Do we need a non-Darwinian industry?

Peter J. Bowler


The current focus of attention on the legacy of Charles Darwin may have unfortunate consequences if it obscures the extent to which the development of evolutionism has been shaped by other factors. Non-Darwinian theories of evolution were widely accepted in the late nineteenth century and focused attention on conceptual issues that have now been reopened by evolutionary developmental biology. More should perhaps be done to promote an awareness of the complexity of the process by which modern evolutionism was established. The reputation of Darwinism itself might even be improved if scholars and the general public were aware of the fact that non-Darwinian theories played a role in creating what is widely labelled as ‘social Darwinism’.

The 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth in 2009 is being celebrated in a large number of books, conferences, exhibitions and accounts in the popular media. Here we see in a magnified form the activity of what might be called the ‘Darwin industry’, devoted to using his status as a scientific celebrity to promote the public awareness of science in general and evolutionary biology in particular. It has always been easier to get publicity for a story linked to Darwin than for any other episode in the history of this area of science. In our modern world in which all news has to be personalized and in which celebrities (however ephemeral their achievements) are the focus of huge amounts of media attention, one can hardly blame scientists and historians of science for exploiting this avenue to gain their disciplines some wider visibility (and, perhaps, funding). But this is not just a public relations exercise centred on Darwin as a posthumous celebrity. The phrase ‘Darwin industry’ originally came into use in the 1970s to denote the large number of scholars working on Darwin within the history of science. The availability of a huge range of archival material encouraged many historians to treat the discovery and publication of the theory of natural selection as a case study in scientific innovation. The value of Darwin as a public symbol was exploited to capture large amounts of funding for projects such as the editing and publishing of his correspondence.

As a historian of science myself I can hardly complain when my subject seeks to benefit from the unprecedented level of public awareness generated by the Darwin bicentenary. But I have always felt a little uneasy about the relative ease with which attention could be directed towards this one figure, in effect at the expense of all the other scientists and thinkers who have contributed to the development of our modern understanding of the development of life on Earth. I am not seeking to challenge Darwin's reputation as an original and influential thinker, and I hope that I have recently re-established my public credentials in this area. Darwin's theory was so original and so radical that it was only in the middle decades of the twentieth century that scientists began to appreciate fully the sheer extent of what he achieved.1

However, the sheer extent of Darwin's originality is part of the problem created by his emergence as a celebrity: by encouraging everyone to see Darwin as the key figure in the creation of modern Darwinism it deflects attention away from the complex process by which the innovative aspects of his theory were unpacked and made accessible to wider scientific investigation. This involves not only the synthesis of Darwinism with Mendelian genetics in the early twentieth century but also the substantial episode in which scientists tested (and largely rejected) a range of alternatives to natural selection. In 1983 I wrote a book called The eclipse of Darwinism, borrowing the phrase coined by Julian Huxley to denote this episode. I then wrote another book, The non-Darwinian revolution, arguing that to understand the impact of evolutionism on late nineteenth-century science and thought it is necessary to take serious account of these alternative ideas.2 Some of the concerns expressed in those theories are now re-emerging in modern evolutionary developmental biology (‘Evo-Devo’), yet the historical background to this episode is still largely unknown outside the realm of specialist historians. The philosopher of biology Ron Amundson has argued that the renewed interest in the link between development and evolution should encourage a rewriting of the history of evolutionism to take account of what was—in its origins—a largely non-Darwinian tradition.,3 In other words, an episode that seemed to be of only historical interest in the 1980s has now become a search for the foundations of a tradition that has regained a degree of prominence that no one would have predicted when I started writing about it.

What would the non-Darwinian industry do?

