Middle Positions

John Hedley Brooke

  • Archetypes and Ancestors: Palaeontology in Victorian London 1850-1875 by Adrian Desmond
    Blond and Briggs, 287 pp, £15.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 85634 121 5
  • Evolution without Evidence: Charles Darwin and ‘The Origin Species’ by Barry Gale
    Harvester, 238 pp, £18.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 7108 0442 3
  • The Secular Ark: Studies in the History of Biogeography by Janet Browne
    Yale, 273 pp, £21.00, May 1983, ISBN 0 300 02460 6
  • The Descent of Darwin: A Handbook of Doubts about Darwinsm by Brain Leith
    Collins, 174 pp, £7.95, December 1982, ISBN 0 00 219548 8

The Darwin scholar, John Greene, once summarised the Darwinian revolution as the triumph of a dynamic and non-teleological structuring of nature over static, teological systems: the triumph of chance and change over design and permanence, the triumph of objectivity in the life sciences, of secularism and naturalism over clericalism and the supernatural. The form of such a characterisation is familiar enough – perhaps too familiar in the sense that we are apt to take for granted the structuring of historical material through dichotomies and antitheses. Such has been the stuff of scientific as well as historical exposition. When Galileo launched his controversial defence of Copernican cosmology, he insisted on a dialogue between two chief world systems. When Darwin published his Origin of Species, he fortified his argument by contrasting the strengths of his own theory with the inadequacies of ‘separate creation’. Within the subsequent history of evolutionary mechanics other dichotomies have become part of the folklore of science: ‘In effect, only two theories of evolution have ever been put forward,’ writes John Maynard Smith, ‘one, originating with Lamarck ... the other originating with Darwin.’ Such reduction of the scientific corpus to patterns of mutual exclusivity doubtless tells us something about the strategy, if not the logic, of scientific corroboration. It is a form of reductionism which popular works on the historiography of science have done little to discourage. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions envisaged competition between two rival and incommensurable ‘paradigms’ as the hallmark of a revolutionary period. A greater theoretical diversity and the science had to be regarded as immature and consigned to a pre-paradigm era. The discontinuity theses of Michel Foucault have lent themselves to a similar dualistic rigidity. Witness the use made of his ‘epistemes’ by N.C. Gillespie, who, in his recent study of Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (1979), implied that there were only two epistemes worth talking about: the ‘positivist’, with its exclusion of metaphysics and natural theology, and the ‘creationist’, which was ultimately, if not immediately, grounded in the supernatural.

These may be the dichotomies one takes for granted, reinforced as they so often are with a wealth of anecdote. ‘Theology and Parsondom’ were, for T.H. Huxley, ‘the natural and irreconcilable enemies of science’. His professional rival Richard Owen, by contrast, considered those blind to the beauty of design in nature to be suffering from ‘some, perhaps, congenital, defect of mind’. But the trouble with reduction to polar opposites is that what really gets excluded are the middle positions which, for the intellectual historian, are often the most revealing. Galileo’s predicament was surely intensified by virtue of there being at least three world systems: the cosmology of Tycho Brahe, in which the sun orbited the earth carrying the other planets with it, was an option sufficiently attractive to block the proof of Copernicus by the disproof of Ptolemy. In Darwin’s case, the contrast between transmutation of species and ‘separate creation’ takes on a different aspect according to whether the stress is placed on ‘separate’ or ‘creation’. Again, the two stereotypes of Darwinism and Lamarckism may have some value in controlling 20th-century options but they positively detract from an understanding of Darwin himself. The direct impact of environmental change producing a response from the organism was a prominent feature of the early drafts of Darwin’s theory, his caricature of Lamarck’s mechanism in terms of an organism’s successfully willing its own modification arguably blinding him to the extent to which he shared a number of Lamarck’s assumptions, including the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The naturalism/supernaturalism dichotomy by which the Darwinian revolution is often structured also excludes important middle positions: those of Baden Powell and Richard Owen, for example, who were perfectly happy to have divinely ordained creation through secondary causes even before Darwin’s theory was in print. And even T.H. Huxley, for all his busy anti-clericalism, would not go the whole way with the German monist Ernst Haeckel in denying a long-term purpose built into an original creation.

