Bowler’s playful question asks what would have happened to the theory of evolution if Charles Darwin had been swept overboard during a storm and tragically lost from the Beagle decades before the publication of The Origin of Species.
This is also Bowler’s serious question, and his answer takes an entire book to present.
Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin surely is the most unexpected and unusual books on evolution that you’re likely to encounter this year, but it’s a serious look at a serious topic. Bowler’s central thesis is front and centre at the beginning:
We assume that science and religion must be in conflict and that the debate over Darwinism is a crucial battleground. We are told that the evils of social Darwinism arose from the theory’s impact on the ideology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—why else use the term? Exploring the non-Darwinian world will suggest that neither of these assumptions is valid.
Bowler argues that “we might have ended up with similar theories, but we would think about them differently if they had emerged at different times, and this would affect public attitudes toward them.”
Darwin Deleted is a “counterfactual history,” a particularly scholarly kind of “what if” story in which Bowler writes that “the general idea of evolution was becoming more popular in the years leading up to 1859, so that even without the Origin, there would have been a general conversion to evolutionism in the following decade.”
What would have made the difference, says Bowler, is not evolution but random selection. Progressive churchmen and continental scientists would have accepted evolutionary theory much more easily without natural selection. The liberal believer could accept evolution as long as it was God’s plan. The German or French scientist could assert Lamarkism and orthogenesis as evolution’s natural methodology. Neither of them could readily adopt a theory of random selection that seemed Godless to the one, and chaotic to the other.
The great paradox implied by this counterfactual hypothesis is that although Darwin was amazingly prescient in his theorizing, proposing insights that would not be appreciated by most scientists for half a century or more, he threw the debate over evolutionism off course by introducing a concept with which most of his contemporaries could not cope. In popular parlance, Darwin was ahead of his time, and evolutionism might have developed more smoothly if biologists had been left to explore a less materialistic version of the theory as a stepping-stone to the more radical vision that would eventually have to emerge.
In essence, what Bowler argues is that natural selection was a correct idea that was unfortunately ahead of its time: “In the absence of the selection theory, other factors would have prompted a more gradual acceptance of evolutionism based on alternative mechanisms such as Lamarckism.”
In a world lacking the idea of natural selection, the divisions between the scientific naturalists and the conservatives would have been less clear-cut and the debates correspondingly less abrasive. The emergence of a scientific evolutionism would have been slower, but would have generated far less stress both among the scientists themselves and in the wider world.
As for the anti-Enlightenment accusation that natural selection led to the evils of Social Darwinism, Bowler will have none of it.
The attempt to blame evolutionism as a whole for the ills of the world founders on the implausibility of the claim that the scientific theory actually caused Western culture to put its faith in the idea of progress. All the work of modern historians suggests that the causation runs in the other direction.
Darwin Deleted is a rigourously narrow book, but within that focus Bowler makes an interesting and readable case for the early emergence of evolution — and the eventual triumph of natural selection.