Skip all navigation and go to page contentSkip top navigation and go to directorate navigationSkip top navigation and go to page navigation
National Science Foundation
Special Report
Text-only
design element
Evolution of Evolution — Home
Timeline
Charles Darwin
1
Anthropology
1
Astronomy
1
Biology
1
Geosciences
1
Polar Sciences
1
Resources
1
Credits
1
Evolution of Evolution — Home
Timeline
Charles Darwin
Essay 1
Essay 2
Video Transcript 1
Video Transcript 2
1
Anthropology
1
Astronomy
1
Biology
1
Geosciences
1
Polar Sciences
1
Resources
1
Credits
1


Evolution of Evolution — Text-only | Flash Special Report
Interview with Marsha Richmond

Video Transcript

Why was Darwin’s theory largely rejected by the later part of the 19th century?
The problem with the theory of natural selection was that it was difficult to prove. Darwin gave a tremendous amount of evidence for it in “Origin of Species” and in his subsequent books, each one you can look at as trying to hone and provide increasing support for natural selection, but by the end of the century, it hadn’t been proven. Biologists, zoologists, and naturalists were looking for some means of empirically testing natural selection and that wasn’t forthcoming and so it was really ill repute. 

What made a natural selection theory inevitable, the science or the culture?
I think it’s a little bit of both, of course. From the scientific side, the early voyages of exploration that the British, of course, were advancing along with other countries had brought to light an incredible array of new species, new forms of life, and Darwin’s voyage of the people was very much involved in that, but that’s not to say that the greater society cultural changes weren’t contributing. They were very much important in the same way because the society was engaged in tremendous change itself.

Would the world have been spared racism, eugenics and genocide without “survival of the fittest?”
Darwin did not originally, of course, talk about the survival of the fittest. He, rather, used a Malthist term of “struggle for existence,” and he did later adopt the survival of the fittest but it came through Herbert Spencer’s work, and already then there was a process of social translation of evolution theory going on. But, that having been said as a disclaimer, certainly, with social Darwinism, these kinds of ideas came to the fore. On the other hand, I think that you also have to think that things like racism and ideas about eugenics and so forth were problems that predated Darwin and probably would have gone on no matter whether Darwin had published his book or not.

Would the history of science be vastly different without “Origin?”
I think it would have been vastly different. The theory of evolution was absolutely critical to unifying biology. I think, in fact, although the term biology was in existence before “Origin of Species” was drafted, there really – the sciences, the life sciences, at that time were really disparate. Botany was doing its things, zoologists were doing their things, and with different attitudes toward dividing up the life sciences, but after Darwin’s theory was proposed, he provided an umbrella theory for the life sciences that was absolutely critical.

Who do you think would have popularized a theory of evolution, if not Darwin?
It’s tough to say. Well, of course, Alfred Russel Wallace had a theory of evolution and it was his work that prompted Darwin to write his abstract, which turn into the “Origin of Species,” but Wallace was really a different kind of naturalist and he wasn’t as well versed in academic science as Darwin.

If not Alfred Russel Wallace, then who?
I would rather, probably, look to Germany to take the lead there and the great German biologist, Ernst Haeckel at the University of Jena, of course, came to the fore. Immediately after reading Darwin, he became a convert, par excellence, and it could have been that he would have developed a theory of evolution, but it’s – that’s a difficult question for me to answer with – given the cast of characters as I know them.