Darwin’s Metaphor

The Monist 55 (3):442-503 (1971)
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It is not too great an exaggeration to claim that On the Origin of Species was, along with Das Kapital, one of the two most significant works in the intellectual history of the nineteenth century. As George Henry Lewes wrote in 1868, ‘No work of our time has been so general in its influence’. However, the very generality of the influence of Darwin’s work provides the chief problem for the intellectual historian. Most books and articles on the subject assert the influence but remain very imprecise about its nature. It is very difficult indeed to assess what it was about the Darwinian theory which was so influential and how its influence was felt. This problem in Victorian intellectual history intersects with a related one in the history of science. There has been a tendency on the part of historians of science to isolate Darwin in two related ways. The first is to single him out from the mainstream of nineteenth-century naturalism in Britain and allow ‘Darwinism’ to stand duty for the wider movement of which it was in fact but a part. The second is the tendency to single out his evolutionary theory and to demarcate it sharply from those of his predecessors and contemporaries. According to this interpretation Darwin stood alone as a real, empirical scientist and provided the first genuinely scientific hypothesis for the process by which evolution might have occurred. The theories of the other main evolutionists—Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Chambers, Spencer, and Wallace—were more or less besmirched by ideological, anthropomorphic, or other ‘non-scientific’ factors or by the uses to which they were put by their authors. Charles Darwin is thus made to stand out as a figure of comparatively unalloyed scientific status and is treated in relative isolation from the social and intellectual context in which he worked and into which his theory was received.



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