In the nineteenth century evolution, progress and natural laws were intimately related in understandings of nature. Scholars are coming to treat all of these themes as part of related and intertwined cultural processes rather than distinct and independent lineages. At the beginning of the century, the evolution of species, especially man, and the evolution of the earth were generally considered absurd and beyond the bounds of learned discussion. Because of the great interest in Darwin and evolutionary biology today, we tend to speak in terms of the history of evolutionary thought, as if many thinkers struggled in vain to come up with Darwin's theory. But this is a rather ahistorical understanding. In fact a much wider variety of concerns were proposed and debated before and after Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). For example, the possibility of geological, social, economic, technological and intellectual change or progress seemed to challenge the orthodox Genesis-inspired steady-state system created by God. Victorian evangelicals were particularly opposed to ideas of progress because they contradicted their understanding of the Bible and the Fallen state of the world.
For most of the century the question was not, do organisms evolve, but rather does nature change by itself? The crux of the question was where the agency for change lay. Was it with God or some other unseen divine creator or intelligence, or did nature simply work in the ways it did by virtue of its properties? Many believed in a complex mixture of both of these. Victorian ideas of natural and social progress were descended from French revolutionary and Enlightenment thinkers like Condorcet, Volney and Baron d'Holbach. So too the Victorians' talk of natural laws was a legacy of the French Revolution.
- J.B. Lamarck
- Natural theology
- Erasmus Darwin
- George Combe
- Robert Chambers
- Evolutionary theory before Darwin
- Charles Darwin
- Darwin and the Removal of Design
- Alfred Russel Wallace
- Science publishing
- T.H. Huxley
- The Huxley-Wilberforce debate (needed)
- Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism
- Tennyson and Evolution
- The evolution of society and culture
Related Material — Primary Texts
••• = outside the Victorian Web
- Cuvier, Elegy of Lamarck
- •••Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy or Exposition (vol 1 only; outside the Victorian Web) Internet Archive. Web. 17 January 2012.
- •••Volney, The Ruins: or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires; and The Law of Nature (outside the Victorian Web)
- •••Baron d'Holbach, The system of nature: or, Laws of the moral and physical world (outside the Victorian Web)
- Darwin, An historical sketch of the progress of opinion on the origin of species
- Herbert Spencer's 'Development Hypothesis
- Maxwell, “Molecules”
- Tyndall's Belfast Address
Web Resources (outside this site)
- Lefalophodon: History of Evolutionary Biology
- A history of evolutionary thought, University of California, Berkeley
- Morton, Peter, The vital science: biology and the literary imagination, 1860-1900. 1984.
- Evolution: selected papers and commentary by Donald Forsdyke
- Darwin the Geologist, by Léo F. Laporte
- Early Classics in Biogeography, Distribution and Diversity Studies to 1950 by Charles H. Smith
An informal and incomplete guide to the history of evolutionary biology 1800-1950 by John Alroy. Its main emphases are on the late 19th century and on paleontology with links to very many online texts.
Last modified 17 January 2012