What if...Darwin had been lost overboard?

Prospect’s counter-factual column
July 18, 2013

What if Charles Darwin had been lost overboard on the voyage of the Beagle? If there had been no Darwin to write his Origin of the Species, would the theory of evolution by natural selection have been proposed and debated in the 1860s? The conventional answer is that Alfred Russel Wallace would have stepped into the breach and the development of science would have proceeded unchecked. Wallace is routinely hailed as the co-discoverer of natural selection because his short paper of 1858 prompted Darwin to begin work on the Origin. Natural selection was “in the air” waiting to emerge, either because scientific discovery has an inevitable logic of its own, or because Victorian culture was imbued with an ideology of “progress though struggle.” The razzmatazz that surrounded the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth in 2009 would now be centered on the centenary of Wallace’s death this year.

Whether we see natural selection as a product of science or of Victorian ideology, there are valid reasons for doubting that Wallace could have done the job. Some historians insist that Darwin may have read too much into his 1858 paper—it is by no means clear that Wallace really did understand the principle that natural selection acts on individuals rather than groups. Although both men drew inspiration from the geographical diversity of species, they lived in different cultural worlds. Wallace was politically more radical than Darwin and more inclined to see a divine power at work in nature (he was later a convert to spiritualism). And even if he had the right idea in 1858, he was exploring in the Far East until 1862 and could hardly have written a big book on the topic much before 1870. His 1858 paper had little impact, even when published alongside a short extract of Darwin’s writings.

If we discount Wallace, no one else at the time had the same combination of interests and research projects as Darwin. In particular, no one—not even Wallace—appreciated the possibility of modelling nature on the animal breeders’ practice of artificial selection. Darwin made connections that did not occur to any of his contemporaries. Without him, the theory of natural selection would not have emerged until the eugenics movement focused attention on the role of heredity in human society later in the century.

This doesn’t mean that the Victorians would have lacked a theory of evolution. The fossil record was already extensive and by the 1850s the preference for a supernatural explanation of life’s history was becoming less fashionable. The social philosopher Herbert Spencer was emerging as the chief advocate of an evolutionary worldview. But natural selection was not the only conceivable explanation of how evolution worked. Spencer coined the infamous phrase “survival of the fittest” to denote the Darwinian mechanism, but he was an enthusiast for the rival theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, widely associated with the French naturalist JB Lamarck. Individual animals can adapt their bodily structure to new habits, and the Lamarckians assumed that such new characters would be transmitted to future generations to shape the evolution of the race. Only with the emergence of genetics in the early 20th century did this belief begin to seem less plausible. Without Darwin, Spencer and the other Lamarckians would have created an evolutionism based on this theory rather than natural selection. Even in our own world, the alternatives to natural selection became so powerful that Julian Huxley would later write of an “eclipse of Darwinism” at the turn of the century.

In a world without Darwin the confrontation between science and religion would have been less intense. Most liberal Christians could make an accommodation with evolutionism—it was natural selection’s implication that the world is a product of trial-and-error that they found really abhorrent. Lamarckism seemed more purposeful; more like an indirect expression of God’s designing power, allowing many clergymen to become enthusiasts for Spencer’s philosophy. Perhaps even the fundamentalists—who only began their campaign against Darwinism in the 20th century—would have found another symbol for the modernism they hate.

This doesn’t mean that there would be nothing equivalent to “social Darwinism”— a term now applied to any ideology promoting struggle between individuals, nations or races. Spencer thought that unrestrained free-enterprise fuelled the drive to self-improvement, which, as a Lamarckian, he thought would benefit both the individual and the species. Lamarckian biologists were among the most strident exponents of race science, using their theory to promote the claim that the human races were independently evolved. The critics of Darwinism see it as the primary source of harsh social policies, but the rival theories were just as easily adapted to promote the same values.