centralise how the teachings of Darwin became synonymous with the perceived ‘sexual immorality’ of the 1860s and 1870s Britain discussed further.

Alternatively even those advocating the theory had strong reservations or criticisms regarding Darwin’s Origins, particularly Darwin’s adoption of natural selection into his writing. Jenkins wrote a critique of the Origins which becomes a debate within itself due to the debate surrounding the effect of Jenkin’s criticisms on Darwin’s description of natural selection. As Gayon identifies citing Loren Eisley, ‘Darwin was so impressed by Jenkin’s criticisms that he virtually renounced the theory of natural selection’. However, Peter Vorzimmer argues that the critique had ‘no effect’ on Darwin’s theory. The 19th Century debate therefore extends not just too Darwin, but his works, his life and the methodology of his Origins creation. Society experienced a metaphorical shockwave; the materialist world through Darwinism could now claim governance over any such conception of a divine plan or higher power. The notion of a ‘Darwinian Revolution’ is reductive because it explains the outcome of the 1860s and 70s debate, but misses the understanding of a huge opposition to Darwin’s theory from various groups and prominent men. As Dawson points out, ‘opposition to various aspects of evolutionary choice was often much stronger and more potent than has generally been recognised in accounts that adhere to the model of the so called Darwinian Revolution’. Furthermore, Peter Bowler remarks, ‘we cannot simply assume that those who called themselves ‘Darwinians’ in the nineteenth century accepted the whole of the programme outlined in the Origin of Species’. Therefore in terms of the nineteenth century debate, overestimating the consensus towards the Origins arguments becomes an obstacle, and quantifying support becomes reductive in assessing the application of Darwin’s ideas from his followers. However, evolution did win the struggle over the structures of society and the opposition from the Anglican Church and critics within the scientific field of paelontology, biology and physics opposing aspects of the theory; as Peter Bowler cites, ‘Alvar Ellegard’s survey of reactions to the Origin in the British popular press reveals that by 1872 the basis fact of evolution had generally been accepted’. But the debate continued with the emergence of Spencer and the 20th Century eugenics movement, and non-Darwinian theories becoming more prevalent towards the end of the nineteenth century, ‘several varieties of non-Darwinian evolutionary theory were serious contenders’.

One of the first major criticisms regarding Darwin’s theory came from the surprising source of Henry Jenkins, ‘professor of engineering at the University of Edinburgh’. He took particular concern with Darwin’s adoption of natural selection, Darwin’s theory assumed that genetic variances within the individual were largely inherited by the two parents and thus likely to be passed on and maintained. But, the theory is reductive in nature because natural selection assumes that the individual will become predetermined to the particular trait by passing the gene onto the offspring, assuming favourable traits will survive through progression, not taking into account flawed or traits not present in other individuals for breeding. But as ‘Jenkins pointed out that if this so, a single mutated form born with some advantageous character would have no effect on the evolution of the species… new feature would be swamped by breeding with the mass of unchanged individuals’. This resulted in the 19th Century debate shifting towards the theory of mutations governing the natural selection process, rather than hereditary, where the flaws and contradictions were appearing empirically. The title of ‘hypothesis’ used by Jean Gayton in his book reflects the element of the theory being a theory of speculation rather than accurate scientific fact. The past study of natural selection and the debate of earlier Darwinians reflect the uncertainty of the theory which is why Gayton rebukes the notion of a Darwinian Revolution, arguing that many such as Jenkins could see flaws in Darwin’s Origins including the closest advocators such as Huxley. As Amundson concludes from Gayton, ‘evolutionary theorists in the nineteenth century were not convinced that natural selection was the primary cause of evolutionary change’. In addition the Origins included the belief in the diversification of the species, species separating and taking new forms through transmutation, ‘principle of divergence’ as a result of the adaptations through sexual selection, ‘conveying traits between generations as both continuous and discontinuous manners’. The debate of the nineteenth century that the origins produced divided the scientific landscape in various fields of scientific study; it was divisively controversial in the landscape of Victorian Britain.