It is in this context that I ask whether we need a ‘non-Darwinian industry’ devoted to recovering and raising public awareness of those aspects of evolutionism not directly linked to Darwin or his modern followers. Let me make it clear from the start that there are some kinds of non-Darwinian industry that I do not wish to encourage. I have little sympathy for those who seek to knock Darwin from his pedestal by arguing that the real discoverer of natural selection was Patrick Matthew or some earlier figure.4 This kind of precursor-hunting misses the point that having an idea and making constructive use of it can be two different things. Nor do I wish to endorse the kind of historiography once favoured by writers opposed to social Darwinism which implied that Darwinian biology was (and is) bad science because it incorporates elements derived from Victorian capitalist ideology.,5 So it does (via Malthus's principle of population), but the whole point of the modern sociological approach to the history of science is to uncover the ideological dimensions in all scientific thinking—and there are plenty of unpleasant skeletons in the closets of the non-Darwinian theories, too, as I shall indicate below. But perhaps the most dangerous kind of non-Darwinian industry is that promoted all too actively by the creationists, who distribute misleading information about Darwin and his ideas to discredit him and them. A good example of their technique is the continued promulgation of the myth that Darwin returned to Christianity on his deathbed, by implication repudiating his atheistical theory.,6

Given this kind of assault one is inclined to sympathize with any effort to focus public attention on a more accurate representation of Darwin and his theory. We need all the ammunition we can get to fight against the forces of unreason that seek to undermine the effort to understand how our world was formed in naturalistic terms. Yet I return to my concern that the past and present focus on Darwin as an icon of modern science has some unfortunate consequences, arising mainly from the tendency to oversimplify our understanding of the complex process by which his theory was received in its own time and then transformed in the following century. If evolutionism gained its hold on late nineteenth-century thought despite widespread suspicion of the theory of natural selection, then we need to understand the role of non-Darwinian ideas such as the neo-Lamarckian theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics in gaining a foothold for the general idea of evolution. And if the theory of evolution by saltations had a role in the emergence of modern genetics, we need to understand how that transformation was achieved. I have drawn attention elsewhere to the fact that Hugo De Vries, William Bateson and Thomas Hunt Morgan all began with the belief that evolution worked by saltation, the latter two even doubting a significant role for adaptation.7 To these concerns can be added Amundson's point, noted above, that modern evolutionary developmental biology is reopening issues that were once of concern to the non-Darwinian evolutionists and were ignored by most early Darwinians. We shall surely have a better grasp of the implications of the new approaches if we have a clear understanding of how the earlier debates over those issues were conducted.

What I am calling for is a willingness to divert at least a small proportion of the attention now being paid to Darwin to promoting a better awareness of the richness and diversity to be seen in the development of evolutionary thought. We need more attention focused on non-Darwinian theories such as neo-Lamarckism and orthogenesis, and more generally on the whole ‘developmental’ model of evolution best seen in the recapitulation theory (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny). And, of course, we need more attention focused on the scientists who promoted those theories—Richard Owen and St George Mivart in Britain, the American neo-Lamarckians such as E. D. Cope and Alpheus Hyatt, and the many naturalists in Europe, especially Germany, who promoted similar views (translations are important to get the latter noted in the English-speaking world). To some extent these moves are being made at the level of scholarly publications, but the non-Darwinian industry also needs to move into the modern age. Darwin online and other Darwin-related websites not only provide a valuable resource for scholars, they also participate in the development of a wider public awareness of the man and his theories.8 The non-Darwinian evolutionists also need the websites and all the apparatus now available to the Darwin scholar—and the corresponding visibility to the public. Of course, the work of all these figures will eventually go online as the contents of all the world's libraries are digitized, but dedicated websites are needed to have any real effect. Pietro Corsi's and Charles H. Smith's sites for J. B. Lamarck and A. R. Wallace, respectively, offer models of what could be done.,9 I should be creating sites for Mivart, Cope et al. myself, I suppose, but I stopped detailed research in this area some time ago and am currently working in another area (early twentieth-century popular science).

