Samuel Grove
Philosophy Now|December 2021 / January 2022
Samuel Grove recently published Retrieving Darwin’s Revolutionary Idea: The Reluctant Radical. In commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of The Descent of Man (1871), Roberto Navarrete sat down with him to discuss the philosophical dilemmas Darwin faced in applying his theory of natural selection to human beings.
Roberto Navarrete

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?

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM PHILOSOPHY NOWView All

The Lottery' & Locke's Politics

John P. Irish considers through an infamous lottery.

10+ mins read
Philosophy Now
April/May 2022

The Determined Will

Stephen Brewer’s couple are determined to argue about free will.

5 mins read
Philosophy Now
April/May 2022

What Is Truth?

Richard Oxenberg on the need for an old paradigm, especially in ethics.

10+ mins read
Philosophy Now
April/May 2022

Paradox Lost

Paul Tissier argues that Russell’s Paradox isn’t really a paradox.

5 mins read
Philosophy Now
April/May 2022

The Goodness of Existence

Jarlath Cox says whether life brings pleasure or pain, the value of being born is the ability to experience at all.

10+ mins read
Philosophy Now
April/May 2022

A Map of Political Ideas

Phil Badger draws the boundaries of political thought and explores the territories.

10+ mins read
Philosophy Now
April/May 2022

Robert Nozick's Metaverse Machine

Lorenzo Buscicchi asks, would you plug into Mark Zuckerberg’s virtual world? He finds that the question has been considered by philosophers for decades.

7 mins read
Philosophy Now
April/May 2022

Cultural Colonialism & Aesthetic Injustice

Gustavo Dalaqua on decolonizing minds.

8 mins read
Philosophy Now
April/May 2022

Duane Rousselle

Duane Rousselle is a Canadian professor of sociological theory, author, and a practicing psychoanalyst. He reports to Julie Reshe on recent mutations in postmodern ideology.

10+ mins read
Philosophy Now
April/May 2022

Diogenes the Cynic (c.404-323 BC)

Martin Jenkins recalls what we know for sure about the philosopher in the barrel.

9 mins read
Philosophy Now
April/May 2022
RELATED STORIES

With This Ring... The Birding Ties That Bind

Most tales that involve a convoluted plot with unlikely twists and turns and a contrived ending are usually found in a Jane Harper novel or an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but this one is real and involves two Russian Western Ospreys.

6 mins read
African Birdlife
March/April 2022

Lessons From an Underwater Monastery

“IF YOU LEAVE this earth before me, I’m becoming a monk,” I once told my husband, staring over the impossibly high-cliffed walls of Greece’s Meteora monasteries.

5 mins read
Spirituality & Health
March/April 2022

LUCY & DESI'S SEX SECRETS EXPOSED!

They cheated on each other from the start

2 mins read
Globe
January 03, 2022

A WORLD AWAY

Six Dive Locations Reachable Only by Liveaboard

6 mins read
Scuba Diving
August 2020

GALAPAGOS: THE ENCHANTED ISLES

This bucket-list destination offers unbelievable, up-close animal encounters that are pure magic

10+ mins read
Scuba Diving
May 2020

BACK FROM THE DEAD

A new TV drama will tell the true story of a man who faked his own death – with the help of his wife and a canoe

4 mins read
WOMAN'S OWN
April 25, 2022

I spotted 'dead' canoe conman outside his own house... doing the gardening

Ex-colleague saw through Darwin's beard disguise

4 mins read
Daily Mirror
April 18, 2022

Benjamina, el fósil de Atapuerca que mostró… el paso del afecto al amor

La colección del yacimiento der Atapuerca (Burgos) ha aportado muchos descubrimientos sobre la evolución humana, pero ninguno tan emocionante como el del Cráneo 14 descubierto por la investigadora Ana Gracia Téllez. Ese cráneo perteneció a una niña de diez años con discapacidad, que no habría vivido hasta esa edad sin el amor y los cuidados de su grupo.

8 mins read
INTEGRAL
Abril 2022

Happy Easter X stolen Darwin notebooks returned with note

The plot was worthy of a Dan Brown thriller - two Charles Darwin manuscripts worth millions of pounds reported as stolen from Cambridge University library after being missing for more than two decades.

1 min read
The Guardian
April 06, 2022

SUB MISSION

SEAQUEST DSV CREATOR ROCKNE S O’BANNON REVISITS THE ’90S SPIELBERG TV SERIES THAT ATTEMPTED TO DO STAR TREK UNDERWATER

9 mins read
SFX
April 2022