As academic exercises go, Peter J. Bowler’s Darwin Deleted, offers the patient reader a deep exploration of the scientific, social and political world that might exist had Charles Darwin been lost at sea early during the voyage of the HMS Beagle.
Unlike science fiction books that delete historical characters, or make them the protagonist (as in futures where Germany wins World War II), for a book titled Darwin Deleted, Charles Darwin certainly permeates this book.
Although the idea of a gradual change in the Earth over time was starting to gain traction, at least among the scientific elite, it was still far from a stipulated fact among the general populace. Progress was a solid topic, and some theories about how the past became the present were more palatable to the religious sensibilities of the time. French naturalist Lamarck, for example, believed that body plans and behaviors evolved directly from the work or experiences of parents. This seemed, at least, aligned with the Christian work ethic.
Darwin, however, planted the volatile idea of evolution He concluded that species evolved over time through natural selection, an activity that honed a species to meet the needs of niches, of unique moments in history contingent on where the species found itself. With Darwin the world started to look random, if not Godless. Had Darwin not survived the voyage of the Beagle, evolutionary battle-lines might have been drawn differently in the early days of the debate.
Bowler could have written a historical adventure book that revealed the reshaped narrative through intriguing stories. He choose, however, to write an academic book that pokes and prods at all angles of the potential influence of a world without Darwin that the reader can often get caught in a maelstrom of detail without a sense of the storm.
As with most scientific discoveries, their introduction, acceptance and repression, shapes their time, and the times to follow. Ultimately, someone else will have sensed the pattern, seen the blind watcher maker’s handiwork apply the forces of history to shape the evolution of life. Someone would have realized that the origin of species arose from a struggle to survive, not a design from Heaven.
Darwin Deleted does the scientific community a great service by reminding it of ideas that are often mentioned only in passing, if at all, in basic biology classes, or even those that teach evolutionary theory. The mainstream history of science so dominants the story that failed contingencies of history have little bearing once a scientific theory becomes fact. Unless one is a science historian, learners should be engaged in studying and applying the best ideas, rather than retracing dead ends. But the dead ends can present their own fascination. Ideas like inheritance without genetics, the rigid view that once a species emerged it remained unchanged, or spontaneous generation from primitive forms, created ideas against which evidence could be applied.
To some degree, then, the discovery of natural selection was inevitable because as science proved ideas wrong, better ideas would reveal themselves in the evidence. Paleontologist Robert Broom, for example contributed to this as he described the evolution of reptiles into mammals. Broom believed that his work was not in support of natural selection, but to illustrate God’s plan to lead to the emergence of humankind. Despite his attempt to prove one thing, his work ended up supporting natural selection.
In Bowler’s present, we end up roughly where we are today. The primary conclusion he draws focuses mostly on time. Certain discoveries, political positions or societal reactions would take place in a later context. Rather than natural selection being detailed first in the Victorian Era, it could have come after World War I, at the dawn of the atomic age, where it would be but one huge shift in the perception between man and nature, sitting next to relativity and quantum theory.
Darwinism gets applied to many areas where he said little, and where natural selection does not apply. Social Darwinism, Bowler asserts, applies Darwin as a convenient label. Anything that “evolved” became linked to Darwin. So perhaps it is in language and labels where we would find the biggest difference for a multi-verse traveler entering a world without Darwin.
My wife reminds me as I watch science fiction that it is, indeed fiction, and that I should not get up-in-arms over continuity errors and failures in narrative logic. We need to give Bowler the same consideration.
However, Bowler makes a counter factual fallacy in his closing paragraph as he states: “There would be less tension between science and religion, since one of the major battles in what we see as the war between them would never have been fought.” These kinds of speculative tomes often fail to explore an alternative “inventor” who isn’t on the world stage because they were not needed, given that Darwin lived and fought his own battles. We cannot know that science and religion would be more attuned, because we don’t know if some other contingent figure in history would have generated an equal or greater amount of vitriol.
As thorough as Bowler attempts to be, Darwin Deleted reminds the reader we cannot know how history would unfold without a major character who was already a part of it. Religion without Moses, Jesus or Muhammad. Science without Da Vinci, Galileo or Newton. We could strike any of these figures and play history forward with wonderful speculation, and we would likely reach the same conclusion that Bowler does with Darwin: the world is the world, and if we examine it hard enough, its patterns will reveal themselves. Who first sees those patterns is less important than the truth of the thing itself — and if it is a truth, it will emerge someday, somehow, and knowledge will catch up with whatever it missed.