BOOK: Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin

Peter J. Bowler, Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 328 pp.

The ideas and terminology of Darwinism are so pervasive these days that it seems impossible to avoid them, let alone imagine a world without them. But in this remarkable rethinking of scientific history, Peter J. Bowler does just that. He asks: What if Charles Darwin had not returned from the voyage of the Beagle and thus did not write On the Origin of Species? Would someone else, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, have published the selection theory and initiated a similar transformation? Or would the absence of Darwin’s book have led to a different sequence of events, in which biology developed along a track that did not precipitate a great debate about the impact of evolutionism? Would there have been anything equivalent to social Darwinism, and if so would the alternatives have been less pernicious and misappropriated?

In Darwin Deleted, Bowler argues that no one else, not even Wallace, was in a position to duplicate Darwin’s complete theory of evolution by natural selection. Evolutionary biology would almost certainly have emerged, but through alternative theories, which were frequently promoted by scientists, religious thinkers, and moralists who feared the implications of natural selection. Because non-Darwinian elements of evolutionism flourished for a time in the real world, it is possible to plausibly imagine how they might have developed, particularly if the theory of natural selection had not emerged until decades after the acceptance of the basic idea of evolution. Bowler’s unique approach enables him to clearly explain the non-Darwinian tradition—and in doing so, he reveals how the reception of Darwinism was historically contingent. By taking Darwin out of the equation, Bowler is able to fully elucidate the ideas of other scientists, such as Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley, whose work has often been misunderstood because of their distinctive responses to Darwin.

Darwin Deleted boldly offers a new vision of scientific history. It is one where the sequence of discovery and development would have been very different and would have led to an alternative understanding of the relationship between evolution, heredity, and the environment—and, most significantly, a less contentious relationship between science and religion. Far from mere speculation, this fascinating and compelling book forces us to reexamine the preconceptions that underlie many of the current controversies about the impact of evolutionism. It shows how contingent circumstances surrounding the publication of On the Origin of Species polarized attitudes in ways that still shape the conversation today.

Some reviews:
Literary Review: The Evolution of a Theory
Publisher’s Weekly: Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin
CultureLab: Timing was everything when Darwin’s bombshell exploded

5 thoughts on “BOOK: Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin

  1. Bowler is wrong in my opinion – as he is in several other matters such as in regard to what Wallace meant by the term “varieties”. There is no doubt in my mind that Wallace was indeed “in a position to duplicate Darwin’s complete theory of evolution by natural selection”. For evidence that this was indeed likely the case you will have to read Jim Costa’s forthcoming books (Harvard University Press) in which he investigates Wallace’s Species Notebook and compares and contrasts Darwin and Wallace’s ideas about evolution. In fact my conclusion from reading Jim’s manuscripts, plus my own research into this subject, is that modern evolutionary biology owes more to Wallace’s ideas than to those of Darwin!

  2. Even if humanity had taken a different road to understanding evolution, there would not have been “a less contentious relationship between science and religion.” At some point, religion had to be upstaged. Like the emperor with no clothes, at some point someone had to have the courage to expose the notion of creationism as a farce, and that was never going to be pretty. If anything, the road Darwin took was the softest, kindest road, one that avoided direct confrontation and focused on the evidence and elegance of Natural Selection. Darwin made evolution easy to accept, and left any that reject the notion with egg on their face.

    Interesting concept, though… If Dr Who was real, Darwin’s life would be one of those fixed points in time, lol…

  3. Darwin was a lovely man, judging by his letters. But, I believe that the so-called Neo-Darwinian synthesis, as an historical analysis of how Darwin’s theory survived the ‘eclipse’, shows, was designed into being for a very particular agenda which has come full circle and is just as bad as the religious dogmatism they were trying to avoid. I’m not an ID proponent or a creationist – I’m a researcher & cannot believe what I have uncovered regarding the architects of the synthetic theory…. thank you for alerting me to Bowler’s more recent book.

  4. “There is little doubt: in the absence of Darwin, Wallace would have had neither the resources nor the inclination to launch a revolutionary theory of individual natural selection—indeed, his ideas about evolutionary change were notably different from Darwin’s, as Bowler articulates here.” – This is (in my view) completely incorrect and shows a profound lack of knowledge and understanding on both the part of Bowler and the reviewer of his book – see below. The recent book by James Costa “On the Organic Law of Change” clearly demonstrates that Wallace would probably have written and published a book on evolution and natural selection had Darwin not beaten him to it! Wallace did indeed eventually write his own excellent book on evolutionary theory – ironically calling it “Darwinism”!

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