Wider implications of the non-Darwinian industry

I contend that such a dissemination of information and comment on non-Darwinian evolutionism will have major benefits in promoting better scholarly and public understanding of the wider implications of evolutionism in relation to religion, literature and society, where the current overemphasis on Darwin often distorts or polarizes the issues. Experienced scholars in areas outside the history of science frequently present oversimplified models of the influence of evolution theory, simply assuming that any reference to evolution, progress or struggle must represent the impact of Darwinism. Recognizing that alternative models of evolution also had a role will not only make these analyses more sensitive to the complexities of the issues; it may also force us to rethink many of the stereotypes that still influence modern debates, often to the detriment of Darwinism.

To illustrate this benefit I will briefly mention some examples drawn from the area often labelled ‘social Darwinism’. All too often this term is invoked on the assumption that Darwin's theory was the only scientific source of inspiration for a wide range of social policies now widely deplored. These include cut-throat capitalism, the worship of military force as a way of establishing national superiority, the dismissal of other races as inferiors to be exploited or exterminated, and the eugenic programme for discouraging the ‘unfit’ from reproducing. We need to recognize that classic ‘social Darwinists’ such as Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel mixed their enthusiasm for the theory of natural selection with some non-Darwinian ideas. Spencer was not a simple-minded enthusiast for ‘progress through struggle’, as shown in the recent study by Mark Francis,10 and he invoked Lamarckian ‘self-improvement’ far more than natural selection. Haeckel too appealed to Lamarckism and expressed an enthusiasm for a ‘law of progress’ that some scholars, myself included, see as very different from Darwin's approach. Others see a greater level of continuity, although it is hard to find detailed discussion of many characteristically Darwinian topics, including biogeography and artificial selection, in Haeckel.,11 Haeckel certainly endorsed the idea of a hierarchy of human racial types, but much of the late nineteenth-century's enthusiasm for that idea came from explicitly non-Darwinian evolutionists such as Cope in America and Karl Vogt in Europe.

Recognizing the role of non-Darwinian theories in the construction of various forms of social Darwinism will give us a far more sophisticated analysis than the simple ‘blame game’ in which (for example) Darwin and Haeckel are accused of paving the way for Nazism, as in Richard Weikart's book.12 The point is not to whitewash Darwin by pretending that his theory did not have wider implications, but to show that it was but one among many evolutionary ideas that were used in the ideological debates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of the most paradoxical aspects of the reception of Darwin's theory, which deserves much better attention from scholars, is that the general idea of ‘progress through struggle’ seems to have resonated with contemporary thinkers while the theory of natural selection remained largely marginalized within science. We need to understand how components of Darwin's theory could be incorporated into other ways of thinking about nature to produce hybrids that become labelled as ‘Darwinian’ even though they included ideas that Darwin himself did not endorse.

This wider recognition of the role of non-selectionist theories has the potential to affect public attitudes to the theory of evolution, and to Darwinism, today. A favourite tactic of the opponents of Darwinism, including both the Marxists and the creationists (Weikart is a supporter of Intelligent Design), is to associate it with distasteful social policies, on the assumption that those policies were direct extensions of the selection theory that could not have emerged had Darwin not published. Such arguments take a remarkably simple-minded approach to the question of causation in the cultural realm, but they also depend for their success on the prevailing ignorance of the role of alternative theories. If the ideology of white racial supremacy was promoted more by non-Darwinian evolutionists than by Darwinists (if only because there were more of the former in the late nineteenth century), the whole argument loses its plausibility. The same point holds for the ideology of ‘progress through struggle’. Paradoxically, Darwinism's most original contribution to the social debates turned out to be the analogy between artificial and natural selection, which was used to justify the eugenic movement's claim that the unfit must be prevented from breeding. Yet this was one of those parts of Darwin's theory that the first generation of Darwinians, including Haeckel, did not welcome with enthusiasm.

