Historical Background of Evolution

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

Historical Development of Evolution

Time Line

Year Biology Geology
  Selective Breeding  
1750 Linnaeus-Classification  
    Hutton-Founding of Geology
1800 Lamarck-Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics  
  Voyage of the Beagle Lyell-Uniformitarianism
Geologic Time Scale
1850 Mendel-Heredity
Darwin & Wallace-Evolution


In the mid-1700's, the Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus developed the scientific nomenclature system still used in biology. He placed humans in the order of the Primates along with apes and monkeys, but seems to have encountered little criticism. Linnaeus' system was purely descriptive, making no claims about origins. Also, its hierarchical nature meshed well with the hierarchical social and political systems of the time.


The French scientist Jean Lamarck postulated in the late 1790's that organisms underwent changes in their lifetimes that were passed along to their offspring. Lamarck's celebrated example is the giraffe, which supposedly had to stretch to reach the leaves of trees and passed the tendency for a long neck on to its offspring. However, as anyone knows who has ever seen videos of Africa, the giraffe overshot the target because it grazes the trees from the top down. Actually, numerous experiments have failed to show any transmission of inherited characteristics. If Lamarck's mechanism existed, Eskimos ought by now to be able to live in the Arctic without clothing. In reality, Eskimos can freeze to death just like anyone else. Also, virtually nobody lives permanently above 5000 meters elevation; the human body just can't adapt to that little oxygen.

Nevertheless, Lamarck deserves credit for one important insight: organisms evolve to fit their environment. Lamarck seems to have encountered little criticism for making this suggestion.

Hutton and Lyell

At about the same time, James Hutton and other founders of geology were first working out the methods for interpreting the record in the rocks, and concluded that the Earth had to be far older than indicated by the Biblical account. In the 1830's Charles Lyell published his concept of uniformitarianism, the present is key to the past. Other geologists laid out the presently-used geological period names in their proper sequence, though they had no means of estimating the length of geologic time. There was some grumbling from Biblical literalists, but nothing approaching the fury that greeted evolution.

Darwin and the Beagle

During the 1830's, Charles Darwin made his celebrated voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. And thereby hangs an interesting tale. Why was Darwin on the Beagle? The standard answer is that Darwin was the ship's naturalist. But British naval doctrine of the day called for the ship's physician to be responsible for gathering scientific observations.

British naval discipline was very rigid; seamen did not socialize with officers, junior officers did not socialize with senior officers, and nobody socialized with the captain. On a long voyage the captain could go insane from isolation. One option sometimes was to bring his family along so they could all go crazy together. (Just imagine being cooped up with several children in a room ten feet square on a rolling ship for several months at a time.) The captain of the Beagle, Fitzroy, had reason to be concerned since depression ran in his family and some of his relatives had committed suicide. (Fitzroy himself would about 30 years later.) So another solution was found: take along a civilian, of the appropriate social class but not bound by naval regulations. Darwin was hired aboard as an extra naturalist, or "supernumerary", but his real job was social peer and gentleman companion to the captain.

The plan didn't work very well. The regular naturalist was a capable man but was no Darwin, and he had himself sent home for medical reasons from Brazil. Fitzroy was a Biblical literalist and social conservative; Darwin much more liberal, and poor Fitzroy found himself almost as isolated as if he'd gone by himself. Nevertheless, the voyage gave Darwin ample time to make observations You can map the voyage of the Beagle by simply scanning a world atlas for place names containing "Darwin", "Beagle" and "Fitzroy", commemorating places where the Beagle stopped.

It's easy to cast Fitzroy as a villain here; he really isn't. He was a Biblical literalist not so much for doctrinal reasons than because he believed it was the best system for maintaining social order and good naval discipline. Later in his life he battled courageously for a system of weather forecasting to help reduce shipwrecks around the British Isles. He was capable of fighting for scientific innovation and was concerned about saving human life. He appears to have been a thoroughly decent if somewhat rigid man. But for the rest of his life he and Darwin had a love-hate relationship and Fitzroy was deeply chagrined at his own unwitting role in the discovery of evolution.

