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Bevyn Mannke

Professor Bouley

HIST 428

May 2016

The Effect of Darwins Theories on Human Understanding and the Natural World

Final Paper Assignment

Charles Darwin is often considered to be the Father of Modern Evolution. With his

numerous publications in the mid to late nineteenth century, the argument can be made that

Darwins scientific discoveries and theories drastically altered how humans have come to

understand their place in the world. Darwins theory of evolution proposes, that through the

mechanism of natural selection, all modern animals exist as the evolutionary products of

beneficial changes to lower-life forms. As Darwin applied his theory of evolution to man, he

provided his answer to the ancient question of how man came to be. The publication of Darwins

theory was a dramatic progression in answering this question. However, Darwin was not the first

to propose an evolutionary theory. What allowed Darwin to stand out from his scientific

predecessors was his explanation of evolution through natural selection. Although evolutionary

theories had been proposed before, Darwins theory of evolution through natural selection

dramatically altered how humans understood themselves and their interactions with the natural

world. Besides the obvious scientific developments that accompanied Darwins research,

significant societal developments also accompanied the explanation of natural selection; this

paper will explore how these concepts have expanded over time and the extent to which they still

persist today.
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Darwin defines natural selection as the mechanism by which competition among species

drives generational change. As this theory of evolution via natural selection gradually gained

acceptance, the scientific community was able to dramatically reexamine how human beings

came to be, as well as how we have interacted with the natural world. In his definition of natural

selection, Darwin highlights competition as a struggle for existence that propels evolutionary

change:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as,
consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any
being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex
and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus
be naturally selected.1

Natural selection served as an explanation of evolution and was eventually recognized as the

correct manner by which particular species experienced generational change. Although Darwin

was not the first to observe or propose a method for these generational changes, he was set apart

from previous thinkers because he discovered natural selection as the correct mechanism for

these observed changes. Early scientific thinkers, as far back as Anaximander in 600BC,

recognized changes in animal species and developed theories for how these changes may have

occurred. What united all of these individuals was their incorrect mechanism to explain the

evolutionary changes that they observed.

Anaximander and Plato are two incredibly early examples of scientific thinkers that

proposed theories of evolution and devolution to explain mans existence. Anaximander is

considered to have written one of the earliest recorded accounts of evolutionary thought. He did

not call his theory evolution, but he did make suggestions as to how man evolved from lower-

life forms. Anaximander explains his theory, not that fishes and men were generated at the same

time, but that at first men were generated in the form of fishes, and that growing up as sharks do

1 Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. Darwin. 3rd ed. Ed. Philip Appleman. (New York: Norton, 1970).
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till they were able to help themselves, they then came forth on the dry ground.2 This early

explanation for an evolutionary process provides evidence that evolutionary thinking existed

long before Darwins publications in the mid to late nineteenth century. On a similar note, Plato

also documented his understanding of human creation in 400BC. Plato believed that the Gods

created man first and that all other beings devolved via devolution. Plato suggested that one

perfect human was created by divine intervention and that lesser beings came from this original

form. Plato stated that his theory of devolution explained the development of women and

animals:

Anyone who lived well for his appointed time would return to his native star and live his
accustomed happy life; but anyone who failed to do so would be changed into a woman
at his second birth. And if he still did not refrain from wrong, he would be changed into
some animal suitable to his particular kind of wrongdoing3

As Plato sought to explain the development of particular species, he suggested that a particularly

negative devolution from the ideal human was responsible for the observed changes. Although

Anaximander and Plato had very different explanations for the development of animals and man,

both thinkers presented their own interpretations of evolution and devolution. Anaximander, in

particular, experienced great criticism for his early evolutionary theory. These objections were

similar to those that Darwin faced as individuals challenged the notion that men began as lower-

life forms. Societal and scientific thinking greatly favored ideas similar to Platos that were

dependent on divine intervention and associated humans with the highest level of being.

