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Darwinism Gone to Seed
Disseminating Darwinism: The Role of Place, Race, Religion, and Gender, edited by Ronald L. Numbers and John Stenhouse, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 300 pp.; $54.95
Isms multiply when ideologies collide. Strange though it may seem at "the end of history," words we smile or scoff at were once casus belli, fought over like territory, flung about like grenades. Nineteenth-century English first felt the impact of "evangelicalism" (1831), "socialism" (1837), "secularism" and "vegetarianism" (1851), "altruism" (1853), "positivism" (1854), "sacerdotalism" (1861), "agnosticism" (1869), "imperialism" (1870), and "pragmatism" (1898). Other isms, like ensigns, heralded the followers of great men: "Owenism" (1833), "New man ism" (1838), "Malthusianism" (1848), "Moody-and-Sankeyism" (1875), "Spencerism" (1880), and "Marxism" (1897). Coined in innocence or forged in anger, words like these became "calls to battle," not only in politics and religion, but—Ludwig Fleck reminds us—in Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. When their "logical meaning" was spent, they still retained a "magical power" to provoke or persuade "simply by being used."
The most durable of Victorian scientific isms is "Darwinism." It entered the ideological fray in 1856 when a clergyman damned the soft-porn poet Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles. Four years later, Darwinism began to acquire its modern sense, referring to views ex pressed in the Origin of Species (1859). This was thanks to a rising sea-squirt specialist, Thomas Huxley, who in the same breath puffed an arms magnate by dubbing the Origin "a Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism." Huxley went on to target popular audiences with the ultimatum "it is either Darwinism or nothing," by which he promoted evolutionary naturalism with an anti-creationist edge. But his rhetoric proved divisive and made more enemies than friends. Too often, it seemed, Darwinism was used or abused by partisans rather than treated for what he ...