It was 200 years ago today that Charles Darwin (and Abraham Lincoln, for that matter) saw the light of day, the first-born of the secular trinity of 19th-century thinkers who created the modern world. Darwin was widely hailed in his own day—he ended up buried with other English greats in Westminster Abbey—and his fellow titans admired him as much as anyone. A new edition of Darwin’s revolutionary 1859 tome The Origin of Species (packaged like a bestselling novel, with the author’s name in type larger than that of the title) has the presumably unique distinction for a 2009 publication of bearing a front-cover blurb from Freud: “An extraordinary advance in our understanding of the world.” And in 1873, Marx mailed Darwin a copy of his earthshaking 1859 book, Das Kapital, inscribed from “his sincere admirer, Karl Marx.”
The admiration was a one-way street, though. Darwin the well-mannered English gentleman did write Marx a polite thank-you note—“I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge and that this in the long run is sure to add to the happiness of mankind”—but the copy itself is more revealing of his real reaction. Now on display in his home-cum-museum, the volume’s uncut pages prove the scientist got less than a third of the way through it. (It’s impossible to guess what the socially conventional Darwin, who died in 1882, long before Freud’s major works, might have made of The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900.) And as it began, so it continues. With Freud and Marx dating badly in the modern era (notwithstanding Marx’s recent economic stimulus bounce), Darwin is the only one still dominant in his field today. That’s not because evolution by natural selection is, as Darwin’s more fervent admirers like to declare, the single greatest idea anyone has ever had. Even though it may well be that, at least as long as you keep your list of potential contenders to how-the-universe-works concepts, as opposed to ideas on how we should treat one another; in the former case evolution’s only real competitors are Newton’s gravity and Einstein’s relativity. No, it’s because evolution is the finest example ever seen—and possibly ever to be seen—of an idea whose time has come, the ultimate intellectual supply and demand phenomenon.
The Victorian chattering classes, increasingly irreligious and increasingly aware of what geologists had determined regarding the immense antiquity of the planet, could no longer believe in an unchanging state of nature, especially not as presented in Genesis. The idea of deep time, of what can happen over millions of years—still the greatest barrier the human brain encounters in grappling with the idea of evolution—was starting to take hold. There was an insistent demand for a literally natural explanation, making the response to Darwin’s relentless and persuasive argument in The Origin of Species predictable, at least in retrospect. As philosopher Michael Ruse notes, fast, full-scale embrace of evolution was matched by general rejection of (or indifference towards) natural selection. “No one was looking for a mechanism as much as they were looking for a fact, a kind of alternative religion,” he says. “Darwin was the scientist who supplied religion-like counter-answers to religion.” (It was another half century before discoveries in genetics demonstrated how natural selection worked and established it as a cornerstone of modern biology.)
Darwinism still carries some of that aura today. The most quoted words in the entire Origin, 649 pages long in paperback, come from its final sentence: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” There’s no doubt that Darwin himself meant that in an entirely materialistic way, despite his cautious reference to “the Creator” (removed in some editions), but then Darwin was a man capable of being moved by the adaptive strategies of beetles and, in Adam Gopnik’s words, “ the heroism of worms.” Militantly skeptical modern scientists who keep their gaze firmly upon a blindly acting, pitilessly indifferent universe (hello, Richard Dawkins), presumably reference a similarly aesthetic appreciation of nature’s beauty when they quote those concluding remarks.
But for most people, most of the time since, those oft-quoted words have meant something quasi-mystical, an inchoate belief in the ascent of man—humanity as the purpose of evolution, just as, in the eyes of more conventional faith, we are the purpose of God’s creation. (In that regard, as in many others, the West remains a Christian civilization.) The notion that nature was aiming for the likes of us may be alien to hard science but it’s culturally ingrained and culturally inspired—in the same way many critics argue evolution by natural selection is. For those opponents, Darwinism is but a fig leaf for class domination—“greed, selfishness, sexism and more,” in Ruse’s words—born in the heyday of laissez-faire capitalism, in that economic system’s epicentre, Victorian Britain. In that view, Social Darwinism, the ferocious dog-eat-dog political philosophy of those who thought it appropriate for some of the poor to starve every winter on the basis that nature is harsh with losers too (survival of the fittest, after all), spawned scientific Darwinism, rather than the opposite. But even if that supposition is true—and the evidence is not at all supportive—it’s worth recalling that a scientific discovery is not actually responsible for the uses to which humans put it. And all ideas show the marks of their birth, and most require particular social conditions—the idea that all men are created equal was most likely to arise in a nation of (mostly) self-sufficient farmers and small tradesmen (who were capable of ignoring their own slaves).
So yes, The Origin of Species required a certain milieu as well as previous scientific breakthroughs. All to the good, too, since it’s marvelously readable (and thus the more persuasive) in its friendly, accessible, very English way—as Karl Marx was wont to complain. Every time he praised Darwin’s book, the prophet of proletarian revolution also made an aside about its lack of academic style, its hopeless Anglo muddle: “One does, of course, have to put up with the clumsy English style of argument.” (Marx, it hardly needs to be added, wrote nothing like the way Darwin did, and there’s a clue in that as to why only the truly dedicated can force themselves through Das Kapital.) But merely arising in an era that could see possibilities in it, possibilities we no longer approve of, doesn’t mean evolution by natural selection is wrong.
Time passes, and prevailing social-political-religious notions pass away, according (as Darwin might have put it) to the fixed laws of cultural gravity. Unless, that is, they are true, useful and, equally important, beautiful. And Darwinism, endlessly fecund, is all those things. For 150 years it has answered basic questions about living creatures and living systems while spawning ever more questions with those same answers, in every field of life science from medicine to ecology: “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”