While Anaximander and Plato were among the first scholars to hypothesize about the creation of

animals and man, various other thinkers also suggested new theories before Darwin. In the

2 Paul, K., Trench, and Trubner. "The First Philosophers of Greece." Anaximander (Anaximandros): Fragments and
Commentary. Ed. Arthur Fairbanks. Hanover Historical Texts Project. Web.
3 Plato. Timaeus. Trans. Desmod Lee and T.K. Johansen. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1965. Print, 32.
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eighteenth century, Buffons thirty-six volume work, Natural History, presents a unique theory

regarding how life has developed overtime. In his work, Buffon suggests that environmental

changes to a particular species can cause relatively rapid changes in the evolution and devolution

of that animal. In order to explain how generational changes have led to new species, Buffon

uses the example of different species of dogs that have developed in different locations, In

countries extremely hot, like Guinea, the degeneration is still more quick, since by the end of

three or four years they lose their voice in short they are disagreeable to the eye and still more

to the touch.4 This degeneration that Buffon uses to explain the differences among the species of

dog is the mechanism by which he aims to understand the development of life. Buffon suggests

that all animals had an original form and species then developed as animals adapted to their

different climates and overall environments. Buffons theory echoes that of Plato in his attempt

to explain the devolution of man and animals alike. Natural History also suggests that man has a

general power over all other creatures, Man can, therefore, not only make every individual in

the universe useful to his wants, but, with the aid of time, change, modify, and improve the

species; and this is the greatest power he has over nature.5 With this suggestion, Buffon speaks

to the human understanding that, as the most evolved species, man has a sense of control over

the rest of the natural world. In the eighteenth century, Buffon spoke to mans interaction with

the world around him and presented a unique understanding of human devolution through the

mechanism of degeneration.

Following Buffon, but still preceding Darwin, Cuvier and Lamarck presented their own

specific theories regarding the development of speciation in the mid eighteenth to early ninetieth

4 Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, James Smith. Barr, H. D. Symonds, and Thomas Gillet. Buffon's Natural History:
Containing a Theory of the Earth, a General History of Man, of the Brute Creation, and of Vegetables, Minerals.
London: Printed for the Proprietor, and Sold by H.D. Symonds, 1797. Print, 317.
5 Buffon, 313.
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century. While working alongside each other at the French Natural Museum of Natural History,

Curvier and Lamarck developed opposing theories for the creation of man and animals. Curvier

believed that God originally created all species and that, overtime, less successful species died

off and became extinct. In this sense, Cuvier strongly favored creationism, and because he was

unable to find intermediate forms in the fossil record at this time, he did not believe in any

variation of an evolutionary process.6 Lamarck, however, did not believe in the concept of

extinction; he instead suggested an evolutionary process to account for the development of man

and all other species. Lamarcks presented mechanism for evolution was dependent upon the use

and disuse of an animals body parts. Lamarck explains that this use, or lack of use, is

determined by the animals need:

Every new need, necessitation new activities for its satisfaction, requires the animal,
either to make more frequent use of some of its parts which it previously used less, and
thus greatly to develop and enlarge them; or else to make use of entirely new parts, to
which the needs have imperceptibly given birth by efforts of its inner feeling7

Lamarck suggests that the driving force of evolution is an individuals need to allocate the bodys

electrical flow to where it is most needed. Therefore, Lamarcks mechanism suggests that the use

or disuse of particular body parts can be inherited through various generations. Cuvier and

Lamarck each suggested a necessary element of Darwins theory of evolution. Accepting

extinction and evolution, Darwin applied these concepts to his observations and supported the

correct mechanism of natural selection.

Although evolutionary thinking had already been presented and explained by various

scientific scholars, Darwins publications dramatically altered how humans understood

themselves and their interactions with the natural world. Anaximander, Plato, Buffon, Curvier,

6 Rudwick, M. J. S., and Georges Cuvier. Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes: New
Translations & Interpretations of the Primary Texts. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1997. Print, 47.
7 Lamarck. Zoological Philosophy. Darwin. 3rd ed. Ed. Philip Appleman. (New York: Norton, 1970), 48.
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and Lamarck all presented theories of evolution and devolution in an attempt to explain how man

came to be and whether or not a power dynamic was associated with human creation. What set

Darwin apart from these previous theories was the mechanism of natural selection that explained

the driving force behind generational changes of particular species. Darwins mechanism of

natural selection and theory of evolution were dependent upon particular prerequisite

understandings. These basic assumptions included the belief in extinction and the old age of the

Earth, the concept that species can vary and that characteristic changes can be passed down

through generations, and the understanding that competition among species exists and can drive

these generational changes.8 Assuming these fundamental beliefs, Darwin was then able to

structure his publications in order to prove natural selection and evolution.

