2. The Evolution Controversy

The Evolution 
Of Evolution 


Section 2.3.4

World History 
And The Eonic Effect

Civilization, Darwinism, And Theories of Evolution
4th Edition
The Book
By  John Landon






2. The Evolution Controversy  
      2.1 The Legacy of Darwinism  
         2.1.1 Debates and Darwin Trials 
         2.1.2 Evolution and Ethics
         2.1.3 The Metaphysics of Evolution
         2.1.4 Is There A Science Of History? 
      2.2 Beyond Natural Selection 
         2.2.1 The Limits of Observation  
         2.2.2 Random Evolution: Climbing Mt. Improbable?
         2.2.3 Punctuated Equilibrium
         2.2.4 Natural Selection and The Oedipus Paradox  
      2.3 Visions of A Ghostseer  
         2.3.1 Wallace's Second Opinion  
         2.3.2 Theism/Atheism: The 'God' Debates  
         2.3.3 Critique of Evolutionary Economy  
         2.3.4 The Evolution of Evolution  
         2.3.5 The Science of Freedom  

 3. Descent Of Man Revisited 



    World History And The Eonic Effect: Fourth Edition

   2.3.4 The Evolution of Evolution


Much of the controversy over evolution predates the work of Darwin and it was Darwin’s achievement to create an almost packaged formulation of gestating ideas of evolution, one that the public was prepared to accept. In many ways, the real founder of evolutionary science was Lamarck whose more cogently intelligible, but still inchoate perspective never survived the radical associations of evolution in the wake of the French Revolution. Accounts of the history of biology tend to put the central focus on Darwin, even to the point of suggesting indirectly that the idea of evolution was his achievement. But in fact all of the main ideas, even that of natural selection, preceded Darwin, and the real source of the new biology was in the period of the Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century, a period replete with a host of innovations in all fields. As we shall see there is an irony to this fact, and we will discover a different side to the idea of evolution in the development of evolutionism itself.[i]

In fact, the birth of conceptions of evolution was a rebirth and we see the emergence of the first inchoate forms of evolutionary thought in the ancient Greeks at the time of the birth of philosophy itself among the Pre-Socratics .

An Eonic Observation The idea of evolution shows, not a birth, but a rebirth in the period of the Enlightenment . Appearing among the Greeks and Indians during the Axial period, it suffered eclipse, as did science itself, in the medieval period. We will soon discover that the idea of evolution itself undergoes a distinct process of its own evolution, and this is not Darwinian, in correlation with the eonic effect.[ii]

There is something almost mysterious in the creative career of the Enlightenment, especially in the last half of the eighteenth century. The period, which should include the Romantic reaction, and much else, creates a sort of great divide in which a whole new culture comes into being. We see the Industrial Revolution, and the birth of modern capitalism, the triumph of liberalism in the era of the French and American Revolutions, a cascade of technical innovations, and the crystallization of the secular society struggling to be born since the equally seminal period of the Protestant Reformation. We have a tendency to produce univalent descriptions of this rich and many-sided period of bursting change. But its multifaceted character shows something far more complex, a constellation of dialectical contradictions. The Romantic movement tends to be filtered out of our sense of the historical inevitability of the Enlightenment breakthroughs, narrowly defined in terms of a reductionist program. We often fail to see the real cultural evolution of conflicting oppositions. And in this context we find the strange phenomenon and timing of the classic era of German philosophy beginning with the figure of Kant. The legacy of the so-called Teleomechanists and Naturphilosophen is categorically rejected by modern biologists, but the result is equally problematical, the collapse into scientism. As we proceed to examine the question of non-random evolution we will find that this period is itself one key to the overall periodization of world history in terms of its historical evolution! We encounter the irony in the non-random evolution of evolutionism.

