Life Sciences in the Twentieth Century
by Garland E. Allen
The checkered career of Darwinian theory in the twentieth century provides insights into both the history of ideas and the actual problems inherent in the content of evolutionary theory itself. I have found teaching the history of evolutionary thought, from before Darwin through the present day (or at least up through the period of synthesis in the 1930s), an exciting and rewarding classroom experience.
The most general and up-to-date source covering the breadth of evolutionary theory is Peter Bowler’s Evolution: The History of an Idea (Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1984). Bowler includes interesting chapters on the social implications of evolutionary theory (these cover Social Darwinism, eugenics, and race movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), as well as on the modern debates (neo-Lamarckism, punctuated equilibrium, and creationism). This is a useful book. Equally valuable for its sweep, but more comprehensive than Bowler, is Ernst Mayr’s Growth, Part II. Chapters 7-13 deal explicitly with evolutionary theory in the period from the Enlightenment to the present. As a participant in the synthesis of the 1940s and 1950s himself, Mayr writes from a special perspective, but his knowledge of the field, especially systematics and its integration into evolutionary theory, is prodigious. Both Bowler and Mayr have extensive bibliographies of the primary and secondary literature. Mayr’s book is less useful to students than Bowler’s paperback, which serves well as a textbook.
A number of varied sources are available on more specialized topics within twentieth-century evolutionary theory. Stephen Jay Gould’s essays from Natural History often deal with historical aspects of evolution, paleontoiogy, and systematics. Many of the best of these have been collected into three paperback volumes: Ever Since Darwin (New York: Norton, 1977), The Panda’s Thumb (New York: 1980), and Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (New York: Norton, 1983), Selected wisely for class use, these articles can be captivating; they are also good history. They are however, episodic, making it difficult to trace development or continuity.
The ill repute into which Darwinian theory had fallen by 1900 is chronicled in recent through study by Peter Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983). The teacher interested in reading contemporaries’ own accounts of their views on Darwin should see Vernon L. Kellogg’s Darwinism Today (New York: Holt, 1907), a masterful summary with extensive excerpts from original sources.
The evolutionary synthesis itself has been the subject of a number of recent articles and monographs. The best overall introduction is Provine’s Origins, which focuses particularly on the work of R.A. Fisher (1890-1962), J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), and Sewall Wright (1889-1988). Although it does not deal much with the social or historical context, Provine’s book is concise, straightforward, and eminently clear. Mayr’s Growth devotes one chapter (l2) to the “synthesis” proper, and another (l3) to “post-synthesis developments.” These chapters serve as a useful introduction, though, as always, events are seen from Mayr’s particular perspective as one of the “synthesizers.” A more detailed and varied set of interpretations can be found in Mayr and Provine’s Evolutionary Synthesis. An interesting collection of papers can be found in a volume edited by Marjorie Grene, Dimensions of Darwinism: Themes and Counter Themes in Twentieth-Century Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983). An important though not-much-discussed contribution to the development of evolutionary theory came from the Russian school of population genetics in the 1920s and 1930s, spearheaded by Sergei S. Chetverikov (1880-1959). Two articles by Mark B. Adams detail clearly and elegantly the developments in Russian natural history and population genetics that were eventually to be carried to the West by Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1979): “The Founding of Population Genetics: Contributions of the Chetverikov School, 1924- 1934,” Journal of the History of Biology, 1968, 1:23-39; and “Towards a Synthesis: Population Concepts in Russian Evolutionary Thought: 1925-1935,” Journal of the History of Biology, 1970, 3:107-129.
With regard to individual figures important in the synthesis, two are subjects of recent significant biographies. Joan Fisher Box’s R. A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist(New York: Wiley, 1978) provides a lively and candid portrait of her father as a mathematician driven to biology by his social, eugenical concerns. William Provine’s Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1986) is definitive in delineating Wright’s important, but largely unsung, contributions to modern population genetics. Provine has also written a lengthy introduction to a series of collected papers by Theodosius Dobzhansky, who more than anyone else carried out the fieldwork to complement Wright’s theoretical formulations: “Origins of the Genetics of Natural Population Series,” in Dobzhansky’s Genetics of Natural Populations, I-XLII, edited by R. C. Lewontin, John A. Moore, William Provine, and Bruce Wallace (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 5-83. This essay is among the best of the few discussions available on the importance of Dobzhansky’s many contributions to the development of twentieth-century evolutionary theory.
Though superseded by both Darwin’s concept of natural selection and Weismann’s concept of the continuity of the germ plasm, the idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics continued to attract a certain following in the United States and Europe (including Russia) well into the twentieth century. A comprehensive survey of the topic is L.I. Blacher’s The Problem of the Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, English translation edited by Frederick Churchill (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Library, 1982). Blacher begins with Lamarck, proceeding through Darwin to the present. Perhaps in response to the Lysenko affair in the USSR in the 1940s and 1950s, the author is particularly vehement in denying the possibility of inheritance of acquired traits. Not so, however, is the journalist turned historian of science Arthur Koestler, whose biography of the neo-lamarckian Paul Kammerer, The Case of the Midwife Toad (New York: Random House, 1972), is a blatant attempt to rehabilitate the neo-lamarckian idea. Koestler is an accomplished writer, and his book makes compelling reading. But his conclusions about the inheritance of acquired traits must be taken with a grain of salt.
Compared to other areas of evolutionary thought, the history of human evolution has received much less attention. Darwin’s thoughts on the matter are the subject of Howard Gruber’s Darwin on Man (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1981). John Reader’s older Missing Links: The Hunt for Earliest Man (London: Collins, 1961) was written before the bulk of newer discoveries and hence seems outdated even in its historical perspective. Much more current and historically illuminating is Peter Bowler’s Theories of Human Evolution: A Centuty of Debate, 1844-1944 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986). Several papers can be used to illustrate specific aspects of the topic. For the social center of some of the early work on fossil human: see Michael Hammond’s “The Expulsion of the Neanderthals from Human Ancestry: Marcellin Boule and the Social Context of Scientific Research,” Social Studies of Science, 1982, 12:1-36. For a particularly fascinating study of accounts of human evolution as examples of heroic narratives, see Misia Landau’s “Human Evolution a Narrative,” American Scientist, 1984, 72:161-168. As an interesting sidelight the story of the Piltdown forgery has beet told on numerous occasions, but by none so well as in Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “The Piltdown Conspiracy,” Natural History, August 1980, 89:8-28, and the follow-up, “Piltdown in Letters,” Natural History, June 1980, 90:12- 30.
The topic of scientific creationism and its history is treated in Section 8.
The area of speculation and experimentation on the origin of life provides a number of intriguing and informative case histories in the development of biology. The broadest as well as the most readable account is John Farley’s The Spontaneous Generation Controversy from Descartes to Oparin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 1974). This is a fascinating book highly recommended for students.