Darwin isn’t generally known as a philosopher. Didn’t he explicitly avoid grand philosophical speculation in favour of science?
Indeed. But that doesn’t mean to say he wasn’t interested in philosophical questions. He just believed that they were best approached from a scientific angle: “He who understands baboons would do more toward metaphysics than Locke” he wrote in his notebook. Elsewhere he wrote:
“To study Metaphysics, as they have always been studied appears to me to be like puzzling at astronomy without mechanics. – Experience shows the problem of the mind cannot be solved by attacking the citadel itself. – the mind is function of body. – we must bring some stable foundation to argue from.”
Darwin was fascinated by the problem of free will, for example. Like the philosophers, he was plagued by how freedom could arise in a universe that from a scientific perspective appeared to run on mechanical cause-and-effect lines, in a predetermined fashion. Darwin’s solution was primarily one of method. If your point of entry is philosophical you will quickly become entrenched in an irresolvable paradox; but if your point of entry is scientific – that is, if you cut the problem down to size and focus on more manageable problems – you might get somewhere. “Our faculties are more fitted to recognize the wonderful structure of a beetle than a Universe,” he wrote.
What does this mean in practical terms? In the case of free will, Darwin’s hunch was that it was intimately related to the variation in nature. Ascertain the origin of variation and its accompanying laws, and you will make more progress concerning free will than philosophers have made in hundreds of years. Indeed, Darwin spent much of the years between The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man studying plants and animals under domestication. His concern was clearly scientific: he wanted to secure the foundations for his theory of natural selection. But, as he revealed in the final paragraph of his laborious two volume study, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), he also hoped he’d shed light on the origin of free will. Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. It took a further twelve years for him to publish the application of his theory of natural selection to human beings in The Descent of Man in 1871. What took him so long?
Well, there’s a long and a short answer to this question. The short answer is that he didn’t want to write the book. Darwin closed The Origin of Species with the famous phrase ‘light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history’, and hoped his scientific peers would draw the necessary conclusions, perhaps even take responsibility for writing the book themselves. They didn’t. Even his closest allies weren’t prepared to do so. Charles Lyell, Thomas Henry Huxley, even Alfred Russel Wallace stopped short of applying natural selection to humans. Darwin realised that he couldn’t avoid the issue. He had to make the argument.
Why didn’t he want to write it?
The most common explanations for Darwin’s reluctance are political and scientific. Political because Darwin did not want to court the controversy that Robert Chambers for example had had after firing off a pro-evolutionary broadside years earlier. Recall that Darwin had already sat on his theory of natural selection for a couple of decades before Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to him with a near identical theory in the late 1850s, which forced Darwin’s hand. Darwin was undoubtedly worried about how his theory of evolution by natural selection would be received, and he was no less worried about spelling out the consequences of this theory for humans. Darwin’s political hesitancy contributed to his scientific caution. Darwin scholars point out that he did not like to present an argument, least of all a radical and unpopular one, until he had assembled all the necessary evidence and anticipated and resolved to his satisfaction all the criticisms that could be levelled against it.
Do you find these explanations for Darwin’s reluctance satisfactory?
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