Even as Darwin discovered the correct mechanism for evolution, his theories met great

opposition. Darwins later 1871 publication, The Descent of Man, was particularly ridiculed as it

suggested that man had also evolved from a lower-life form.9 After his publications, Darwin

faced criticism, specifically from those with a creationist belief, because his theories discounted

the understanding that God created man though a directed process of intelligent design.

Additionally, scientific objections questioned Darwins disregard of fossil evidence to prove the

existence of intermediate species, as well as his inability to describe the genetic science that

supports the mechanism of natural selection. Fleeming Jenkins Review of the Origin of Species

called out Darwins mechanism of natural selection to say that profitable traits should be

swamped out by ordinary traits, Darwin says that in the struggle for life a grain may turn the

balance in favour of a given structure, which will then be preserved. But one of the weights in

8 Darwin, The Origin of Species.


9 Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. Darwin. 3rd ed. Ed. Philip Appleman. (New York: Norton, 1970).
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the scale of nature is due to the number of a given tribe.10 As Mendels discovery of genetics

gained greater acceptance in the mid twentieth century, society moved away from its

understating of blending genetics, and Darwins mechanism of natural selection and theory of

evolution were supported. In this way, even though they took time to be accepted, Darwins

theories allowed humans to understand the scientific reasoning for how they evolved and for the

role that they play in the natural world. Natural selection and evolution laid the ground work for

later scientific discoveries that would continue to fill in the gaps left by Darwin.

Apart from establishing a new standard for the scientific rational of mans existence,

Darwins theories also shaped societal change. Although The Origin of Species was not written to

address man, Darwin did incorporate pretenses of society in his writing. Written shortly after the

Industrial Revolution, the pieces proposed theories of natural selection and evolution met with

certain values of the time. The theory that the natural, and therefore human, world was driven by

a competition for resources made sense in the historical context of the time. Other thinkers also

took advantage of Darwins theories to draw their own claims about society and the natural

world. Herbert Spencer coined the term survival of the fittest to explain that natural selection

also applied to human development; that is to say that social Darwinism exists among individuals

within society. Spencer used Darwins theories to support his belief that violence is essential to

the establishment of a more peaceful society. 11 A strong connotation also exists between the

concept of social Darwinism and the scientific racism expressed in Darwins The Descent of

Man. In this publication, Darwin uses his scientific observation and reasoning to suggest that a

10 Jenkin, Fleeming. Review of the Origin of Species. Darwin. 3rd ed. Ed. Philip Appleman. (New York:
Norton, 1970).

11 Hofstadter, Richard. The Voyage of Spencer. Darwin. 3rd ed. Ed. Philip Appleman. (New York: Norton, 1970).
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hierarchy exists among races of man. One example of this scientific evidence is seen in Darwins

explanation of mans different skull sizes, the belief that there exists in man some close relation

between the size of the brain and the development of the intellectual faculties is supported by

comparing the skulls of savage and civilized races.12 The savage and civilized races that

Darwin describes in this passage correlate to Melanian races and Caucasian races. Darwins

theories contributed to the way the man saw himself and his relationship with the natural world;

the establishment of natural selection and evolution became associated with the concept of

competition between races. In this competition, white society was the clear victor.

As Darwins theories ultimately led to establishment of racial hierarchy, the concept of

eugenics also developed form social Darwinism. Eugenics is defined as the self-direction of

human evolution, the genetic planning of a society. As the study of genetics was discovered to

support Darwins natural selection and evolution, eugenics was seen as a mechanism by which to

breed perfect humans. The easiest way to ensure proper breeding was to establish that improper

individuals were no longer allowed to mate. The United States became leaders in early eugenic

efforts following World War I. In an attempt to regain control over society, the historical context

of the time offers an explanation, however partial and misled, to how sterilization laws

developed in the United States. Cold Spring Harbor and its genetic research led by Charles

Davenport greatly contributed to the establishment of these sterilization laws. With the discovery

of genetics, scientists at this time began to draw conclusions that all traits could be explained

through inheritance. Therefore, it was socially and economically beneficial to inhibit the

improper breeding of lower class citizens or others that were genetically predisposed to negative

12 Darwin, The Origin of Species, 205.


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lives of crime or disease.13 The case of Buck vs. Bell in 1927 was the first case to reach the

Supreme Court that presented feeblemindedness as a cause for sterilization. The court eventually

ruled in favor of sterilization and set the tone in the United States in regard to sterilization

procedures that were primarily performed on the lower class. In hindsight, it can be seen that

feeblemindedness was not well proven, It was the look that would in the end spell the greatest

difficulty in Carrie Bucks case.14 This concept of a feebleminded look would return in later

cases as a basis for class discrimination and discrimination against the mentally impaired.

