History of science: Darwin

I realized a long time ago that I seem to be raising a historian. Tigger is fascinated by history. Luckily, I am not one of those people who thinks that knowledge of a subject is a necessary precursor to the ability to teach it. My own knowledge of history is what most people would describe as woeful. I recall very little of what I was taught in school and took only one history class in university. My historical knowledge is pretty limited to early Canadian history, which means it doesn’t even extend to much knowledge of the opening up of the West. Homeschooling is fixing that, believe me.

With Tigger, finding a history of whatever we are studying is a sure fire way to spark her interest. We have read some history of mathematics, some general history of the world, studied the American Dust Bowl, and the voyages of Captain Cook. She and her father have been studying botany this spring, using Thomas Elpel’s Botany in a Day as a spine. Her dad found The Great Naturalists in the library and they have started expanding their study with historical study.

So when I ran across this article in the Observer about Darwin and the history of how he developed his theory of natural selection and how he came to publish it when he did, I thought I should make a note. One of the nice things about including history in science studies is that it makes that process of doing science clearer. Although there are rigourous methods and fairly strict rules about how you report your findings, the process of doing science can be a bit messy. And science is always done in a particular social and cultural context at a particular historical moment. When a scientist publishes his or her findings and how they choose to publish them is often driven by these concerns.

Thus the theory of natural selection appeared, fever-like, in the mind of one of our greatest naturalists. Wallace wrote up his ideas and sent them to Charles Darwin, already a naturalist of some reputation. His paper arrived on 18 June, 1858 – 150 years ago last week – at Darwin’s estate in Downe, in Kent.

Darwin, in his own words, was ‘smashed’. For two decades he had been working on the same idea and now someone else might get the credit for what was later to be described, by palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, as ‘the greatest ideological revolution in the history of science’ or in the words of Richard Dawkins, ‘the most important idea to occur to a human mind.’ In anguish Darwin wrote to his friends, the botanist Joseph Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell. What followed has become the stuff of scientific legend.

Darwin had been working on his material for 20 years at this point. But like many of us, he was putting off writing and continuing to research. Unlike 21st century scientists he was under no pressure to publish early and often. But the fear of being scooped pushed him into publishing his findings.

‘Wallace’s letter gave Darwin a good kick up the backside,’ says the geneticist Steve Jones. ‘He had prevaricated for 20 years and would have done so for another 20 if he hadn’t realised someone else was on the trail.’ The summer of 1858 changed everything for Darwin. Although by no means an arrogant man, he knew his worth. He was already a Royal Society Gold Medal winner and was not going to be robbed by a whippersnapper specimen collector in Malaysia. So he sat down, with a board across his knee, on the only chair in his house that could accommodate his long legs, and wrote up the research he had been carrying out for the past 20 years.

The form of what he wrote was also interesting. He did not write for the small audience of his peers but rather for a larger educated public.

Remarkably, it is the only major scientific treatise to have been written, deliberately, as a piece of popular writing, a book whose interlacing story lines have been compared with those of George Eliot or Charles Dickens and which is peppered with richly inventive metaphor. ‘Darwin was creating a lasting work of art,’ as Darwin’s biographer Janet Browne puts it.

They style may not seem that accessible to the 21st century reader but it is no less so than other writers of his time.

The rest of the article is well worth reading. Weighing the evidence of whether “natural selection” is Wallace’s or Darwin’s intellectual property brings in some very important points about the difference between a conjecture and theory. The key to the latter is the weight of evidence in support of it. The fact that Darwin had been working on this for 20 years before publishing means that he had a lot of evidence to bring to bear. Certainly many people can come up with the hypothesis that natural selection might explain a range of phenomena, but that hypothesis needs to be tested across a range of instances. Darwin had that evidence.

Go on, read the whole thing.

For me, the question of which individual should be credited with a particular discovery is the wrong question. All scientific knowledge is the product of many years of investigations, hypotheses, blind alleys, and the careful collection of substantial evidence. Many people are involved working together and separately. New ideas are born of discussion and debate. It is a particular historical and social context that leads to the desire to pin particular discoveries on individuals, and most of those deserve recognition. But one reason we should study the history of science along with the science itself, is to keep those individuals in perspective.

Scientific advances are built on more than genius and “eureka” moments. They are built on long, careful study, debate, discussion, trial and error, and a bit of humility.


6 thoughts on “History of science: Darwin

  1. Becky at FarmSchool e-mailed the following (she’s pretty busy right now)

    there’s a very, very similar article in the June 2008 issue of Smithsonian Magazine
    which arrived a few weeks ago, “On the Origin of a Theory: Charles Darwin’s bid for enduring fame was sparked 150 years ago by word of a
    rival’s research” by Richard Conniff. I think this link has the entire article online,



  2. If you want to read a fascinating view of scientific paragon shift, read the beginning of Noah’s Flood by Ryan and Pittman – http://www.amazon.com/Noahs-Flood-Scientific-Discoveries-Changed/dp/0684859203/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1214350783&sr=1-2

    I think the entire book is a fascinating look into what caused the flood myths, but it starts with the entire paragon shift that the scientific community went through in understanding the ice ages.


  3. I’ve been fascinated with Darwin recently too. I always had the impression that Origin of the Species was just boring theory but really it’s not — well-written, meticulously observed fieldwork. My husband just got the book in the mail and I’m looking forward to reading it soon after reading some excerpts online and in other works.


  4. This is the exact way I can sneak history in for Reagan…using science and/or geography as the link! Darwin’s story is fascinating. We are lucky enough to have a University of Pennsylvania Museum nearby that hosts and annual event for his birthday, and each year make new discoveries.


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