Organized Session

Imagining the Darwinian Revolution from Darwin to Dawkins

Organizers

Ian Hesketh

University of Queensland Australia

Jamie Freestone

University of Queensland Australia

Chair

Emily Kern

University of New South Wales

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Session Abstract

In a 2017 "viewpoint" article in Isis ("Science's Imagined Pasts"), Adrian Wilson argued that "science entails history writing." By that he meant that scientific knowledge is often produced within the framework of an imagined past that is sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly embedded in scientists' descriptions of their work. Wilson's intervention is an important one for thinking about the relationship between the production of science and its history, because it suggests that history is not something that is necessarily produced in hindsight but is actually often built right in to the creation of science itself. This panel seeks to explore further Wilson's insight by considering it with reference to the development of a particular science, namely Darwinian evolution. Evolutionists, from Darwin on, have often situated their own work from within a particular historical trajectory, in the process producing historiographical categories from "Darwinism" and the "Darwinian Revolution" to the "Modern Synthesis" and the more recent "Extended Evolutionary Synthesis." These categories, however, are not only historiographic but also scientific, speaking to particular orthodoxies within evolutionary science. The papers in this panel, therefore, will explore this intersection between the making of evolutionary science and its history from the nineteenth century, when the very notion of the Darwinian Revolution was created alongside Darwin's chief publications, to the present, when evolutionists sought to imagine their work within the framework of a modern synthesis that could somehow be extended.

Presenter 1

Early Historians of the Darwinian Revolution: Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin

Bernard Lightman

York University

Abstract

In his book Charles Darwin (1885), Grant Allen, a popularizer of science and sensation fiction novelist, credited Darwin with showing that evolution was scientifically valid and that it was applicable to the human sciences. However, he also argued that "the philosophical conception of evolution as a cosmical process, one and continuous from nebula to man, from star to soul, from atom to society, we owe rather to the other great prophet of the evolutionary creed, Herbert Spencer." Strikingly, in a book purporting to celebrate Darwin's achievements, Spencer emerges as the more significant evolutionary thinker. Allen's biography of Darwin outlined a history of evolution that put Spencer at the heart of what later came to be known as the "Darwinian Revolution." But occasionally Darwin and Spencer themselves presented what amounted to an early history of the Darwinian Revolution. Darwin added an historical sketch in later editions of the Origin of Species, which mentioned Spencer as an important figure. Although Darwin and Spencer often quoted and referred positively to each other's works in order to present a united front against the critics of evolutionary theory, their more private evaluations of each other's contributions tell a very different story. Neither gave the other a prominent role in the early history of the Darwinian Revolution.

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Presenter 2

The Making of John Tyndall's Darwinian Revolution

Ian Hesketh

University of Queensland Australia

Abstract

One of the most influential imagined histories of science of the nineteenth century was John Tyndall's Belfast Address of 1874. In that address, Tyndall presented a sweeping history of science that focused on the attempt to understand the material nature of life. While the address has understandably garnered attention for its discussion of the conflict at the center of this history, namely between science and theology, and has therefore been recognized as helping to establish the so-called conflict thesis, much less has been said about how Tyndall's history culminated with a discussion of the evolutionary researches of Charles Darwin. Tyndall presented Darwin as a revolutionary scientific practitioner, whose epistemic virtues of patience, self-denial, and observation led him to his epochal theory of evolution and thus justified the extension of science into realms previously under the control of theology. Tyndall was criticized at the time for his "vulgar admiration" of a man of science who was still very much alive, and who could not possibly live up to such "fulsome adulation." What such critics failed to realize, however, is that Tyndall had historicized the living Darwin within the context of his own philosophy of history that he cultivated many years before, a philosophy that integrated the moral lives of heroic individuals within a progressive history of science itself. This paper therefore seeks to uncover the development of Tyndall's philosophy of history in order to grasp how it came to be mobilized in his belated defense of Darwinian evolution.

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Presenter 3

Rewriting the Past, Rewriting the Theory: The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis and its Discontents

Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis

University of Florida

Abstract

This paper examines the interplay of history and theory in the history of twentieth century evolutionary biology especially in the imagined historical reckoning of evolutionary biologists. In particular it looks at the successive rewriting of the narrative of the "evolutionary synthesis" of the 1930s and 1940s in light of the Darwin Centennial of 1959, the critiques of the synthesis in the 1980s, and the so-called "extended synthesis" that is the focus of contemporary disputes. The extent to which the "extended synthesis" and its depiction of the ""standard evolutionary theory," or the SET resembles arguments of 1980s will be assessed, along with an examination of the historical function and legitimacy of the SET.

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Presenter 4

How the History of Science is Used in Recent Popular Explanations of Darwinism

Jamie Freestone

University of Queensland Australia

Abstract

The history of science dovetails with the production of scientific knowledge. Scientists themselves read, interpret, and write histories of their disciplines and biographies of their key figures. This paper catalogues the historical sketches of Darwin and Darwinism that appear in works of recent colloquial science and textbooks. Both genres rely on a small set of historical and biographical sources: books by Peter Bowler, Janet Browne, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, and Ernst Mayr. The textbooks provide brief histories, including a few discrepant details, and links to further historical sources. The colloquial texts figure Darwin as a great man of science and typically omit any details that would challenge current neo-Darwinian orthodoxy. In both cases, a mass of detail from the historical texts is compressed into lean narratives. These stories are part of what Adrian Wilson calls "science's imagined pasts." Although they descend from serious historical texts, it is the most public-facing works, by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, that contain the briefest and most imaginary narratives.

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