Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Introduction

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Introduction

Article excerpt

The time around the year 1959, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 100th anniversary of the publication of his great book, On the Origin of Species (hereafter abbreviated as Origin), is a good point to mark the start of a really professional approach to the study and understanding of the history of evolutionary biology. In fact, the year before (1958) had seen the publication of one of the lasting major works of scholarship, a book by a Scandinavian student of English, A. Ellegârd. To this day, Darwin and the General Reader, a detailed study of the reception of Darwin's ideas as shown in the periodical literature of the decade or so after the Origin, impresses by its thoroughness and sophisticated understanding of religious and other trends in the mid- Victorian era. Then in 1959 itself came Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, by the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. In some ways, it is a strange book. The author does not much like her hero, probably a function of the fact that she was still very left-wing in her politics and saw (perhaps with some truth) that Darwin was a child of running-dog-lackey capitalism. One wonders why she wrote it. Perhaps it was part of a campaign to undermine the soft assumptions of mid-twentieth century capitalism. But despite Himmelfarb's somewhat negative attitude to Darwin and his achievements, the work itself is really serious and well researched, using hitherto unknown archival resources.

The Darwin year (1959) marked renewed interest in the first edition of the Origin, the beginning of a trend that sees the early Origin as being in many respects superior to later editions, especially the up-to-then-almost-invariably reprinted sixth edition (1872). This latter is a much revised work marred not just by the clumsiness of the multiple rewritings but also by Darwin's incorrect answers to important issues (like heredity), where his creative genius failed him, and his equally incorrect answers to important issues (like the age of the earth), where it was the creative genius of others and their wrong solutions that failed him. Serendipitously, one could start to judge the importance of which edition one was using thanks to the literary scholar Morse Peckham, who produced a still-exemplary variorum edition of the Origin, collating all six editions. Ernst Mayr (Darwin, 1964) ensured a facsimile of the first edition was produced as part of this renewed attention. It has been in print ever since.

There were other signs that things were now starting to move forward, most particularly the beginning of the transcription and publication of Darwin's private notebooks that he kept when he was discovering natural selection in the crucial years of 1837, 1838, and 1839 (de Beer, 1960a, b, c, d; de Beer & Rowlands, 1961; de Beer, Rowlands, Sc Skramovsky, 1967). Darwin's two earlier versions of his theory, the 35-page Sketch of 1842 and the longer, 250-page Essay of 1844 were reprinted, making this material more easily available to scholars (Darwin & Wallace, 1958). Much credit must also go to Darwin's granddaughter Nora Barlow, who not only contributed considerable funds to the purchasing of manuscripts and letters and other material, thus making available essential data for use by scholars, but who herself worked assiduously to make available in the public domain valuable materials and sources. Particularly noteworthy was her edition of a full version of her grandfather's Autobiography (Darwin, 1958). The version that appeared in the Life and Letterssoon after Darwin's death had been carefully and rather extensively bowdlerized by the concerned Darwin family. Now, for the first time, we could start to see the full extent of Darwin's thinking about sensitive topics like religion, not to mention his somewhat acerbic comments on some of his contemporaries (like Herbert Spencer).

The "Darwin industry" was off and running. But one should not think that it alone represented professional interest in the development of evolutionary thinking. …

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