Natural Selection to Neo-Darwinism: Societal Confrontations of Evolutionary Biology

By Chris La Placa

The theory of natural selection first broke ground in the mid-Victorian era, describing the process by which individuals grapple with environmental selection pressures that will ultimately predict the taxonomic composition of the following generation. It was not until the “Modern Synthesis” of the 1930s and 1940s that these theories were adequately supplemented with Mendelian and population genetics, enriching their validity and popular reception in the academic realm. However, the implications of these research advancements were not always greeted with equal societal enthusiasm. Examination of primary and secondary sources from both the Victorian and the “Neo-Darwinism” eras seems to suggest that while the two eras endured reasonably similar amounts of scrutiny, the sources of these responses were not always consistent. This is to say that the public concern with evolutionary biology was initially rooted largely in scientific skepticism and defense of religious traditions, not immediately concerned with the social implications of science until the crude interpretation of the “Modern Synthesis” made an explicit attack on racial minority groups.

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), despite its eventual contributions to evolutionary biology, is characterized by a speculative, theoretical voice that was widely considered unsound and provisional due to its absence of a reliable scientific framework. Its proposal of a non-Creationist emergence of modern humans nonetheless shocked the public both scientifically and religiously, warranting fervid objections on the grounds of genetics, geology, and creed. In an 1867 review of Origin, Fleeming Jenkin introduced the “swamping” argument, a view of adaptation and inheritance discounting the potential of genes in lower frequencies to be expressed in large populations where such phenotypes are absent; this idea neglected to account for the slow and gradual process of evolution proposed by Darwin (himself influenced by Lyell). Unchallenged by research in population genetics, which would later disprove Jenkin, this claim’s logical deficiencies fueled the popular skepticism of the theory of natural selection on a genetic basis (Aronova).

Similarly, in 1862, William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin) employed thermal gradients in attempting to establish the age of the earth, argued in Origin to be conducive to billions of years of organismal adaptations — Thompson’s estimation of a maximum age of 100 million years deemed natural selection’s production of anatomically modern Homo sapiens impossible. However, this rebuttal was also flawed in its ignorance of the mechanics of solar convection, yielding a much younger age of the earth than truly accurate (Aronova). Finally, religious discordance grew abundant due to challenges to Creationism. Several responses archived by the Darwin Correspondence Project represent an overarching public disapproval of late-Victorian scientific publications, all of which undermined previous conceptions that human origins were divine rather than evolved from a lineage of nonhuman ancestors. While this discourse was productive in integrating evolutionary science into the public sphere, the era’s religious tradition prevented science from persuading preconceived theories pertaining to taxonomic variance. Scientific and religious objections to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection were rampant in the late 19th century and beyond; however, these arguments were primarily those of members of majority groups not targeted by the social implications of natural selection’s most contentious question: man’s place in nature.

Darwin’s Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) addresses this inquisition — the origins of human nature and behavioral ecology — through its elaboration on the theory of sexual selection, previously described as depending “not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females; the result is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring” (Origin 88). Sexual selection attempts to differentiate between opposing characteristics of the sexes that may be advantageous in ensuring maximum reproductive success, raising offspring to their own “alpha,” or age at first reproductive event. This theory describes men as releasers of physical and intellectual energy, physiologically katabolic, large-brained, intelligent, independent, eager, courageous, and passionate beings. Contrarily, women are cast as storers/conservers of energy, physiologically anabolic, nurturing, altruistic, constant, stable, commonsensical, and intuitive creatures. This bipolar model of gender roles, while accepted in the scientific realm, was socially detrimental and sizably criticized by members of a growing feminist community emerging not until the early 20th century.

The vanguard of this liberal sentiment was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, niece of abolition novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe and author of The Man-Made World and Our Androcentric Culture (1911). Warranted by the socially-ignorant conclusions of sexual selection theorists, Gilman’s work confronted the dyadic gender roles and natural order proposed by Darwin, arguing that by seeking economic independence from men, women would be successful in restoring a sense of balance between the sexes. This attention to the negative consequences of scientific theory pertinent to human nature was scarcely, if at all, publicized until over five decades after Charles Darwin’s first major literary contribution. Dissimilarly, challenges to the scientific merit and ecclesiastical implications of the theory of natural selection surfaced nearly instantly. While it is true that the explicit controversy incited by Darwin’s work was the scientific origin of species, the biological parameters of gender inequality in society were not confronted with adequate zeal. This was a prominent characteristic of evolutionary science in the late-Victorian era — its implicit societal shortcomings were condoned while false scientific skepticism penetrated and permeated the public dialogue.