Kant and Teleology As biological science in the Newtonian legacy emerges in the era of positivism the denaturing of teleological components in the organism induces instant failure for the proposed science, leaving Darwinists stranded with no definition of an ‘organism’. This situation was virtually prophesied by Kant whose work suggests an ‘antinomy of teleological judgment’. There cannot, yet there must be, a teleological aspect to organisms, indeed to evolution. Mastering these contraries remains a task unaccomplished by biological ‘science’. The data of the eonic effect, proceeding empirically, gives us an actual example: a intermittent oscillator that expresses directionality, i.e. a hybrid of mechanical and teleological components, both and neither.[iii]

It is significant that the idea of evolution appeared in concert with the era of the French and Industrial Revolutions. After the groundwork of figures such as Linnaeus and Buffon we find the foundations of evolutionary thought in Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin , the ancestor of Charles Darwin, first formulating explicitly the idea of transmutation or development. To see the inherent ideological character lurking in the idea of evolution, we can look at the birth of the idea under the specter of Jacobinism in the wake of the generation of revolution. The conservatizing Darwin all too obviously fixed the idea of ‘slow evolution’ from its association with ‘revolution’, in the match with emergent ideologies of classical liberalism, managing to pass this off as ‘science’.[iv]

Significantly the work of Erasmus Darwin was braided with notions of progressive social change and his participation in the work of the famous Lunar Society at the dawn of industrial production hardly seems accidental in retrospect. The impact of the idea of progress was built into the take-off of new forms of social production. Herbert Spencer continued this vein of thinking, and the confusion over social and biological evolution began to make its appearance, and this inability to keep the two straight has persisted to this day. The question is insidious for it persists even as Darwinists try to correct it, or offer disclaimers that they are exempt from these fallacies. But it is the clumsiness of the application of the idea of evolution that is at fault, and Darwin is by no means exempt. [v] 

Evolutionary Progress The idea of evolution was justly born under the star of the idea of progress, itself an expression of the modern transition, in the Battle of the Ancients and Moderns. While the ideological abuse of this concept of progress appears to be corrected by Darwin’s neutral foundation in random evolution, the result leaves the idea of evolution stranded in one-sided reductionism. In fact, any true theory of evolution must give expression to some dynamic of evolutionary progression. The disappearance of macroevolution, a concept still present in Lamarck, into microevolution is the tale of Darwinism gone awry in the dialectical overshoot and undershoot of opposite mistakes. Evolutionary progress, or bare ‘progression’, in deep time is notoriously invisible and undetectable, and yet appears at once in historical intervals as soon as we subject the data to careful periodization, and a division into different levels. We should note the entanglement of ideologies in the phases of eonic history: the idea of progress is born in the modern transition, then suffers reversal, as we will see, in the postmodern period, in exact concert with the ‘eonic stages’ of macro-action and micro-action![vi]

And then suddenly the period of reaction set in created by the turmoil of the revolutionary generation. It is interesting to consider Erasmus Darwin and Adam Smith  in this regard. They share the brief moment of the birth of classic liberal thought, before the tide of revolution completely recast the terms of discourse. A new progressive philosophy of economics enjoyed a brief period of radical notoriety, followed almost within a decade by its ideological rendition as a more conservative liberal ideology. We hardly think of Adam Smith as a radical thinker! We need not agree with the views of Karl Marx to see that by the year 1848 the idea of what constituted radical thinking had undergone a change indeed, and that his depiction of the triumph of a new type of economic civilization, with its attendant ideologies.

The period of the Restoration  indirectly conditioned the confusions over evolution, and the association of the idea with revolution made the idea highly controversial, even politicized. The dilemma over slow and fast evolution arises here. The very idea of progress or revolution was subject to concerted attacks by the forces of reaction, and this seems almost to have delayed the acceptance of evolutionary thought for a full generation. In fact, it was in many ways Lamarck who first formulated a theory of evolution, and yet by the end of his life he was almost a forgotten figure. In the background the new biology of the embryologists, such as Von Baer and Geoffrey St. Hilaire, was creating the foundation for a new conception of evolutionary development.

