Sir John F. W. Herschel and Charles Darwin: Nineteenth-Century Science and Its Methodology

Authors
Charles H. Pence
Université Catholique de Louvain
Abstract
There are a bewildering variety of claims connecting Darwin to nineteenth-century philosophy of science—including to Herschel, Whewell, Lyell, German Romanticism, Comte, and others. I argue here that Herschel’s influence on Darwin is undeniable. The form of this influence, however, is often misunderstood. Darwin was not merely taking the concept of “analogy” from Herschel, nor was he combining such an analogy with a consilience as argued for by Whewell. On the contrary, Darwin’s Origin is written in precisely the manner that one would expect were Darwin attempting to model his work on the precepts found in Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on Natural Science. While Hodge has worked out a careful interpretation of both Darwin and Herschel, drawing similar conclusions, his interpretation misreads Herschel’s use of the vera causa principle and the verification of hypotheses. The new reading that I present here resolves this trouble, combining Hodge’s careful treatment of the structure of the Origin with a more cautious understanding of Herschel’s philosophy of science. This interpretation lets us understand why Darwin laid out the Origin in the way that he did and also why Herschel so strongly disagreed, including in Herschel’s heretofore unanalyzed marginalia in his copy of Darwin’s book.
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DOI 10.1086/695719
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