A Century of Darwin

A Century of Darwin

A Century of Darwin

A Century of Darwin

Excerpt

IT was once said of Darwin's ideas that they must be false, because they were dangerous. Nowadays Darwinism is respectable, as this volume shows. A few writers still believe that Darwinism is dead, but this is due to ignorance both of Darwin's work and of its position in twentieth century biology.

Most of the chapters that follow show Darwin as a biologist of extraordinary penetration, industry and scope. His work, and that of his contemporaries, inspired the researches of (among others) embryologists, botanists, geologists, classifiers and even social anthropologists -- often working on specific themes which had already been developed by Darwin himself. Nevertheless, Darwin as a scientist remains to many an enigma, even after, or perhaps because of, a detailed study of his works. The probable explanation is the one implied by Crowson in chapter 5, when he writes that Darwin was not a modern, professional biologist at all (as T. H. Huxley was), but the last prominent representative of an older tradition: he was a prosperous amateur, primarily a naturalist. Although, as Heslop-Harrison shows in his remarkable chapter on Darwin as a botanist, Darwin was an experimenter too, his principal rôle was in description and in drawing inferences from large masses of ordered data. His skill in inference is well illustrated by Yonge in his account of the work on corals (chapter 11).

By far the most important generalization propounded by Darwin was the theory of natural selection. This volume marks the centenary of his first announcement of this theory in a joint paper with Wallace. Like Darwin among biologists, the theory of natural selection occupies a dominating and yet a peculiar place in biology. Darwin himself never formulated it in a logically valid way: he adopted Herbert Spencer's expression, "the survival of the fittest", without waiting to ask: what is the definition of fitness? Darwinian fitness, however, is measured by the capacity to produce offspring, and . . .

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