Then came the famous Vestiges of Creation by Robert Chambers whose immensely popular but anonymous bestseller paved the way for the work of Darwin twenty years later. In this context we have a better sense of how Darwin managed to succeed where these earlier figures had failed, and the conservatizing of evolution was one of the keys to his success. We can thus see that Darwin’s theory was successful as an unconscious reaction to this political background, and the attempt to fix the idea in association with a triumph of liberalism in its classical version made for an easy passage at the right time. This association of the issues with ideology and the development of modern politics would seem to be irrelevant to the question of science. And yet it can help us to uncover the chronic confusion of cultural and biological evolution that has always been a notable feature of Darwinian thinking.[vii]

The explosive generation of industrialization, emergent liberalism, and revolution is the hidden context of Darwin’s theory. Darwin’s social position and genealogy, scion of the family of Wedgewoods so prominent at the birth of the industrial revolution in England, colors his thinking, and his strategy proved to be brilliant in the way he packaged his theory and timed its publication. In fact, the curious phenomenon of the delay in the presentation of a theory that was essentially tabled in the 1840’s has many different aspects. It was sudden appearance of the famous Ternate letter of Alfred Wallace  that forced the issue and drove Darwin to make public the nexus of ideas that he had long kept private, even from many of his friends and colleagues.

But the idea of evolution was in the air, always with the built-in ambiguity between social and biological development. One of the transparent influences on Darwin ’s thinking can be seen in the work of Herbert Spencer whose views on cultural evolution produced the classic phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, beginning the career of ‘traveling concepts’ between evolutionary and cultural categories of development. The crystallizing classical liberalism was a natural companion of Darwinian theory, and the still more vexacious Social Darwinism arising in the wake of Darwin’s work springs from this incestuous constellation of mismatched conceptual themes claiming the title of evolution. The work of Herbert Spencer, now a very dated figure, is often made to take the blame for the Social Darwinist implications of evolutionary ideology, but these deflections of the essence of the problem away from Darwin tend to make us fail to see the ideological core of Darwin’s theory.[viii]

The point should be clear from the direct influence of Malthus on Darwin’s formulation of his theory. Malthus was the founder of the science of demography, but he was also a highly contentious conservative figure, one of the most blatant in his propensity to use theory for social legitimation. The polarized and acrimonious debate over Malthus’ work went on for an entire generation, and in many ways prefigured the more complex and subtle Darwin debate, still colored with underground strains of class struggle, revolution, and the reform bill. It is easy to lose sight of a simple fact: the mechanism adopted by Darwin under the influence of Malthusian thinking is open to severe challenge on its own terms. The struggle of populations, and the incidence of natural disasters or sudden population fluctuations, is seldom seen as a very weak candidate for an evolutionary theory. It constitutes one of the first examples of the tendency to conceal the crisis of observation that stalks all claims of evolution. The scale and duration of deep time are an unknown. It is therefore a temptation for a theorist to cast about for what he can observe as a clue to what he cannot. But it is very doubtful if what we mean by evolution is really caused by anything like a Malthusian scenario. Certainly the factor of natural selection is a given, but there is no inherent reason to assume that this generates the emergence of complex forms that we see in the fossil record.[ix]

 The Triumph of Positivism The nineteenth century produced an immense proliferation of the methods of scientific reductionism in the biological and social sciences, as the onset of positivism led the way to a monolithic consolidation of scientific viewpoints. A symbolic influence is seen in the figure of Comte , and his somewhat idiosyncratic Positivism, which influenced Darwin at the early stage of his career. One of the problems here is that Comte’s work exhibited its own metaphysical tendency, and the historicist philosophy of history in which the Age of Positivism was to succeed those of theology and metaphysics induced a sense of an irreversible progression of thought, with the methodology of science in the starring role.[x]

It is significant that the formulation of Darwinism and the so-called Age of Positivism followed directly in the wake of the collapse of the great era of German philosophy. The end of the reign of Hegelianism, which began with Kant, was very sudden and the history of the 1840’s shows us the drama of Feuerbach and Marx challenging the legacy of idealism and championing the need for sciences of society. This period produced a clear delineation of the human and natural sciences, with a challenge to the reductionist implications of the expanding scientific revolution. A kind of amnesia has overtaken science in the stubborn regression, fueled by spectacular, but misleading, technological wonders, to reductionist obsessions dressed up in scientific methodological jargon. It is nonetheless true that Darwinism thrived on this sense of the epochal transition of modernity attempting to establish the foundations of a new age of secularism. This is not an unreasonable view, once its tacit assumptions are brought out. The problem is Darwin’s selectionist metaphysics, which cannot sustain the task of defining secularism. A strong case can be made for the ‘new age of science’, but this is not something fixed or defined by a passing phase of evolutionary theory.