Darwin’s Origins entered a climate of opposition from a conservative and evangelical population, such a theory was to question radically the existence of a divine presence. Darwin and his followers were deemed heretics by intellectual, influential men such as Robert Owen and Mivart who had ‘his own alternative of super-naturally designed evolution’. When Robert Owen and Huxley debated, Owen used dogmatic moral superiority and ridiculed both Huxley and later on Darwin for the lack of respect for the divine creator and ‘moral defectiveness’, the respectability of the naturalists was frequently challenged by the evangelical conservatives. Respectability, in the nineteenth century was a major theme of the debate surrounding the support of the populace for evolution, the naturalists needed to prove that ‘it was possible to be a naturalist and to be a good person’. The theme of respectability is an argument that is debated, on the other side of the argument. Opponents argue respectability has been overstated by Peter J. Bowler and contemporaries; Fleming and Goodall argue that ‘it is time to now to have done with the stereotypical notion of a society obsessed with respectability… this is the simplistic fiction that sustains many of the claims for Darwin’s revolutionary impact’. The Origin of Species engendered a debate as to whether the evolutionist scientists created a new society of scientific values opposed to the evangelical forces governing the British society during the eighteen hundreds, a very much romanticized image which Fleming and Goodall support citing Bram Dijkstra, ‘Histories of the second half of the nineteenth century often delineate romantic images of embattled progressively minded scientists… against reactionary prejudice… overstate the opposition encountered by the evolutionists’. The argument assumes three concepts; firstly that the idea of a Darwinian revolution was a battle won by the scientists of superior intellect, Tyndall himself ‘insisted on the moral superiority of the scientist… and his theological opponents held a truly degraded and immoral view of human life’. While Dawkins describes reading the Origins in his book The Selfish Gene, ‘makes the reader feel like a genius’. This brings the second notion of Fleming and Goodall’s argument that modern interpretations of the Origins from Darwinists have egocentrically; as in the case of Dawkins, interpreted the embrace of evolutionism as a virtue of the intellectual mind embracing the scientific landscape and replacing Theology. The third concept is that supporters of the Darwinian revolution create the ‘Culture-Shock myth’. Peter. J. Bowler and Gowson therefore argue that Darwin’s life was reflective of this myth, which explains why Darwin did not publish his findings during the 1840s with his abstract metaphorical example of natural selection taking construction; he worried about the public backlash to his ideas and feared that society was not ready for his potentially revolutionary ideas. Fleming and Goodall fail to grasp the true extent of dangerousness to Darwin’s ideas, downplaying the response, but most importantly the effect of debate that Darwin had on 19th Century Sciences, philosophies and religion. Amigoni and Wallace surmise the importance of Victorian culture perfectly on Darwin and the implied effect of his ideas, ‘that he arrived at his conclusions a couple of decades before they could become socially acceptable’. A particular source portraying the effect of Darwin’s theory on society is the Punch Cartoon showing Darwin and man surrounded by apes and worms with the après eventually taking form in the image of Charles Darwin and Huxley, the title reads, ‘Man is but a worm’. The message is clear; Darwinian Theory has reduced the status of man as a being of supernatural creation and reduced man to a primitive and insignificant state of existence. The implications of natural selection on Victorian society are evident through the application of Spencer to Darwin’s ideas, coining the term ‘survival of the fittest’. This would have political and social implications during the twentieth century when Neo-Darwinians attempted to explain or create world-views around Darwin’s discovery, in short claiming Darwin. As Bowler identifies ‘it was the Origin of Species that converted both scientific and popular opinion to the basic concept of evolution’.

The Origins and Darwin’s influences in formulating his debate have come under particular scrutiny and debate during the 19th Century and modern times, one of the crux’s of this debate is the effect that Malthus had on Darwin’s thought and theory of natural selection; which he adopted in later versions of the Origins. Darwin in his bibliography expresses the casualness of reading Malthus, as though he was expecting a negative book or one that was implausibly wrong, Lyle, Darwin’s mentor had suggested reading it for fun but too not get carried away with the conclusions. Darwin writes ‘I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population’. Malthus argues that the increasing population would result in scarcity of food resources, arguing that the population is growing too fast for prolonged existence in the future; measuring human populace to food resources, Darwin takes the mechanism of Malthus’s argument and creates the mechanism for natural selection through transmutation, as Amigoni and Wallace argue through Althusser’s citation, ‘as theoretical raw material… profoundly transformed as it is appropriated and set to work by the complex apparatus of Darwin’s thinking about the species question’. Darwin applied Malthus’s mechanism but not the moral conclusions drawn from Malthus of human scarcity, nature will always find a way with or without human intervention. Malthus was by no means useless or arbitrary, as Gerratana argues. Malthus provided literary understanding for Darwin during his pivotal and important Beagle Voyage for understanding the effects of nature on animals and Humans, it must be noted that unlike Malthus, Darwin chose to employ his theory to animals rather than Humans, perhaps due to fear of the implications. Darwin viewed natural selection as ‘non-voluntary’, thereby Humans and animals were forced to compete, which coincides with the Origins as an explanation of Human life.

The Origins had societal implications that changed the scope of the scientific field and established Biology as an important and insightful field, the 19th Century debate surrounding evolutionism was ultimately won by the Darwinian’s and the followers as opposition ‘relapsed’ in the later course of the century. But, the effect on Theology and oppositional arguments cannot be quantified, since the Origins had a far reaching effect on not just Victorian society, but the structures that up-holded Evangelical notions of Human’s as divine creations, as Bowler surmises, ‘much of the heat in the Origin debate was generated by friction between the materialist implications of natural selection and traditional natural theology’. Darwin’s Origins as a contribution to scientific study metaphorically foretells the dominance of Science over the intellectual predecessor of Theology; as Bowler identifies, ‘between 1870 and 1890, the concept of design had been banished from Science by all except a few older men’. An exaggeration, but one that reflects the growing support for evolution within societal structures.



Source by Alexander James Syder