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Evolution of Evolution — Text-only | Flash Special Report
What If Darwin Hadn't Written "On the Origin of Species?"

Darwin’s methodology may equal his ideas in scientific importance

By Marsha Richmond

Evolution is so interwoven into the fabric of modern life that it is almost impossible to imagine the world without it.  This was not the case for Charles Darwin (1809-1882).  European cultures, influenced by Aristotle as well as the Bible, viewed the world as stable and orderly, with living organisms linked in a great “chain of being.”  British natural theologian William Paley explained adaptation by teaching that each creature was designed for a purpose by the Creator.  While a few natural philosophers, most notably Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, speculated about organisms changing over time, such views were considered unorthodox, if not heretical.

Darwin began to doubt the “fixity of species” soon after his five year voyage on the HMS Beagle (1831-1836).  As he noted in the opening passage of “On the Origin of Species”:

When on board H.M.S. “Beagle,” as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. (Origin, p. 1)

In 1838, Darwin began to sketch out his idea of “natural selection.”  For two decades he collected a myriad of facts bearing on his theory.  Finally, he began writing his “big species book” when in June 1858, he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist collecting specimens in the Malay archipelago, enclosing a manuscript for Darwin to read.  He was thunderstruck by the manuscript’s similarities to his own ideas.  This forced Darwin into action, and, with the help of his friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Dalton Hooker, his 1844 essay was published along with Wallace’s paper in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London in August 1858.  Darwin then rushed an “abstract” of his views into print: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life appeared on 24 November 1859.

Darwin, then, was not the first to conceive of evolution, nor the only one to develop a theory of natural selection.  This is not to say, however, that had he not published “On the Origin of Species”that natural science would have fared the same.  Darwin’s book contributed more to posterity than simply the idea of evolution or the theory of natural selection.

Darwin’s methodology revolutionized the life sciences, setting the stage for major advances in twentieth-century biology.  Prior to Origin, natural historians primarily engaged in describing and naming organisms, along with studying their anatomy and physiology.  To establish his claim that organisms evolved over time by means of natural selection, Darwin had to lay out a vast array of empirical evidence drawn from many different areas of natural history and then formulate “one long argument” to explain these observations (Origin, p. 459).  Darwin relied on the use of analogy and inductive reasoning to support his theory of natural selection. Invoking the philosopher William Whewell’s notion of “consilience of inductions,” Darwin argued that any theory that was able to explain so many different classes of facts was not likely to be false.  After 1859, Darwin’s hypothesis-driven research program, now called the “hypothetico-deductive” method, in addition to his particular theory of evolution, became the foundation for future work in biology.

Thus, Darwin’s legacy to posterity lies as much in revolutionizing the methodology of the life sciences as in offering particular views about evolution.  Wallace and others likely would have introduced evolutionary views describing lawful change in organic life.  Yet it is hard to envision any work that would have been able to match the persuasive power of “On the Origin of Species,” not simply in explaining the diversity of life but also in instructing naturalists about how to investigate complex relationships. Indeed, “On the Origin of Species” continues to serve as a striking exemplar of how to do good science.  Historians generally shy away from engaging in “what if” stories, but most would agree that had “On the Origin of Species” not been published, we would still believe in evolution, but the development of modern biology would have unfolded much differently, and with less striking success.

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Marsha Richmond is an associate professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich. A historian of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century biology, her research focuses on Darwin's views of heredity, the history of evolution theory, the rise of modern genetics, and the entry of women into biology.  She is a U.S. Advisor to the Correspondence of Charles Darwin Project, based in Cambridge, England. The National Science Foundation supports her work on Women in the Early History of Genetics.ence Red in Tooth and Claw. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Please see the Resources section for the Bibliography/Additional Reading list for this essay.