Such qualifications will be familiar to students of Early Victorian science. But until now one dichotomy has remained more or less intact: the contrast between a positivist philosophy of science shared by the avant-garde evolutionary naturalists and an idealist epistemology which found expression in the belief that vertebrates, for example, were designed around a structural ‘archetype’, a divine Idea, whose successive instantiations were visible in the fossil record. Unity of structure which, for the Darwinians, was to be evidence of common descent was, for Richard Owen, evidence for the unity of the divine mind.

The antithesis is not itself in question, for Darwin himself took particular exception to such transcendentalist flights: ‘N.B. The explanation of types of structure in classes – as resulting from the will of the deity, to create animals on certain plans – is no explanation – it has not the character of a physical law & is therefore utterly useless. – it foretells nothing because we know nothing of the will of the deity ... ’ What has now been questioned, and very cleverly so by Desmond in his Archetypes and Ancestors, is whether the conventional image of Owen slain by Huxley gives an accurate picture of the idealists’ contribution to the science of palaeontology. Historians of science have been tempted to say that idealist philosophies were instructive for the physical sciences in the 17th century, when Kepler, for example, imposed order on the planetary orbits by thinking God’s thoughts after him, but obstructive in the 19th century, when William Whewell, Louis Agassiz and Richard Owen resisted the transmutation of species. Desmond’s informed analysis points to a more subtle conclusion. An idealist metaphysic may not have contributed to the science of evolutionary mechanics, but it did make a contribution to the foundations of palaeontology.

Desmond’s analysis is distinctive because his primary aim is not to award marks for scientific originality but to place the tensions between Huxley and Owen in their full social and political context. The animosity between them is skilfully traced from the time when Owen was writing fully supportive references for the young Huxley, desirous of one of the few footholds in a poorly-paid scientific profession, to the time when Owen redesigned his dinosaurs to make sure they could not possibly fit Huxley’s phylogeny. Much of the fascination of Desmond’s story stems from the presupposition – amply justified – that the interpretation of the fossil record and the reconstruction of ancestry were wide open to ideological intrusion, as much in the case of Huxley as in the case of Owen. In designing and redesigning their dinosaurs they were engaged in a dialogue that was structured by far more than a gentlemen’s disagreement over ambiguities in fossil remains. At stake was scientific prestige and access to funding, the viability of an idealist epistemology which allowed science to be laden with religious values, and, in the last analysis, a question of social class. For the point to which Desmond repeatedly returns is that in mid-19th-century Britain there was an emerging conflict on the very issue of whether science should be in the hands of gentlemen – to which condition Owen ostentatiously aspired – or in the control of the rising professional class with which Huxley self-consciously identified. Indeed, one of Desmond’s more tendentious moves is to suggest that Huxley was eventually won round to a sense of evolutionary progression precisely because it mirrored his own sense of social aspiration – as one of the community of scientific professionals which would soon gain control of the key scientific institutions.

The fact that Huxley had to be won round to a sense of progression in the fossil record may come as a surprise to those who only know him as Darwin’s bulldog. But to appreciate the wealth of revision which Desmond has brought to the subject it is useful to know that in the 1840s and 1850s the affirmation of progression or increased complexity was more often than not in the works of the clerical scientists and their sympathisers. Progression could readily spell Providence. For a young naturalist hell-bent on naturalism the most attractive option was that supplied by Charles Lyell, who had steadfastly denied any overall sense of direction – though, ironically perhaps, as part of his strategy to overthrow the undignified evolutionism of Lamarck. The point that Desmond brings out so well – drawing on the work of Martin Rudwick, Peter Bowler and Michael Bartholomew – is that Darwin’s Origin of Species actually caught Huxley on the wrong foot. If the future of scientific naturalism was, after all, to be bound up with an evolutionary theory, there was a respect in which Huxley had backed the wrong horse. Once he had absorbed the Lyellian strategies all his instincts were to keep putting back in time many of the ancestors which, on Darwin’s theory, could now safely be brought forward.