Fortunately, eugenics programs in the United States did not progress to the same level as German

programs which ultimately included euthanasia and greatly contributed to World War II. The

cruel legacy of eugenics is regarded a societal trend that at first, attempted to strengthen society,

but instead divided it even further.

Perhaps a more positive effect of Darwins theories is the genetic advances that have

resulted from modern research. Although scientific racism and the early foundation for eugenics

can be linked to Darwins natural selection and evolution, these theories have also allowed for

biological and sociobiological advances. Regarding the biological basis for social behavior,

sociobiology has allowed us to gain a better understanding of our human relationship with the

natural world. The debate of biological determinism (nature) versus biological potential (nurture)

still exists today as both methods attempt to explain human behavior.15 Darwinism suggests that

favorable practices are inherited as these are often associated with the highest survival potentials.

13 Nourse, Victoria F. In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the near Triumph of American Eugenics. New
York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
14 Nourse, 27.
15 Gould, Stephen Jay. Biological Potentiality vs. Biological Determinism. Darwin. 3rd ed. Ed.Philip Appleman.
(New York: Norton, 1970).
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Although history has shown that the manipulation of genetic breeding does not led to successful

societies, a great potential for humans to learn about their biological and sociobiological traits

exists today as a result of genetic research. Innate behaviors and designed traits can both be

dangerous when taken to societal extremes; however, the potential for a balance of nature and

nurture gives hope to continued knowledge regarding mans existence and relationship with the

natural world.

Darwins mechanism of natural selection and theory of evolution dramatically altered

how humans understood themselves and their interactions with the natural world. Darwin was

not the first scientific thinker to suggest an evolutionary process for mans development;

however, by determining the correct mechanism for evolution, Darwin established a scientific

explanation for the creation of man. Darwins theories also had societal implications that gave

scientific backing to class and race discrimination. These societal changes altered how humans

interacted with the natural world and further developed the human complex of control over lesser

creatures. Darwins theories have not only guided our understanding of where we came from, but

also directed our societal developments and modern scientific research.


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Works Cited

Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, James Smith. Barr, H. D. Symonds, and Thomas Gillet. Buffon's
Natural History: Containing a Theory of the Earth, a General History of Man, of the
Brute Creation, and of Vegetables, Minerals. London: Printed for the Proprietor, and Sold
by H.D. Symonds, 1797. Print.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. Darwin. 3rd ed. Ed. Philip Appleman. (New York:
Norton, 1970).

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. Darwin. 3rd ed. Ed. Philip Appleman. (New York:
Norton, 1970).

Gould, Stephen Jay. Biological Potentiality vs. Biological Determinism. Darwin. 3rd ed. Ed.
Philip Appleman. (New York: Norton, 1970).

Hofstadter, Richard. The Voyage of Spencer. Darwin. 3rd ed. Ed. Philip Appleman. (New
York: Norton, 1970).

Jenkin, Fleeming. Review of the Origin of Species. Darwin. 3rd ed. Ed. Philip Appleman.
(New York: Norton, 1970).

Lamarck. Zoological Philosophy. Darwin. 3rd ed. Ed. Philip Appleman. (New York: Norton,
1970).

Nourse, Victoria F. In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the near Triumph of American
Eugenics. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

Paul, K., Trench, and Trubner. "The First Philosophers of Greece." Anaximander
(Anaximandros): Fragments and Commentary. Ed. Arthur Fairbanks. Hanover Historical
Texts Project. Web.

Plato. Timaeus. Trans. Desmod Lee and T.K. Johansen. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1965.
Print.

Rudwick, M. J. S., and Georges Cuvier. Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological
Catastrophes: New Translations & Interpretations of the Primary Texts. Chicago: U of
Chicago, 1997. Print.