Everyone knows that the theory of evolution by natural selection was discovered in England, by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. In this book Marek Kohn goes on to show that the theory was preserved, nurtured and developed here when the rest of the world didn't want to know.
Even Darwin, it seems, began backing away from it, leading one wag to refer to the final edition of his great book as "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and All Sorts of Other Things". It has always been a lot to swallow. To true believers in the British school, natural selection is the sole explanation for evolutionary change in the natural world. All living things vary. Heritable variations which allow a creature to survive and breed better than those without will be passed down. Less successful variants will disappear.
In this view, chance plays no part, and there is no inherent logic in things. An "adaptationist" believes there is a reason for everything we see in nature. It is just a matter of finding it, a position that provoked sceptics such as Stephen Jay Gould to ask loudly about the evolutionary purpose of the male nipple. Gould, an American, was a long way from the atmosphere that has nurtured adaptationism in Britain. The theory fell upon fertile ground early and became orthodoxy. One reason was that it filled a God-shaped hole. British biology retained the argument from design - that the fitness of creatures for their lives proved God's existence - while, in general, dispensing with the designer.
Another reason was that it built on the British tradition of pursuing biology in the field, rather than in the lab, where variation and behaviour are at hand. "I have never met a birdwatcher who is not a naive adaptationist," said John Maynard Smith, one of the giants in this area. "But why? I think it may be that, if one watches an animal doing something, it is hard not to identify with it, and hence to ascribe a purpose to its behaviour."
Then there's the British tradition of individualism, ploughing a lonely furrow and thinking about the individual creature's needs - the drive behind adaptationism - rather than those of the species. The scientists Kohn profiles certainly were individuals.
He starts with Wallace, on an expedition, shivering with malarial fever. Pondering on Malthus, he realised that when creatures battled for survival, "the fittest would survive". He wrote and told Darwin his idea, but Darwin had already come to the same conclusion. Nudged by Wallace, he published. Thanks to the comprehensiveness of Darwin's research and exposition, it is he who is remembered as the father of evolution. Wallace accepted this, becoming more Darwinian than Darwin, defending natural selection when Darwin had doubts. A rift only appeared between them when Wallace declared that natural selection couldn't have developed human intelligence, which he considered excessive for man's needs in nature. He sought answers in spiritualism. …