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Imagine a dark, stormy night in the South Atlantic at the end of December 1832. Aboard the Royal Navy survey vessel HMS Beagle a young naturalist, racked with seasickness, staggers on deck. A sudden wave makes the ship heel violently, and he is washed over the side. The lookout calls "Man overboard!" but it is too dark to see anything in the churning sea, and the storm is too fierce for the officer on watch to risk turning the ship about. Charles Darwin is gone, and Captain Fitzroy will have to face the task of writing to his family in England to break the news. He will certainly tell them that in addition to their personal tragedy, the scientific community has lost a promising young naturalist who might have achieved great things. But he has no idea that Darwin's greatest achievement would have been to write one of the most controversial books of the century, a book that Fitzroy himself would have denounced in public: On the Origin of Species.
What would a world without Darwin look like? Many have argued that science would have developed much the same. His theory of evolution by natural selection was "in the air" at the time, an inevitable product of the way people were thinking about themselves and the world they lived in. If Darwin hadn't proposed it, then someone else would have, most obviously the naturalist we know as the "co-discoverer" of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Events would have unfolded more or less as we know them, although without the iconic term "Darwinism" to denote the evolutionary paradigm. But Wallace's version of the theory was not the same as Darwin's, and he had very different ideas about its implications. And since Wallace conceived his theory in 1858, any equivalent to Darwin's 1859 Origin of Species would have appeared years later. There probably would have been an evolutionary movement in the late nineteenth century, but it would have been based on different theoretical foundations—theories that were actually tried out in our own world and that for a time were thought to overshadow Darwin's.
Darwinism was eventually rescued when the new science of genetics undermined the plausibility of the rival theories of evolution following the "rediscovery" of Mendel's laws of heredity in 1900. I suspect that in a world without Darwin, it would have taken until the early twentieth century for the theory of natural selection to come to the attention of most biologists. Evolution would have emerged; science would be composed of roughly the same battery of theories we have today, but the complex would have been assembled in a different way. In our world, evolutionary developmental biology had to challenge the simpleminded gene-centered Darwinism of the 1960s to generate a more sophisticated paradigm. In the non-Darwinian world, the developmental model would have been dominant throughout and would have been modified to accommodate the idea of selection in the mid-twentieth century.
Why is this exercise of any interest at all? If biology ultimately develops toward the same end product, why should anyone care about the possibility that the major discoveries might have been made in an order different from the one we actually experienced? As far as science itself is concerned, the topic may well be academic (in the best sense of the term), but there are wider issues at stake. We might have ended up with similar theories, but we would think about them differently if they had emerged at different times, and this would affect public attitudes toward them.
The impact of Darwin's theory was of course not limited to science itself—it has been seen as a major contributor to the rise of materialism and atheism. Evolutionism offends many religious believers, but of even greater concern is the idea that change is based on chance variations winnowed out by a ruthless struggle for existence. In the eyes of its critics, Darwin's theory of natural selection inspired generations of social thinkers and ideologues to promote harsh policies known as "social Darwinism." Creationists frequently claim that Darwin was directly responsible for generating the vision of Aryan racial superiority that inspired the Nazis to attempt the extermination of the Jews. Apparently it is not enough for critics to challenge Darwinism on allegedly scientific grounds—they contend that it is also immoral and hence dangerous. Even if the scientific evidence is tempting, one shouldn't consider the theory because it would undermine morality and the social order. But should certain ideas in science be ruled out of court whatever the evidence suggests?
My interest in exploring what happens in a world without Darwin is driven by the hope of using history to undermine the claim that the theory of natural selection inspired the various forms of social Darwinism. The world in which Darwin did not write the Origin of Species would have experienced more or less all of our history's social and cultural developments. Racism and various ideologies of individual and national struggle would have flourished just the same and would have drawn their scientific justification from the rival, non-Darwinian ideas of evolution. This is no mere conjecture, because the real-world opponents of Darwinism were active in lending support to the ideologies most of us now find so distasteful. Science simply cannot bear the burden imposed on it by those who think it can inspire whole social movements—on the contrary, science is shaped by the social matrix within which it is conducted. In the world without Darwin, the horrors would still exist, but the theory of natural selection would not have the bogeyman image associated with it by its critics because it would have been developed too late to play a significant role. We need to think harder about the wider tensions in our culture responsible for the ideologies that came to have the inoffensive Darwin as their figurehead.