While his earliest literature transformed Darwin into a public figure nearly overnight, his esteemed scientific reputation was not void of social defamation. The 1930s and 1940s witnessed the genesis of the “Modern Synthesis,” unifying Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian and population genetics, and birthing a Neo-Darwinist view on human origins which accounted for heritability and adaptation. The genetic basis of so-called “new biology” was scientifically sound, yet grossly abused in its vast applications to non-hereditary organismal features. This ignorance can be attributed to research in eugenics, a genetic concept rooted in selective sheep breeding at Robert Bakewell’s farm in 18th century Leicestershire. His striking results inspired works such as Francis Galton’s influential Hereditary Genius (1868), which presented evidence for inheritance of mental traits among a human population. This research spiraled into a dark form of social control in Victorian England, in which it was believed that artificial selection should be used as a method for preservation of the status quo and hierarchy, breeding human beings like cattle based on physical and mental capability. Eugenics was further justified by the popular desire to remedy the perceived collapse of human society as a result of industrialization. Darwin’s ignorant claims regarding the laws governing heredity and variation did nothing to ameliorate the calamity of eugenics. Furthermore, a unanimous public displeasure with eugenics was invisible due to its benefits to a majority of individuals affected by its processes. This sentiment does not parallel that of those reacting to speculative biology of the 19th century, presumably due to the implementation of convincing genetic research into 20th century science, despite its misuse.

The credibility of eugenics did decline as a result of several factors, including the disadvantages of human subjects research, increasing knowledge and recognition of the multidimensionality of heredity, and the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. However, the crude interpretation of Mendelian theory in its application to non-hereditary characteristics persisted with the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975), a well-intentioned text seeking to unify social sciences with the physical sciences. Wilson and many others saw the application of biological principles in explaining social phenomena to be the logical continuation of the Neo-Darwinist trajectory, himself writing that “sociology should be reshaped in the same way that taxonomy and ecology…have been reshaped entirely during the past forty years by integration into the ‘Modern Synthesis’” (Wilson 4). While this movement optimistically aimed to synthesize scholarship from interdisciplinary origins, undertones of biological and genetic determinism ultimately tainted this goal. Wilson expresses that “the individual organism is only the ‘vehicle of the genes,’ part of an elaborate device to preserve and spread them[selves]” (Wilson 3). Similarly, Richard Dawkins wrote in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene that “we are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (Dawkins). The unavoidably oppressive tones of these works seem to rob humans of their individuality and agency, assigning importance only to the perpetuation of genotypes and respective lineages. Regardless of its liberal intentions, the concept of sociobiology is inherently racist as it assigns normalcy to the primary population or culture in question, effectively othering all those who do not conform to this standard; like to eugenics, it employs Mendelian and population genetics in considering learned, rather than inherited qualities. Lacking a holistic view of sociality, sociobiology’s attempt to amalgamate biological and social sciences was a failure.

Unlike the delayed and relatively mild public response to the social implications of sexual selection, eugenics and sociobiology were confronted by ardent activism originating in the 1960s, characterized by the second wave of feminism, the rise of environmental agencies, anti-Vietnam war protests, and civil rights movements. Organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists assembled to protest the negative direction of science in the mid-late 20th century. This group exemplified liberal scientific activism, criticizing neither science nor government, but aiming to apply the vast aptitude of researchers in addressing societal epidemics such as poverty, malnourishment, urban decay, and environmental pollution (Francis Low, UCS Member). The Science for the People’s sociobiology study group, emerging in 1968, sought to combat the conservative politics of biological reductionism with the liberal ideal of “universalism” — this concept implies that individuals are afforded the same basic rights and have national and global responsibilities, rather than ethnic, political, or otherwise stratigraphic obligations. An increasingly multiculturalist agenda in the humanities was instrumental in ensuring the inclusion and representation of diverse and disenfranchised groups previously invisible in the racially-charged atmosphere produced by the works of Francis Galton and E.O. Wilson.

This underlying commitment to rejecting racism conjured up by advancements in evolutionary biology was a unique characteristic of the Neo-Darwinist era, unseen during past episodes of turmoil between society and the sciences. As understandings of the politics of human nature increased, so did the unifying climate of the Western world. Reliable scientific research emerged, describing that very few genetic nuances differentiate members of the same family; however, these individuals remain behaviorally and socially unique from one another. Similar ideas successfully denounced notions that behavior is heritable, that race has cognitive distinctions, and that certain cultures cannot escape imminent domination. The public response to the “Modern Synthesis” resulted in several fruitful modifications to previously acute tensions in society. This outcome is the product of criticism more focused on the subtle implications of biology and genetics, rather than the merit of the science itself.

Speculative 19th century evolutionary theory and Neo-Darwinism were similar iterations of biology in their ignition of societal retaliation in response to their use and misuse of scientific information. However, the foundations and magnitude of these retaliations were what characterized these periods. The response to Darwin’s early publications was largely critical of the absent scientific framework of his theories, and secondarily protective of the authenticity of divine origins of human beings. Not until half a century later did the public address gender inequality associated with the theory of sexual selection through the genesis of early feminist thought. Inversely, the “Modern Synthesis” saw itself under attack as early as the 1930s, as people began to discontinue their beliefs in eugenics. The analytical sentiment towards the notion of biological determinism holds momentum to this day, 2017 being a year in which eugenic thought has certainly resurfaced in the United States. The issues raised by scientific thought in the Victorian era certainly reemerged with the advent of Neo-Darwinism, and will likely persist due to an ever-changing concept of “human nature.”

Works Cited

Aronova, Elena. “Darwinian Revolution.” Fall 2016. Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or, the preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. J. Murray, 1859.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in relation to Sex. J. Murray, 1871.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Galton, Francis. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. Watts & Co, 1892.

Gilman, Charlotte P. The Man-Made World: Or, Our Androcentric Culture. Source Book Press, 1970.

Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.