Huxley’s quandary becomes even more engaging in Desmond’s reconstruction because it turns out that the palaeontologist who came closest to Darwin’s branching scheme during the 1850s was not the young positivist rebel but someone who personified what was to be rebelled against – none other than Owen. It is one of the merits of Desmond’s account that he explains clearly how this could be so. It is a welcome clarification because the conventional line on Owen is still that same combination of incredulity and satire voiced in a scientific journal of 1866: ‘So far as we can gather, he denies the Darwinian doctrine, admits the accuracy of its basis, and claims to be the first to point out the truth of the principles on which it is founded.’ In bringing Owen and his science to life Desmond shows that such a statement, shorn of its satire, might still stand. Owen did admit creation via secondary causes and he did admit continuity in the fossil record. Indeed his concept of the ‘archetype’ was arguably a more useful tool in palaeontology during the 1850s than any maxim of Huxley’s. It served as a yardstick by which the degree of specialisation of an organism could be judged. And if Darwin’s reconstruction of the sequence of organic forms was so closely matched by that of Owen, it is in that very convergence, Desmond argues, that the ensuing divergence between the two men must be sought. Darwin expected scientific support from Owen who, perceiving the secularist use which Huxley was making of the new thesis, studiously refrained from giving it. Species transformation by natural selection might result in a historical pattern very similar to that of continuous creation via other secondary causes. For Owen, there was everything to lose by conflating the two.

There was a poignancy in Owen’s predicament, just as there was in Huxley’s. Earlier in his career he had looked with less favour on continuity of form in the fossil record, anxious as he had then been to dissociate himself from the Lamarckian atheism of Robert Grant. It is these twists and turns which make the intellectual history of Early Victorian science so captivating, and, when discussed in an essay of this quality, so rewarding. By emphasising the cultural context and cultural uses of different forms of science, Desmond breaks out of the narrow antitheses which have been so pervasive. While Gillespie with his two epistemes of positivism and creationism had to relegate Owen to a no man’s land of ‘nescience’, where the quest for a mechanism of speciation was allegedly abandoned, Desmond provides the perfect corrective. Owen did in fact toy with a mechanism which took for its analogy the complex life-cycle of parasitic flukes: ‘He realised that the cycle from “infusorian” to snail parasite, tailed cercaria and fluke gave the appearance of breeding successively higher types. The process simulated transmutation – but without the gradualness.’ It was a case of progressive births – metagenesis, Owen called it – which yet obeyed the ordinary laws of generation.

It was with such analogies that Owen sustained the conception of creation by ordinary laws rather than by miraculous intervention. That such a conception cuts across the categories employed in the old histories of conflict between science and religion goes almost without saying. The inadequacy of that historiographical tradition Desmond can safely take for granted. He does, however, enrich the critique with his observations on the membership of the celebrated X-Club, which, despite its secular aims, enjoyed the backing of young Christian biologists such as William Carpenter, William Henry Flower and William Kitchen Parker. Never, he writes, was it simply a matter of Church-baiting rationalists triumphing over religious obscurantism: rather, a more subtle attempt ‘jointly undertaken by agnostics, deists and some Christians, to professionalise science and put it at the disposal of the mercantile middle classes’. The complexities of the case are nicely revealed by the fact that among Owen’s critics were Christian biologists who found his idealism too metaphysical, insufficiently humble before the facts. Echoing the theological voluntarism of an earlier period, Flower considered Owen’s archetype an arbitrary restriction on divine power. In Desmond’s view – and here he follows the lead given by F.M. Turner – the confrontation between science and religion in which Huxley luxuriated was necessary for propaganda purposes. The ulterior issue was the changing power structure within the scientific profession – Owen the hapless victim, caricatured by Huxley as an old-style catastrophist because he typified the old-guard mentality of an Oxbridge aristocracy.

Huxley’s determination to wrest the crown from Owen had consequences for his science which Desmond examines with great sensitivity. The conventional view would be that when Archaeopteryx took its bow as a feathered reptile (and therefore missing link) Huxley caged it for the Darwinian cause. The truth appears to be that he was relatively unimpressed by it. And the reason? His Lyellian strategies and emphasis on a pre-geologic date for major evolutionary breakthroughs had the effect of making Archaeopteryx too late in time to mark the critical transition from reptile to bird. The feathery fossil was nothing more than an extreme avian variant. Earlier dinosaurs were the ones to be backed and Huxley put his money on Triassic ostriches from Connecticut. His position was decidedly tricky: ‘he was skilfully juggling potential fossil proofs of evolution, while trying to make them conform to his oddball timing of events.’ He was not, after all, a ‘modern’. Indeed, taking the revision further, Desmond shows how it was Owen rather than Huxley who established one of the key phylogenetic routes: from Triassic mammal-like reptiles to the earliest mammals. Huxley, predisposed towards divergence from an earlier amphibian, drew a line to the mammals which defied that of Owen and so required him to invent an invisible and abortive class of pro-mammals. It is ironic that it was the positivist who stood in greater need of inventions, whether of lost continents or lost links, and instructive, too, that intellectual polarisation was the undoing of each protagonist.