The conjuring of a world in which events followed a different path at some crucial turning point is known as counterfactual history. It's highly controversial among historians, although military historians sometimes like to show how the outcome of a major battle was decided by an event that seemed trivial at the time but turned out to have momentous consequences. Critics scoff in part because novelists sometimes set their stories in alternate universes, and this underscores the degree of imagination counterfactual histories require. There are also several schools of historical thought that assume that the march of events is predetermined by built-in trends that govern individual action. In these systems there can be no nodal points at which history could be switched onto a different track. While I accept that, thanks to broader cultural trends, social Darwinism would have emerged even without Darwin's theory, I want to explore the possibility that without Darwin there would not have been a theory of natural selection in the late nineteenth century.
The counterfactual technique faces another level of opposition in the history of science. The scientific method is supposed to offer a foolproof guide to assembling an ever more sophisticated understanding of the real world. That science could have proceeded along paths we did not actually observe might seem to undermine its claim to objective knowledge. If an alternative science is plausible, how can the entities and processes postulated in our theories correspond to the true nature of reality? But we can imagine at least some points in the development of science when there were alternative possibilities of advancement open to researchers, especially if the various routes ended up at the same point later on. To suggest that evolutionism could have emerged without Darwin does not challenge the objectivity of science, although it does invite us to think more carefully about the nature of scientific knowledge.
COUNTERFACTUALS AND HISTORY
Counterfactual history makes sense only if we think that the sequence of events is to some extent open-ended or contingent. There may be some inevitable trends, but there are also nodes from which alternative sequences branch out. In some cases, the turning point is a crucial decision that could be seen at the time as having momentous implications. In others, a fairly trivial event unleashes a train of unanticipated consequences that add up to create a different future.
Ward Moore's 1955 novel, Bring the Jubilee, first got me interested in counterfactuals. In the book, a historian from an alternative world in which the Confederates won the battle of Gettysburg and gained their independence invents a time machine to study the battle firsthand. He tries to remain inconspicuous but is spotted by a group of Confederate soldiers advancing toward what will become the battlefield on the following day. They think he is a spy, panic, and turn back. The historian then watches in horror as the battle unfolds along lines that become increasingly unfamiliar to him. Rather than occupying the hills known as the Round Tops, which dominate the battlefield, they allow Union forces get there first and exploit the position to win the battle. The historian is now trapped in a world that will experience a very different sequence of events from those he remembers.
Here is an example of a counterfactual world emerging from an apparently trivial change affecting a few ordinary people, the consequences of which only turn out to be immense when one is in a position to appreciate their cumulative effect. Now consider another scenario, one more familiar to British readers: a world in which the German Luftwaffe won the Battle of Britain in 1940 and the Nazis successfully invaded England. We know that at a crucial point in September 1940 the Royal Air Force (RAF) was reduced almost to impotence because its airfields had been bombed to the point where many were unusable. Then, in a fit of pique after a minor RAF raid on Berlin, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to switch its attentions to London. The resulting Blitz destroyed whole areas of the capital city—but the RAF now had time to rebuild its airfields and resume the fight, ultimately defeating the Luftwaffe and, by denying it air superiority, making an invasion impossible. Hitler's decision changed the course of the war: had the assault on the RAF continued, the Germans would certainly have gained control of the air and a successful invasion might have been mounted. In this case the trigger is not a minor event that has unanticipated consequences but a decision made by a key figure that could have been seen at the time as having major implications (even if its full significance was not at first apparent).
The turning point in Darwinian history falls somewhere between these two extremes. Darwin was indeed a key figure without whom the theory of natural selection would not have been developed in anything like the form we know it. But if one imagines him falling overboard on the voyage of the Beagle, his death—however tragic at a personal level—would have been perceived as having only minor implications at the time. No one could have suspected that this young naturalist would mature into someone whose ideas would challenge the world. Some events have consequences that are hard to predict and whose significance is not apparent until viewed in hindsight. Most decisions and events get submerged in the general march by forces too strong to be deflected. But counterfactuals depend on identifying nodal points, those rare episodes where it is possible to plead a plausible case that history could have been switched onto a different track.
