The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World

By Peter Dear | Go to book overview

Design and Disorder:
The Origin of Species

I. Design in Nature

In late 1859, soon after the first publication of his The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (1809–82) wrote to the eminent geologist Charles Lyell (1797–1875), “I have heard by round about channel that Her- schel says my Book 'is the law of higgledy-pigglety.'”1 John Herschel (1792–1871), the son of the astronomer William Herschel, was not only an astronomer himself, but also an influential philosopher of science whose opinion Darwin was bound to take seriously. Darwin was unsure as to what precisely Herschel had meant by his remark, but was in no doubt that it was not meant to be complimentary to the theory of natural selection.

Darwin's theory represents a remarkable new conception of what it meant to account for many features of organic nature in the nine- teenth century. Rather than proposing novel answers to essentially the same, preexisting questions, Darwin attempted to translate those questions into new forms that radically altered their meanings. Dar- win hoped that his newly reformulated questions would be regarded as illuminating the old ones from a new point of view, but the risk was that they would simply be rejected as missing the point—and if the latter, Darwin's new answers would become absurd or irrelevant. Which of those alternatives his contemporaries chose was funda-

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