Archetypes and Ancestors has its own ancestry in a historiographical mutation which has resulted in a movement towards histories of science informed by the techniques of the sociology of knowledge. Desmond’s own archetype is an Idea in the minds of those sociologists of science who have been mapping the extent to which scientific ideas can be, and have been, used by social factions to further their own interests. Applied with too great a zeal, it has led to reckless hypothesising. Applied with restraint, it can be informative and stimulating. Desmond is not slow to hypothesise. Parallels are accepted between Mid-Victorian colonialism and contemporary faith in a northern origin for the more dominant forms of life; between the biological degeneration advocated by Huxley’s heir, Ray Lankester, and the degeneration he predicted for Britain if she failed to invest in science; between political unification in Germany under Bismarck and Ernst Haeckel’s seeing in the Darwinian synthesis the opportunity for a phylogeny which would underwrite the new sense of racial identity; and between Huxley’s autobiographical image of professional self-betterment and a Darwinism suffused with middle-class values. Not a trick of this kind is missed. But it is the trump card which may turn out to be the most controversial: the insistence that Owen and Huxley were on different sides of a class divide to which their altercation can ultimately be related. Having escaped the traditional dichotomies, we are to be imprisoned by another. And even the author, I suspect, finds it a little uncomfortable. There were, as he admits, class differences among the idealists. Harry Seeley began life as a labourer. Owen himself, and the idealist philosopher of science, William Whewell, had humble beginnings in Lancaster, where they were contemporaries at the Grammar School. To say that Owen ‘promoted himself up through the ranks’ is to say nothing that the author does not also wish to say of Huxley – or that might not also be said of that Scottish labourer-turned-geologist, Hugh Miller, whose rising through the ranks may have predisposed him towards progressive creation but emphatically not to any theory of evolution. These are, however, minor discomforts in a book which, although not organised in a manner that would help the uninitiated, is a great pleasure to read – a lively and refreshing contribution to the history of Victorian science.

It is difficult to be as enthusiastic about Gale’s Evolution without Evidence. He contends that historians of science have ignored the period in Darwin’s development between 1838, when the mechanism of natural selection was first devised, and 1859, when the Origin was published. By overlooking the enormous difficulties which Darwin still had to overcome both in corroborating and in presenting his argument, they have, in Gale’s view, been too ready to attribute the long delay before publication to a fear of persecution when the real problem was Darwin’s ignorance, his dearth of evidence, and his struggle to come to terms with scientific objections he would later describe as having appeared fatal to the theory. Darwin’s singularity, on this interpretation, consisted in the management skills he employed in extracting information and criticism from a circle of correspondents who gave far more than they got in return. He has a point. My reservation is that Darwin scholars can no longer be satisfied with a book which merely draws on Darwin’s published correspondence and printed works. Gale has systematically combed the correspondence for all the scientific difficulties Darwin had to face and has strung them out, often without due regard for context, the whole enterprise being driven by the weak proposition that Darwin’s was a ‘mind with limited knowledge seeking greater knowledge’. It is a study which suffers by comparison with Dov Ospovat’s recent construction of The Development of Darwin’s Theory, which has given us a more sophisticated account of the period during which the theory was articulated, drawing on manuscript material and displaying great sensitivity to Darwin’s intellectual inheritance.

It suffers, too, by comparison with Janet Browne’s meticulous history of biogeography, which is uncommonly lucid on the modifications Darwin had to make to his theory during the 1840s and 1850s – modifications which, in certain respects, brought him closer to the principles already adumbrated by Wallace. On the origin of variation, for example, Darwin shifted from externally-induced effects following changed environmental circumstances to the recognition that variation was a normal and constant feature of internal reproductive processes. In his handling of the problems raised by the geographical isolation of closely-related species, he played down his earlier commitment to geological upheavals and depressions in favour of accidental means of dispersal – the carriage of seeds, for example, by migrating birds. But, most conspicuously, it was not until August 1857 that he wove into his theory the crucial principle of divergence – that natural selection would favour the most diverse offspring, encouraging the seizure of different ecological niches. And not until June 1858 did he successfully incorporate the necessary corrections into the large text of which the Origin was to be the rushed derivative. The implications are clear: if one wishes to analyse the difficulties Darwin encountered, they must be integrated at every stage with the current state of the theory. Not that Browne’s analysis leads to a different conclusion from that of Gale. The late incorporation of the principle of divergence serves to underline the point that the Origin ‘was more rushed than has ever been suspected’.

