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Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin.

DARWIN DELETED: Imagining a World without Darwin by Peter J. Bowler. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 328 pages. Hardcover; $30.00. ISBN: 9780226068671.

According to the well-known Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution actually consists of five separate theories. Darwin's own, distinctive contribution to Mayr's list is well known: natural selection. Darwin's name is irrevocably linked to "selectionism" and this view has shaped evolutionary theory to a remarkable extent. What would biology have been like without Darwin's On The Origin of Species? Or to use Peter Bowler's scenario, what if the young Charles Darwin had been swept off the deck of the Beagle in a storm? This "counterfactual history" is the focus of Peter Bowler's latest book, Darwin Deleted.

In the opening pages of his book, Bowler defends the idea that a counterfactual history can shed light on the contributions of a historical figure and rejects the view that Darwin's theory of selectionism was "in the air" and would have emerged regardless. No, Darwin was in a unique position to influence public and scientific opinion, given his contacts with animal breeders and farmers, his knowledge of the ideas of Thomas Malthus, his ability to secure the publication of a book, and his membership in the Victorian upper class with its commitment to economic competition. Alfred Russel Wallace, on the other hand, posited similar ideas--the story of their simultaneous publication is so well known it does not bear repeating--but was not in a position to make a similar impact. In a world without Darwin, Bowler states, "Evolutionism would eventually have flourished--but it would have been an evolutionism based on non-Darwinian ideas, not on natural selection" (p. 70).

What ideas would have shaped evolutionary theory in Bowler's counterfactual world? Purpose in evolution would have received more attention, with, perhaps, more emphasis on orthogenesis (an innate drive for linear complexification). For some European thinkers, internal forces would direct evolution in a purposeful direction. Others supported formalism, another nonselectionist approach, in which "law-like processes governed the development of living structures" (p. 141). However, for Bowler, the chief candidate in a non-Darwinian world is Lamarckism.

Peter Bowler is a respected author of the history of biology, Darwin Deleted being his fifteenth (or so) book. In many of his writings, Bowler has emphasized the influence of Lamarckism. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), from whom Lamarckism draws its name, suggested that there are two trends in nature: an upward, unidirectional trend of complexification (orthogenesis), and the inheritance of acquired characteristics ("use and disuse" for Darwin) that would explain an organism's adaptation to environmental conditions. In his books, The Eclipse of Darwinism (1983) and The Non-Darwinian Revolution (1988), both published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, Bowler describes how Darwin's theory of evolution was accepted by many thinkers of his time, particularly theologians. However, they did not necessarily accept his selectionism; some preferred to "Lamarckianize" Darwin's theories, inserting tendencies of direction and purpose into evolutionary theory. In Darwin Deleted, Bowler suggests that, in the absence of Darwin, it is this kind of thinking that would have greatly influenced evolutionary thought. (1)

Bowler submits that in a world without Darwin, evolutionary theory would nevertheless have been established, thanks to fossil and morphological evidence. Selectionism would not have been absent, but rather would have become part of an existing evolutionary paradigm. It would have played a more moderate role. As a consequence, the idea of natural selection might have been less disruptive to the relationship between science and religion, and acrimonious debates would have occurred less often. One has the impression that Bowler supports the idea of natural selection, but not its all-encompassing role. In my view, this sheds an interesting light on the topic of natural selection, a topic that is receiving renewed attention. (2)

The names of Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin have often been linked to negative social practices and views, such as racism, militarism, and eugenics. The label "social Darwinism," although often used, is somewhat of a misnomer because Spencer wrote before Darwin, and Darwin did not espouse these objectionable views. Spencer, whose faith was placed in progress and Lamarckism, was influential at the time Darwin wrote. If Darwin had not have written On The Origin of Species, Bowler suggests, the negative social views mentioned would nevertheless have become prevalent, because they are based on views that were prevalent at the time.

Darwin Deleted is a dense, detailed book; it may be intimidating to some readers. However, Bowler has worthwhile contributions to make. It may be helpful to start with some of his previous books mentioned above. Darwin Deleted is of interest because it puts the mechanisms that drive evolution, particularly natural selection, under the microscope. Furthermore, it is a commendable contribution to the religion-science debate. Finally, it points out to us that theory shapes scientific concepts to an extent that is often not recognized. I recommend the book and, in fact, all of Bowler's books to PSCF readers.


(1) See also Harry Cook and Hank D. Bestman, "A Persistent View: Lamarckian Thought in Early Evolutionary Theories and in Modern Biology," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52, no. 2 (2000): 86-96.

(2) See, for example, Conor Cunningham, Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010), chap. 3.

Reviewed by Harry Cook, Department of Biology (retired), The King's University College, Edmonton, AB T6B 2H3.
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Author:Cook, Harry
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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