The earlier context of the idea of evolution in the generation before Darwin shows a broader spectrum of views gestating on the threshold of a science of biology. The focus on positivism makes us forget the immense era of philosophical flowering in the German Enlightenment, whose conclusion in the generation of Marx and Feuerbach foretells the downshifting character of the next generation of scientific methodologies. The moment of the birth of the idea of evolution produced a rich field of thinkers. Kant and the teleomechanists, Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, the school of Hegelian Naturphilosophie, Schopenhauer, the embryologists, these and other figures are grappling with the implications of the new evolutionary perspective, and the question remains whether Darwin’s theory did not diminish this complex field of his predecessors. The dialectic of materialists and idealists, mediated between such figures as Kant and the renewed Spinozism of the Hegelians, produced a universe of thought more solid than the watered down collision of naturalism and spiritualism characteristic of the current Darwin debate .



   Web:  chap2_3_4.htm


[i] Pietro Corsi, The Age of Lamarck: Evolutionary Theories in France , 1790-1830, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). Loren Eiseley, Darwin’s Century (New York: Doubleday, 1958), Edward Larson, Evolution ( New York : The Modern Library, 2004), Michael Ruse, The Darwinian Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), Peter Bowler, Evolution: History of an Idea ( Berkeley : University of California Press , 2003).

[ii] Leon Harris, Evolution: Genesis and Revelations, With Readings from Empedocles to Wilson, C. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981).

[iii] Peter McLaughlin, Kant’s Critique of Teleology in Biological Explanation (Lewisten, New York: Edwin Mellen, 1990). As Timothy Lenoir notes in The Strategy of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), “Teleological thinking has been steadfastly resisted by modern biology. And yet, in nearly every area of research biologists are hard pressed to find language that does not impute purposiveness to living forms. The life of the individual organism—if not life itself, seems to make use of a variety of stratagems in achieving its purposes. But in an age when physical models dominate our imagination and when physics itself has become accustomed to uncertainty relations and complementarity, biologists have learned to live with a kind of schizophrenic language, employing terms like ‘selfish genes’ and ‘survival machines’ to describe the behavior of organisms as if they were somehow purposive yet all the while intending that they are highly complicated mechanisms. The present study treats a period in the history of the life sciences when the imputation of purposiveness to biological organization was not regarded as an embarrassment but rather an accepted fact, and when the principal goal was to reap the benefits of mechanistic explanations by finding a means of incorporating them within the guidelines of a teleological framework. Whereas the history of German biology in the early nineteenth century is usually dismissed as an unfortunate era dominated by arid speculation, the present study aims to reverse that judgment by showing that a consistent, workable program of research was elaborated by a well-connected group of German biologists and that it was based squarely on the unification of teleological and mechanistic models of explanation.” For another view, cf. Frederick Beiser, Chapter 9, “Kant and the Naturphilosophen”, The Romantic Imperative ( Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 2003). Also, Ernst Cassirer, The Problem of Knowledge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950).

[iv] A. Desmond & J. Moore, Darwin: Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (New York: Warner, 1991), p. 295, “The Atheists had already founded an illegal penny paper, the uncompromising Oracle of Reason, a year old and still selling in its thousands. It vilified rich priests and armed infidel missionaries with geological tidbits to use against them. One of the cadre, the working class printer William Chilton, fashioned a revolutionary Lamarckism, driven from below, pushing nature towards a higher, brighter, co-operative future (a meaningless concept to the port-swilling nobility). The hard-bitten editors were fitting evolution into their militant credo. Materialism was given revolutionary class overtones.”

[v] Desmond King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin: Grandfather of Charles Darwin (New York: Scribners, 1963).

[vi] For a standard Darwinian view, see Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle ( Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 2005).

[vii] James Secord, Victorian Sensation ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

[viii] J. D. Peel, Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist (New York: Basic Books, 1971).

[ix] Harold Boner, Hungry Generations, The Nineteenth-Century Case Against Malthusianism, (King's Crown Press, New York, 1955). 

[x] Neal C. Gillespie, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979).





Last modified: 09/21/2010