Darwin Is Never Far Away in This Speculation of a World Without Him: 'Darwin Deleted'

Peter J. Bowler explores a world in which Charles Darwin never wrote his seminal The Origin of Species.

Darwin Deleted

Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Author: Peter J. Bowler
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Length: 328 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0226068671
Publication date: 2013-03

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.