Darwin's discovery of evolution is as celebrated as Galileo's laws of motion or Newton's discovery of gravity. But this was only half the story. Not content to prove that evolution had happened, Darwin sought to convey its full humbling implications. Thus he formulated the theory of natural selection. Contrary to popular belief, this theory ran exactly counter to scientific reason and was consequently rejected by the scientific community of the time. This wasn’t the only reason Darwin’s critics recoiled. His theory robbed the ruling orders of any easy recourse to consolatory tales of nature’s harmony and design. The fate of his ideas, for the time being at least, would be left to the heretics he inspired in other domains. Darwin's radical thought anticipated Nietzsche's Godless philosophy, Marx's class-based economics and Freud's psychological theories of the unconscious. It would take a further 80 years for Darwinism to become accepted as mainstream science, but it came at the expense of its counter-scientific core. For the remainder of the twentieth century a popularized Darwinism would become the touchstone for backlash movements in philosophy, economics and psychology—disciplines he once so radicalized. This is the story of how the most revolutionary idea of the nineteenth century became the most reactionary idea of the twentieth.
Samuel Grove received his PhD from the University of Nottingham.
Part 1: From Science to Counter-Science
1.“I think!”: Science & the Union of Nature & Thought
2. “I can’t think!”: Counter-Science & the Unthought
3. A Conflictual Science: Darwin’s Theory of Evolution & Natural Selection
Part 2: The Reluctant Radical
4. The Death of God: Darwin’s Adaptation to an Imperfect Science
5. The Dismal Science: Darwin’s Struggle for a Ruling Interpretation
6. Specious Origins: Darwin’s Selections in an Age of Narcissism and Doubt
Part 3: Darwin’s Century: From Crisis to Reaction
7. A Crisis of Representation: Representations of Evolution 1859– 1929
8. Reaction and Containment: Darwinian Interpretations 1929– 2009
Conclusion: Recovering the Unthought
This ambitious work examines the philosophical underpinnings of the Darwinian revolution. Grove examines the difficulty Darwin faced in dealing with one of the problematic currents of thought that emerged from his theory, i.e., the social applications of Darwinian biology. Grove traces the way Darwin's ideas have been used and misused, primarily by nonscientists, while also addressing the contributions of philosophers of science. He suggests that Darwin's own ambivalence about the consequences of his "revolutionary idea" made him "a reluctant radical." Philosophers of science have attempted to resolve the contradictions they see in Darwinian theory. Grove maintains that Darwin himself invoked two contradictory images, "distinct and irreconcilable." One is the "tree of life," an image that encapsulates every living thing that has existed in a single representation. The second image is of an "entangled bank," one that is filled with many "hidden connections" and which "conceals as much as it reveals." Grove indicates that Darwin's difficulty arose from attempting to make these two images conversant in a single theory, a task to which Darwin devoted himself during the last five decades of his life. This work reviews the major philosophical currents of thought relating to Darwinian theory, trends that have made the theory compelling for philosophers but challenging for naturalists. Recommended. Graduate students and faculty.
Sam Grove's book Retrieving Darwin's Revolutionary Idea explores the unresolved contradictions in Darwin's work with which Darwin himself struggled at the time of its composition. Later, these same contradictions are shown to have given rise to bitter and lasting disagreements among Darwinists about the mechanisms driving evolution. With exemplary care this important new book reveals a counter-scientific tendency in Darwin’s writing alongside its more celebrated scientific features and aspirations. Complexity, contingency, and imperfection disrupt the more celebrated scientific features and aspirations of Darwin’s writing, which is situated alongside that of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as crucial for later thinking, both in science and beyond.
It’s twelve years since the outpouring of conferences, books, videos, lectures and television programmes celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday; one might be forgiven for thinking that there's not much more that can be said. In this engaging study Samuel Grove persuades us otherwise. Grove probes both the originality of Darwin's big idea and its contradictions, showing us a man honest and rigorous enough to admit his own doubts about the ability of science to answer the most profound questions about our origins. He traces the way Darwin's ideas have been used and abused by subsequent generations of scientists and political thinkers all eager to claim Darwin as the originator of their own radically differing world views. The end result is not to diminish Darwin's achievements but rather to see him as a man of integrity wrestling, not always successfully, with the most profound questions about life in ways that challenged the society into which he was born and continue to do so today.
Few doubt the central importance of Darwin, Marx, and Freud in the development of modern thinking about science, economics, and psychology. Yet fewer still have acknowledged what these iconoclastic thinkers might have in common. Sam Grove's provocative new book, Retrieving Darwin's Revolutionary Idea, does exactly that. Using a Foucauldian approach, Grove analyses the contradictions in Darwin's theories (over which he himself famously agonised), and traces the consequences of his heroic failure to resolve them through several strands of the Darwinist literature of the 20th century, including politicised receptions of the notion of natural selection. From this something rare emerges: a fresh perspective on the status of Darwinian science, one which brings him closer to both Marx and Freud than many readers would have expected.
This is an important book taking a new look at Darwin the scientist and thinker. Using the tools of critical theory Sam Grove forensically examines the development of Darwin’s thinking and the great man’s own “horrid doubts” about Natural Selection as a mechanism for evolution. Darwin’s “horrid doubts” were symptomatic of his age—an age of revolution, industrial change and social strife that would transform the natural world and our methods of studying it. It is well known that Darwin’s contemporaries recoiled from the radical consequences of evolution. Less well known are the extraordinary lengths Darwinists of the twentieth century went to contain Darwin’s discovery within the traditional bounds of science. Grove’s fascinating account reveals that efforts to establish the scientific status of Darwinism have always been intrinsically linked to the political dilemmas and concerns facing the liberal establishment. The writing is very clear and accessible throughout, providing readers with a vivid insight into some major themes of our times.
All biologists need some philosophy in their lives. This elegantly written and tightly argued book explores how the core creed of biology, evolution by the action of natural selection, is underpinned by an epistemological gap—a kernel of unknowing—that plagued both Darwin and his successors, but has left Darwinism intact. A very valuable addition to the canon.
Samuel Grove interview on Darwin for Philosophy Now.