I thus end with the somewhat paradoxical claim that modern Darwinians may actually benefit from diverting some of their energy to uncovering and making more visible the work of those evolutionists who looked for other ways of trying to explain the development of life on Earth. If we can show that the theory of natural selection was not the sole source of scientific inspiration for the social policies that most of us now find so repugnant, the opponents' efforts to blacken the reputation of modern Darwinism by association with an oversimplified image of its past will be undermined. This may be cold comfort to those who rejoice in the re-emergence of the developmental approach to evolution, because the earlier exponents of that approach were as active as the Darwinians in promoting the ideology of biological inequality. Creationists might hope to exploit the argument that all forms of evolutionism, both Darwinian and non-Darwinian, contributed to that ideology. But thanks to the efforts of Adrian Desmond and James Moore we now know that Darwin's appeal to the model of common descent was intended to checkmate a theory of racial inequality based on the idea of separate creation for the different races.13 The link between theories of human and animal origins ran throughout the nineteenth century debates on both science and social policy, and Darwinism is no more—and no less—implicated than any of the other scientific theories.


  • This article presents the substance of a talk given at the conference ‘Darwin Industries, Inc.’ at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, 7–8 February 2008, and at the conference ‘Kultur der Evolution’ organized by the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Berlin, 30 October to 2 November 2008.

  • 1 Peter J. Bowler, ‘Darwin's originality’, Science 323, 223–226 (2009).

  • 2 Peter J. Bowler, The eclipse of Darwinism: anti-Darwinian evolution theories in the decades around 1900 (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 1983) and The non-Darwinian revolution: reinterpreting a historical myth (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 1988).

  • 3 Ron Amundson, The changing role of the embryo in evolutionary thought: roots of Evo-Devo (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Amundson ignores some of the more extreme anti-Darwinian theories spawned by the earlier adherents of a developmental viewpoint, and oversimplifies some of the historical issues involved, but his overall position defines an important change of perspective that ought to follow from the re-emergence of interest in the role of embryological development.

  • 4 See, for instance, W. J. Dempster, Natural selection of Patrick Matthew: evolutionary concepts in the nineteenth century (Pentland Press, Edinburgh, 1996).

  • 5 See, for instance, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian revolution (reprinted by Norton, New York, 1959). The same implication that Darwinism must be bad science can be found in some Marxist critiques, even though writers such as Robert M. Young used this approach to alert us to the existence of the ideological component; see the essays in Robert M. Young, Darwin's metaphor: nature's place in Victorian culture (Cambridge University Press, 1985).

  • 6 This myth is debunked by James R. Moore, The Darwin legend (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1994).

  • 7 Bowler, op. cit. (note 2), chapter 8; Peter J. Bowler, The Mendelian revolution: the emergence of hereditarian concepts in modern science and society (Athlone, London, 1989).

  • 8 For a wide range of material see The complete work of Charles Darwin online ( The notebooks are available at The Darwin digital library of evolution ( and for the correspondence see The Darwin correspondence project (

  • 9 See Œuvres et rayonnement de Jean-Baptiste Lamarck ( and The Alfred Russel Wallace page (∼smithch/).

  • 10 Mark Francis, Herbert Spencer and the invention of modern life (Acumen, Stocksfield, 2007). For my own thoughts on this issue see Peter J. Bowler, Biology and social thought, 1850–1914 (Office for the History of Science and Technology, University of California, Berkeley, 1993).

  • 11 See, for instance, Robert J. Richards, The tragic sense of life: Ernst Haeckel and the struggle over evolutionary thought (University of Chicago Press, 2008), and Sander Gliboff, H. G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel and the origins of German Darwinism (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007).

  • 12 Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: evolutionary ethics, eugenics and racism in Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2004). For a critique of Weikart and earlier exponents of the same position see the appendix to Richards, op. cit. (note 11).

  • 13 Adrian Desmond and James R. Moore, Darwin's sacred cause: race, slavery and the quest for human origins (Allen Lane, London, 2009).