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Excerpts from Born to Rebel (1996)
by Frank J. Sulloway
Approximately fifteen months after Darwin had begun his formal inquiry [in early
1837] into the transmutation of species, he happened across Thomas Malthus’s
Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) . . . Part of Darwin’s genius was to
realize that these Malthusian principles applied to all populations, not just to human
beings . . .
Darwin spent the next fifteen years publishing his scientific results from the Beagle
voyage . . . Darwin did take time out, in 1842, to write a 35-page sketch of his
evolutionary theory. Two years later [in 1844] he expanded this sketch into a 230page essay. He also took the precaution of writing a letter to his wife asking her to
arrange publication of his essay in case of his premature death . . .
It was not until 1854 that Darwin began to work on his “Big Book,” Natural
Selection. The writing of this evolutionary treatise was interrupted in July 1858 when
a stunned Darwin received a brief manuscript from Alfred Russell Wallace, sent
from Malaysia. Wallace’s essay contained the same theory of natural selection that
Darwin had developed some twenty years earlier! Like Darwin, Wallace had found
the evidence of geographic distribution, especially from the Malay Archipelago, a
powerful argument for evolution.
Joint honor for the theory was assured for both discoverers by the amicable
publication of Wallace’s manuscript together with extracts from Darwin’s essay of
1844. The resulting announcement of their theory by the prestigious Linnean
Society of London created surprisingly little stir . . .
Following the reading at the Linnean Society of their joint papers, Darwin felt the
necessity of bolstering his ideas with additional evidence. Instead of finishing his big
book, which was only half written, he hastened to get a briefer version of his
argument into print. This work appeared in November 1859 as On the Origin of
Species by Means of Natural Selection. The Origin was indeed “the book that shook
the world” and it inaugurated perhaps the most important revolution in the
history of modern science.
Most of Darwin’s contemporary readers were appalled by the conclusions of his
book. Louis Agassiz, who was generally considered the world’s most eminent living
naturalist in 1859, blasted Darwin’s theory as “a scientific mistake, untrue in its
facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievous in its tendency.” Darwin’s old
geology teacher, Cambridge University professor Adam Sedgwick, wrote to him in
bitter dismay: “I have read your book with more pain than pleasure . . . Parts I
read with absolute sorrow, because I think them utterly false and grievously
mischievous . . .” Pierre Flourens, the Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy
of Sciences, devoted a whole book to refuting Darwin’s theory. “What unclear ideas,
what false ideas!” he exhorted. “What metaphysical jargon clumsily hurled into
natural history! What pretentious and empty language! What childish and out-ofdate personifications! . . . Oh French stability of mind, where art thou?” . . .
In 1872, a year before his death, Louis Agassiz decided to retrace Darwin’s footsteps
in South America as a critical test of Darwin’s evolutionary claims. Agassiz was so
convinced that evolution could not be true that he managed to find facts for the
Galapagos to support this viewpoint . . .
These and other contemporary reactions to Darwin’s evidence for evolution tell
us something important: No matter how compelling this evidence was in Darwin’s
mind, it was not convincing to others. This circumstance underscores the deep-seated
ideological commitments that most naturalists were unwilling to abandon. Such
commitments included a belief in a constant world, the theory of Design, and the
presumption of man’s unique status in the Creation. The diverse reactions to
Darwin’s evidence for evolution underscore an important principle about science.
“Facts” in science do not speak for themselves but assume their meaning based
on theoretical and ideological commitments. The practice and beliefs of
scientists are embedded in a greater social context . . . .
Reception of the Origin of Species illustrates another important phenomenon.
Individual attitudes toward Darwin’s theories varied enormously. For every diehard critic of evolution who could not see the light, just as many zealous converts
found it hard to believe that they had not come around sooner. Thomas Henry
Huxley’s famous line, upon first mastering the central idea of the Origin, comes to
mind: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” Similarly, Hewett Cottrell
Watson, who had become an evolutionist in the 1830s, wrote to Darwin shortly after
reading the Origin: “You are the greatest revolutionist in natural history in this
century, if not all centuries . . . Now [that] these novel views are brought fairly before
the public, it seems truly remarkable how so many of them could have failed to see
their right road sooner.” Watson’s perceptive observation reinforces my basic point.
What made Darwin a revolutionary thinker was not facts but rather a certain
type of personality—a revolutionary personality . . . [12-18]
1) In these excerpts, what are the author’s major points about the nature of science?
2) From your reading so far, do you agree with the claim that Charles Darwin was a
“revolutionary personality” or not? Explain, give evidence.