Philosophical and Religious Background


By about 1800, Western philosophers had a perplexing problem on their hands: here was this robust, thriving, expanding economy, changing rapidly to meet the needs of society, and nobody was in charge of it! Nobody quite knew why it worked.

Adam Smith published his famous work explaining how the economic forces of supply and demand interacted via prices and incentives to make a free market economy work. Smith used a somewhat theological metaphor of an "invisible hand" to describe the process. Nevertheless, there's an obvious parallel between supply and demand driving the changes in a free market, and environment and predation driving biological evolution. A great deal of the imagery and terminology in early writings on evolution came from economics. The phrase "survival of the fittest" was not coined by Darwin but borrowed from Herbert Spencer.

Some people took the "invisible hand" metaphor literally. As late as the 1970's there were Soviet planners who were convinced that there must be a secret control center that ran the U.S. economy.

One highly influential writer was Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 noted that population growth always tends to outstrip agricultural production, leading to famine. Darwin was strongly influenced by the idea that environmental factors limit survival. Population has, of course, far outstripped anything Malthus considered possible because of completely unforeseen technological developments. This has led many people to a much more dangerous conclusion, namely, that we can ignore the question of ultimate limits.

Argument from Design

The Argument from Design is ancient but was brought to its 19th century form largely by William Paley. The Argument from Design holds that the complexity and order in the Universe argues for an intelligent designer (God), just as, in Paley's words, "a watch implies a watchmaker."

The fit between organisms and their environment had been noted long before Darwin, and in fact was actually cited as evidence in support of the Argument from Design; the fit between, say, a hummingbird's bill and the shape of the flowers it feeds on, or the coexistence of organisms that require one another for survival, was viewed as clear evidence of an overall plan in nature.

The Fall

In the traditional Judaeo-Christian view, the imperfections of the world were explained by the Fall. The universe had originally been created perfect and harmonious, but the disobedience of Adam and Eve allowed evil to enter the world. Although pre-Darwin naturalists were perfectly aware that most offspring did not survive, they could reconcile this observation with their religious beliefs by asserting that in the world as originally intended, reproduction would have been limited and predators would have survived by other means. (Nobody seems to have realized that eating a plant kills life just as surely as eating an animal.)

"God of the Gaps"

As soon as medieval theologians began postulating that there were laws in nature as well as in human morality, a disturbing question arose: if the Universe operates according to natural laws, then what is God's role? As the centuries rolled on, one phenomenon after another moved from the supernatural to the natural realm. The result for some believers was a "God of the gaps." Those who believed that supernatural phenomena were a regular part of nature found themselves pushed into steadily shrinking enclaves of phenomena that science had not yet explained. Benjamin Franklin's demonstration in 1752 that lightning was electricity and could be controlled or at least mitigated was a particularly shocking (ouch!) discovery. Here was a phenomenon that had been considered supernatural since time immemorial, and Franklin dethroned it. Preachers condemned lightning rods, but as Isaac Asimov put it, people quickly noticed that the local church kept getting hit by lightning, while the local bordello, if it had lightning rods, didn't.

The real problem with the God of the Gaps is that we live in a universe of patterns. Once religious believers had created a pattern of steady retreat, nonbelievers were perfectly justified in assuming the pattern would continue until the gaps shrank to zero, and that the retreat would continue until final surrender.

In any battle, philosophical or military, once it becomes obvious a piece of ground can't be held, the smart thing to do is give it up and build defenses along lines that can be held. In the case of theology, once Ben Franklin naturalized lightning (and actually long before then), theologians should have dealt with this issue: what if everything in nature is eventually explainable in terms of natural laws? Or, what if God's actions are so subtle that no test will ever distinguish them from natural phenomena? Even today few theologians tackle these issues with any intellectual rigor.


