Evolutionary Theory and Victorian Culture
By Martin Fichman
(Humanity Books, Paperback, 9781591020035, 256pp.)
Publication Date: November 1, 2002
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Although Charles Darwin was a central figure in the 19th-century development of evolutionary theory, today we tend to focus almost exclusively on him and so overlook the important role played by other leading thinkers of the time. For example, Alfred Russel Wallace, based on his own research and field observations, independently arrived at nearly identical conclusions as Darwin on the origin and evolution of species. Furthermore, the phrase "survival of the fittest," which most people now associate with Darwin, was actually coined by philosopher Herbert Spencer to describe the key mechanism of natural selection. And in the cultural debate on evolution no one played a more prominent role than Thomas Henry Huxley, known as "Darwin's Bulldog."
This absorbing study of the Victorian controversies over the cultural meaning of evolution broadens our perspective by including these and other prominent individuals. Fichman traces the emergence of science as a definitive political and cultural force in this critical period, showing that evolutionary biology was at the epicenter of these profound sociocultural transformations. His astute analysis of the often vehement Victorian debates on the political, religious, racial, and ethical implications of evolutionary thought reveals how science came to be inseparable from the broader culture. He also relates 19th-century controversies to cultural debates in the 20th century, in particular the notorious Scopes trial (1925) and the later, and ongoing, debate about "scientific creationism."
For all those fascinated, and perplexed, by the impact of evolutionary theory on our worldview, and the increasingly close ties between science and Western culture, Fichman's historical perspective lends much clarity and context to current controversies.
Martin Fichman is professor of Humanities and History at York University and the author of Science, Technology and Society and Alfred Russel Wallace: A Biography.