To make my non-Darwinian universe plausible, I have to defend counterfactual history against critics who claim the technique is fundamentally flawed: history happened just as we know it, and to imagine alternate worlds is pointless. But why is it pointless? Is it because we shouldn't waste time on imaginative fictions, or because the notion of alternate worlds violates what we know about the march of history? The counterfactualist argues for the contingency of history against those who attribute everything to rigid causation or unalterable trends. He or she then has to show that imagining the development of alternate worlds is something more than a parlour game. This can be done by identifying both the triggering events and their consequences, which helps us to grasp the true significance of factors in our own history, factors we all too often take for granted. The novelist constructs an alternate universe to provide an exciting background for a story. But the historian has to show that identifying the nodal points and the alternatives that flow from them helps us to probe the origins of the world we actually live in.
The historian E. H. Carr argued against counterfactuals, insisting that history is a record of what happened and that worrying about might-have-beens is a waste of time. This objection implies a complete lack of interest in historical causation, turning history into a mere record of facts. It also ignores the role of counterfactuals in everyday life—one of the ways in which we learn about the consequences of our actions is to imagine what might have happened had we chosen otherwise. Lawyers too routinely use the counterfactual technique to probe the responsibility of their clients and witnesses. Did the accused realize what the consequences of his or her actions were? One way of testing this is to ask if they considered what might have happened if they didn't take the crucial step. If we can imagine alternative decisions having consequences in everyday life, it seems odd not to extend the possibility to history, which, after all, is the collective product of individual actions. Even philosopher Benedetto Croce, who dismissed the construction of counterfactual worlds as "too wearisome to be long maintained," conceded that we use the technique in our everyday lives and admitted that it was useful to identify which historical events were crucial turning points.
Determinism in History
Croce wanted to defend the role of the individual in history, but most critics of counterfactualism argue that alternate histories are impossible because the course of events is predetermined. There are no nodes at which history could be switched onto a different path because the world is constrained to unfold in a predetermined direction. The direction may be a product of rigid laws of social or cultural evolution, or it may be directed toward an ultimate goal of deep moral significance. Either way, individual decisions can have no effect and there are no actions that can trigger an unpredictable sequence of events. Tolstoy's War and Peace, which argues that we cannot blame the French invasion of Russia on Napoleon, offers a classic expression of this view. The French nation was bound to launch an episode of imperial expansion, and if Napoleon had not lived, someone else would have become emperor and would have made the same decisions. Tolstoy's target was the Great Man school of history in which momentous events are triggered by the will of powerfully gifted individuals. I acknowledge the shortcomings of that school of history and have no intention of presenting Darwin as a Great Man who moved the world by sheer willpower. His crucial insight came about because he had a unique combination of interests that allowed him to see links not obvious to others at the time.
The image of the Great Man is associated with the historical writings of Thomas Carlyle, who believed such individuals were sent to transform the world by its Creator. The idea of the Great Man can therefore be understood as irrelevant for counterfactualism because a Great Man is just fulfilling divine will and driving events toward a predestined culmination. He is merely the tool by which historical inevitability imposes its purpose on the world. To make counterfactuals work, leaders such as Napoleon or Hitler have to be able to make idiosyncratic decisions that could not have been foreseen.
Idealists who see history as the unfolding of a divine plan don't have to rely on Great Men to do the job. They often adopt a less hero-centered approach that sees the universe reaching its goal via built-in trends or a predetermined sequence of developmental stages. We are all in our own ways participating in the process, our individual decisions and activities adding up, whether we are aware of it or not, to achieve the next step in the progress toward the final goal. This was the position of Hegel and his followers, and it is reflected in the modern world through the influence of thinkers such as Michael Oakeshott.
Excerpted from DARWIN Deleted by PETER J. BOWLER Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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