Darwin and some finches

Santosh and Plutynski to contribute to volume debunking myths about Darwin

Shruti Santosh and Anya Plutynski will contribute a chapter to a forthcoming volume addressing common misconceptions about Darwin and his work

PNP PhD student Shruti Santosh and Professor Anya Plutynski will contribute a chapter entitled "Myth 12: That Darwin’s theory brought an instant and immediate revolution in the life sciences" to a forthcoming volume, edited by Kostas Kampourakis, entitled Darwin Mythology: Debunking Myths, Correcting Falsehoods (Cambridge University Press).  A description of their chapter follows.

It’s commonly held that Darwin’s Origin of Species led to a “revolution” in science. Our aim here is to consider one particular claim: namely, that Darwin’s theory brought about an immediate change in the life sciences. We will argue here that this claim is false – a myth. Unfortunately, such claims can be found in popular science writing biology textbooks, and even in work by scientists, educators and philosophers.

Some of Darwin’s ideas – e.g., of common descent – were in wide circulation before the publication of the Origin, and thus not revolutionary in the sense of “novel.” Moreover, Darwin’s ideas regarding the major mechanism of descent, natural selection, were not immediately accepted, and so arguably not “revolutionary” either, at least in the sense of leading to a rapid change.

As we document, many challenged his theory, and alternatives were widely considered and endorsed (e.g., Lamarckian, Orthogenic,  and “mutationist” theories), well into the early part of the 20th Century. Moreover, attention among biologists was focused largely on rather different problems than those that Darwin took as centrally important to solve. The rise of Mendelism, experimental genetics, experimental embryology, and broad interest in eugenics among many biologists, placed heredity and development at the center of concern amongst many biologists, as opposed to, e.g., adaptation and speciation (cf. Cain, 2009; Largent 2009). Adaptation and speciation did not return to center stage until the 1930s and 40s. This winding path led eventually to acceptance of natural selection as a major mechanism of descent during what has been called the “modern synthesis” (Provine, 1971; Mayr and Provine, 1980). Darwin’s view that natural selection was a – if not “the” major mechanism of descent, however, was not immediately and widely adopted. Rather than a rapid, “revolutionary” change, this eventual embrace of “Darwinism” was part of a gradual transformation of the life sciences over a span of some fifty years, during which objections and competing theories and mechanisms of evolutionary change were widely debated.