Gale’s contention that even by 1859 Darwin had ‘very little backing for his ideas’ is not a deliberate assault on the theory. It is, nevertheless, disconcerting to observe the non-sequitur that because Darwin had to contend with many difficulties his theory had as many weaknesses as the creationist model he was attacking – an argument rendered the more questionable by the author’s willingness to accept (though not to discuss) the judgment that Darwin’s notion of ‘separate creation’ was merely a straw man. It must also be remembered that his candour in acknowledging and anticipating the difficulties was a clever attempt to immunise the theory against criticism. To inflate an objection before dispelling it was a masterstroke, but one ought not to be too deceived by the inflation. It is true that during the long period of gestation Darwin often thought that the most he could achieve would be to show that there were ‘two sides’ – the inevitable two – to the species question. On Gale’s reading, it would have been as well if he had retained that more modest objective. The fact is he didn’t.

From Darwin’s scientific difficulties to those afflicting his theory today: Brian Leith’s handbook of doubts about Darwinism is a succinct and opportune review of the latest critiques of neo-Darwinian gradualism, written, as befits a BBC producer, to put the intelligent layman in the picture. His survey of the literature (ranging from philosophical through palaeontological, genetic and taxonomic objections) manages to be reasonably restrained despite the apocalyptic message that we may be on the brink of some new synthesis, concerning speciation. The problem for the general reader will be in assessing the force of criticisms which are frequently pressed by appeal to scientific authorities (notably Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould) somewhat limited in number. The problem is compounded by the author’s honesty in conceding that a good number of criticisms (for example, those based on attempts to revive the inheritance of acquired characteristics) have come to nothing or represent extreme positions. If, as he states, ‘there is probably not one British population geneticist who would openly agree with Lewontin’s cynicism or with Kimura’s rejection of neo-Darwinism,’ the reader may begin to question the force of an argument which proceeds by the accumulation of criticisms of extremely variable weight.

The essays of Gale and Leith taken together show that there is a sense in which the objections have not changed all that much in well over a century. New objections to gradualism and to the sufficiency of natural selection are, as Leith himself points out, strikingly reminiscent of the old. This is particularly true in the context of missing fossil intermediates where the macro-evolutionists of today exploit the gaps as did their 19th-century forebears, who, unlike Darwin himself, permitted nature to leap. Strange bedfellows, some of those forebears: a saltatory mechanism was favoured by the Roman Catholic evolutionist Mivart, by the idealist Owen and by the positivist Huxley. On this point, too, the conventional dichotomies collapse. And in the arguments of Gould there would seem to be something of both Huxley and Owen – of Huxley in the Lyellian emphasis on periods of stasis, of Owen in the suggestion that there are architectural constraints on incipient speciation as important to consider as the selective force itself. The conceptual resources of a bygone age, despite their transposition, are clearly recognisable. Gould has wished to argue that gradualism is a culturally-conditioned prejudice. The intellectual ancestry of his own position, when explored with the finesse of Desmond, suggests a rather obvious reply.

That theories may be neatly divided into those which reflect socio-cultural assumptions (and which therefore may be discarded with impunity) and those which exhibit pure rationality is surely another of the dichotomies which cannot be left unchallenged. The great value of Desmond’s study, and that of Browne, derives from the demonstration that those scientists of the past with whose cultural aspirations we may now have little in common, and whose science was informed by those aspirations, may have made as distinctive and in some cases permanent a contribution as the scientific positivists who we are apt to claim as our own. If there was a sense in which Owen anticipated Darwin’s reading of the fossil record, there is also a sense in which the idealist and creationist, Edward Forbes, came closest to anticipating the dynamics of geographical distribution usually associated with Darwin. This was possible, as Browne explains, because creationist and evolutionist could be united in requiring the same proposition: creation through single pairs – emphatically not from multiple centres. In accounting for identical species in geographically distinct areas, Forbes postulated migration and shifting geological barriers in a pattern and a process which presaged Darwin’s approach. Indeed, Darwin confessed his disappointment at having been forestalled. ‘Up to a point,’ Browne observes, ‘arguments for single creation substantiated his own case for evolutionary theory.’ On a conventional historiography, Forbes would be one of the losers. The biological idealists of the 19th century may have ultimately lost the election, but, as with a more recent alliance, they more than left their mark.