One of the last holdouts of supernaturalism in science was the nature of life. Many thinkers held that there was something special about life that required a vital force or elan vital that was different from the laws governing inorganic matter. It was once held that chemists would never synthesize organic chemicals, but beginning in the mid-19th century that defense collapsed. The idea that life is driven by some sort of special force is termed vitalism

Lightning is just electricity. Life is chemistry and physics. So what? What does this have to do with God? The important thing to realize here is that hard-core supernaturalists weren't simply trying for a simple explanation of complex phenomena. They were desperately hoping for some phenomenon that would forever be inexplicable in conventional scientific terms, where nonbelievers would be compelled either to acknowledge the existence of the supernatural, or be put in a position of blatant intellectual dishonesty.

Free Will

A lot of theologians hold that the dream just described is inherently impossible; that if free will has any meaning, people have to be free to accept or reject the existence of God regardless of how perfect our knowledge of the natural world is. But many mid-19th century theologians rejected free will. They considered it incompatible with the omniscience of God; if God already knows whether you are saved or not, you can't really be free. They wouldn't have seen any problem with discovering some inescapably supernatural phenomenon in nature. Also, many of them considered the Bible to be documentation on a par with any other historical or scientific document; in their view, if you could read the Bible and still not believe in God, you could witness a miracle in the lab and still not believe.

The Discovery of Evolution

The fundamental observations on which evolution by natural selection is based are these:

All these points were obvious and widely known. Darwin and Wallace stated that individuals varied, and that those individuals that happened to vary in a way that made them better fitted to survive had a better chance of mating and producing offspring. In time, their characteristics would become prevalent.

At the time, nobody knew what might be responsible for individual variation and transmission of traits. But at about the same time Darwin and Wallace were publishing their ideas, the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel was publishing his ideas on inheritance. Although Mendel's work was published openly and he corresponded widely, his results had no immediate impact. There was simply no known way to apply them to any other major problems in science. Over the next few decades, they were largely forgotten until they were rediscovered by the German biologists Correns, Tschermak and DeVries about 1900. They were doing a routine literature search prior to publishing their own results and discovered that Mendel had anticipated many of their own findings. To their enormous credit, they publicized Mendel's work. Mendel is considered a classic example of prematurity in science: a finding that appears before there are any known ways of exploiting it.

Why the Fury Over Evolution?

As we can see from the above discussion, the pieces of the evolution puzzle had been falling into place for a century with little or no opposition. And the basic elements of natural selection are obvious and common-sense observations that had all been noted before. So why the fury over evolution? There are a number of reasons:


It's one thing to speak of "Nature red in tooth and claw", or to note that most organisms are fated only to be lunch for somebody else. It's another to assert that nature was intrinsically organized that way. If the world was originally created harmonious but was corrupted somehow, cruelty and predation are explainable. On the other hand, if death, predation and parasitism are built into the biological world, indeed are the main mechanisms by which evolution proceeds, the philosophical and theological implications are troubling.

There's an interesting paradox here. Many theologians who believed in predestination had no trouble with believing that a loving God could create people that he knew were destined to be condemned. These same theologians often had a tremendous problem believing that a loving God would allow a caterpillar to hatch knowing that it was fated to be eaten by a bird.

It's also interesting that many atheist debaters bring up predation and parasitism as arguments against the concept of a loving God. It seems to be a general pattern that extremists on both sides of a debate take one another's arguments at face value without subjecting them to analysis. It doesn't seem to have occurred to either side that perhaps predation in nature has nothing to do with right and wrong or good and evil.

Lack of Purpose

One reason that Lamarck ran into so little opposition was that his concept of evolution meshed so perfectly with the Argument from Design. God could instill organisms with an instinct to behave a certain way, and the better they fulfilled the will of God, the more perfect their biological adaptation became. With Lamarck, you almost had to believe in the Argument from Design.

