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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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All the versions of evolutionism prior to 1859
suffered from two major limitations. They were not
able to produce a well-organized body of evidence to
show that evolution had occurred, and they were not
able to formulate a verifiable explanation of how it
had occurred. Darwin did both things for the theory


of organic evolution. His Origin of Species is, as he
says, “one long argument” which combines hypotheses,
deductions, and observations to support three major
propositions: (1) all species of organisms now on earth
have descended by a long, gradual process of modifica-
tion from a small number of very different species in
the remote past; (2) the chief cause of the transmuta-
tion of species is natural selection which acts on popu-
lations of organisms having varying and inheritable
characteristics and as a result there is differential sur-
vival and reproduction in the population, depending
on the extent to which the characteristics favor or
handicap the organisms in the struggle for existence;
(3) natural selection accounts for the adaptations of
viable organisms to widely different conditions of life;
it also tends to improve those adaptations, and con-
versely, it leads to the extinction of poorly adapted
species. Darwin did not profess to have invented any
of these ideas, and he was particularly cognizant of
his indebtedness to Thomas Malthus and Lyell. What
he did was to make evolutionism for the first time a
testable theory and to offer a powerful body of evi-
dence in its support. Consequently, before long it was
accepted by the whole scientific community. There was
indeed a “triumph of the Darwinian method” (cf.
Ghiselin, 1969).

Darwinism had a revolutionary impact on many
aspects of Western intellectual culture. It destroyed
the quasi-theological frame of mind in the sciences,
so that biologists no longer concerned themselves with
the biblical story of the creation of species, or geolo-
gists with the story of the Flood. Darwin's proof that
species change in a gradual, orderly way under the
influence of natural causes utilized the same uniformi-
tarian principle by which Lyell had made geology a
science. The adaptations of plants and animals to their
environments, cited by William Paley in his Natural
(1802) as evidence of providential design in
the world, were accounted for by Darwin without any
reference to divine purposes. Thus the living world
became amenable to explanation in mechanistic, or
more accurately naturalistic terms, just as the nonliving
world was. A new scientific outlook, altogether free
of theological presuppositions, was strongly reinforced
by Darwinism.

Of even greater importance was the impact of
Darwinism on man's conception of himself. It was a
clear implication of the Origin of Species that human
beings had descended not from an historical Adam
created by God in 4004 B.C., but from remote, pre-
human ancestors. T. H. Huxley developed this implica-
tion with reference to bodily traits in Man's Place in
(1863). Darwin developed it with reference to
mental, moral, and social traits in The Descent of Man
(1871). Once again it was not so much the novelty of
these ideas as the arguments offered in support of them
that caused a shock. Even some of Darwin's allies, such
as Lyell, Alfred Russel Wallace, George Romanes, and
Asa Gray, were unwilling to accept the conclusion that
the powers of the mind were evolutionary products.
Huxley came to believe that there was a fundamental
conflict between the operation of natural selection and
the ethical values cherished by men. Nevertheless, by
the end of the nineteenth century the force of the
Darwinian argument was augmented by the discovery
of various proto-human fossil remains, and the “death
of Adam” was widely admitted (cf. Greene, 1959).

The Darwinian theory excited bitter theological and
popular opposition, especially in England. Its oppo-
nents were mainly members of the privileged upper
classes who regarded the theory as a threat to the
Establishment. They associated the doctrine of evolu-
tion with the atheistic materialism which had been part
of the previous hit ideology next hit of the French Revolution. The ancien
had been overthrown by those who held that
man can improve his lot and perfect himself by his
own efforts. Darwinism was believed to belong to this
same family of radical ideas. More than half a century
before its appearance, the influence of those ideas in
England had been counteracted by Malthus' Essay on
(1798) and by Paley's Natural Theology.
Malthus had contended that the improvement of man's
lot is made impossible by the rate of population in-
crease and the consequent need to keep the population
in check by a high rate of mortality in the struggle
for existence. But Darwin had shown that it was pre-
cisely mortality in the struggle for existence that en-
abled natural selection to improve adaptation among
those that survived. Furthermore, Darwin had ex-
ploded Paley's claim that the existence of adaptations
is evidence of the providential ordering of the world.
To Victorian conservatives all this proved that the
doctrine of evolution by natural selection was a threat
to Church and State which had to be resisted. Nor
would they have been reassured by the fact that
Darwin had declined Marx's invitation to allow Volume
I of Das Kapital to be dedicated to him (de Beer [1965],
p. 266).

In the later nineteenth century, attempts were made
to use Darwinism to support the system of laissez-faire
capitalism which had become dominant in the Western
world. Those who reaped the benefits of the system
but who were aware of its inequities, argued that it
conformed to a primal law of evolution. For since, as
Darwin had shown, competition in the struggle for
existence results in the survival of the fittest, the rich
are simply better adapted than the poor to the condi-
tions of social life. To remove or even mitigate compe-


tition would be to go against nature. This doctrine,
somewhat inappropriately called “Social Darwinism,”
was used to oppose government intervention in eco-
nomic affairs, the growth of trade unions, and the rising
tide of socialist ideas. Leading protagonists of the doc-
trine were Herbert Spencer in England and J. D.
Rockefeller and W. G. Sumner in the United States.
But Social Darwinism also had its critics, among whom
were C. S. Peirce, and also Peter Kropotkin, the author
of Mutual Aid (1907). The question of the bearing of
evolutionary theory on social philosophy and ethics
was much debated at this time, and is still being dis-
cussed (cf. Waddington, 1960; Flew, 1967).

The success of the Darwinian explanation scheme
in biology called attention to certain methodological
features of it which influenced subsequent science. (1)
Darwin showed that explanation can be historical
without losing its scientific character. For in biology
one is often able to explain phenomena by showing
how they originated and developed. To understand
“the tree of life” one has to understand how it grew.
(2) By getting rid of Platonistic elements in his treat-
ment of natural selection, Darwin established evolu-
tionary science on a nominalistic basis. He then intro-
duced statistical or “population” conceptions to permit
generalizations to be made about the changes which
selection produces in individuals. (3) The Origin of
explained what happened in evolution as an
outcome of accidental and orderly events combined.
Natural selection is an order-generating process. The
occurrence of variations, the survival and reproductive
success of organisms, etc., are matters of accident or
chance. It thus became clear that a discipline does not
need to establish what must necessarily happen ac-
cording to universal laws in order to be a science. (4)
The Darwinian explanation showed that although
adaptations are not the result of design, they are nev-
ertheless purposive. They serve certain ends and must
be so studied. Thus a scientific concept of teleology
can be admitted at the same time that theological and
metaphysical teleology are rejected.

These Darwinian ideas spread rapidly into the whole
intellectual domain. The social sciences, for example,
became strongly evolutionary. Facets of human culture
came to be investigated in terms of their origin, devel-
opment, and survival or disappearance. The word
“evolution” began to appear in the titles of works by
anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, historians of
moral, legal, and political institutions, and so on. In-
deed, “it was not long before the lesson of evolution
filtered through to all fields of human endeavour, in-
cluding literature, art, music, and the history of ideas
in general” (de Beer [1965], p. 216). Darwinism excited
the interest and frequently the antipathy of English
men of letters, such as Tennyson, Samuel Butler, and
George Bernard Shaw. Above all it gave a renewed
impetus to cosmogonic speculation in philosophy. As
a result various systems of metaphysical evolutionism
were constructed after 1859.