In Darwin's model, Man is not necessarily the pinnacle of evolution, and there is no guarantee that the world would have evolved humans. Once again humans are dethroned from the center of the Universe.

Underlying these objections is a serious threat to the Argument from Design itself. If highly-ordered systems can arise from the impersonal interaction of natural forces, then order may not demonstrate intelligent design. Most of the modern assaults on the Argument from Design have built around that very theme. If there is design, it must lie at some deeper level than the systems themselves.

Conflicts with Religious Beliefs

The two issues above both had religious cores, but in addition, evolution threatened not just religious ideas in general, but specific Christian doctrines in particular. For one thing, life was one phenomenon that seemed certain to require some component of supernatural action, and that belief took a serious blow. If humans evolved from more primitive organisms and if death and predation have always been part of the natural order, then there was no literal Garden of Eden, no literal Adam and Eve, and no Fall in the traditional sense. But if Christ came to redeem fallen mankind after the sin of Adam and Eve, and none of those were literal events, then what exactly was Christ's role?

Also, it's one thing to say that "the Sun stood still" for Joshua, really meant the Sun only appeared to stand still, or that a "day" in Genesis 1 really refers to an indefinitely long period of geologic time. It's another entirely to say that there was no literal Adam and Eve or Garden of Eden. Furthermore, the genealogies that begin with Adam and Eve must be at least partly mythological. Accepting evolution means that one must interpret a fairly large piece of Genesis as allegorical if not mythological. That in turn, means a pretty radical revision in how one interprets the rest of the Bible; why should the rest of it be different?

Already, scholars were doing just that. Archeological discoveries in the Middle East, newly discovered historical documents, and advances in techniques for interpreting ancient texts had already convinced many historians and scholars that sections of the Bible had been copied from other sources, pieced together by multiple authors, or post-dated (written after their purported date). Conservatives were already feeling highly threatened by these developments. Liberals had no difficulty accommodating Darwin, but to conservatives Darwin was the last straw.

Disturbing Sexual and Social Implications

This was the Victorian era, and you simply cannot discuss evolution without reproduction. Victorians had some difficulty accepting that there were plants that got pollinated by tricking insects into trying to mate with them, for example.

Victorians have been accused of being prudish about sex. Frankly I don't see it. Their art shows a lot of unclad human forms; their fashions are figure-flattering (even exaggerating - this was the era of bustles and corsets) and discreetly revealing. Cultures that are really sexually hung-up keep women hidden and conceal them in shapeless clothing (the Middle East being the archetypical example). The Victorian era managed to generate enough sexual art and literature to keep an anti-pornography crusader named Anthony Comstock permanently employed.

So what were the Victorians? They were staggeringly, stupefyingly sentimental. Everything about them; their prose, their art, their fashion, is dripping with honey and covered with sugar. It must have been a rough time for diabetics. It would be hard for such a sentimental society to take the utilitarian view of sex or predation that evolution requires. One of the toughest sentimental hurdles to escape in biology is anthropomorphism, projecting human traits onto other species. A housefly can sense its environment, but it's extremely doubtful that it has any more self-awareness than a computer-driven robotic machine. So is the death of a fly any more a moral issue than the junking of an obsolete computer? Much of the problem people had with the alleged cruelty of evolution was simply getting over anthropomorphism.

The sentimentality of the Victorians also explains their seeming indifference to social ills. They weren't indifferent - their concern made Charles Dickens pretty prosperous - but they had an unshakable optimism that things would inevitably get better, that the social ills were transient. And to be fair to them, things were getting better, very dramatically so. Someone born in 1800 would live to see a world with enormous improvements in standards of living, life expectancy, and public health. If the Victorians were all that indifferent to social ills, how did these improvements happen?

Read about the aftermath of Darwin


Stent, Gunther, 1972; Prematurity and Uniqueness in Scientific Discovery, Scientific American, v. 227, no. 6 (December), p. 84.

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Created 10 April 1998, Last Update 1 September 1998

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