Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory

Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory

4.0 1
by Edward J. Larson

See All Formats & Editions

“I often said before starting, that I had no doubt I should frequently repent of the whole undertaking.” So wrote Charles Darwin aboard The Beagle, bound for the Galapagos Islands and what would arguably become the greatest and most controversial discovery in scientific history. But the theory of evolution did not spring full-blown from


“I often said before starting, that I had no doubt I should frequently repent of the whole undertaking.” So wrote Charles Darwin aboard The Beagle, bound for the Galapagos Islands and what would arguably become the greatest and most controversial discovery in scientific history. But the theory of evolution did not spring full-blown from the head of Darwin. Since the dawn of humanity, priests, philosophers, and scientists have debated the origin and development of life on earth, and with modern science, that debate shifted into high gear.

In this lively, deeply erudite work, Pulitzer Prize–winning science historian Edward J. Larson takes us on a guided tour of Darwin’s “dangerous idea,” from its theoretical antecedents in the early nineteenth century to the brilliant breakthroughs of Darwin and Wallace, to Watson and Crick’s stunning discovery of the DNA double helix, and to the triumphant neo-Darwinian synthesis and rising sociobiology today.

Along the way, Larson expertly places the scientific upheaval of evolution in cultural perspective: the social and philosophical earthquake that was the French Revolution; the development, in England, of a laissez-faire capitalism in tune with a Darwinian ethos of “survival of the fittest”; the emergence of Social Darwinism and the dark science of eugenics against a backdrop of industrial revolution; the American Christian backlash against evolutionism that culminated in the famous Scopes trial; and on to today’s world, where religious fundamentalists litigate for the right to teach “creation science” alongside evolution in U.S. public schools, even as the theory itself continues to evolve in new and surprising directions.

Throughout, Larson trains his spotlight on the lives and careers of the scientists, explorers, and eccentrics whose collaborations and competitions have driven the theory of evolution forward. Here are portraits of Cuvier, Lamarck, Darwin, Wallace, Haeckel, Galton, Huxley, Mendel, Morgan, Fisher, Dobzhansky, Watson and Crick, W. D. Hamilton, E. O. Wilson, and many others. Celebrated as one of mankind’s crowning scientific achievements and reviled as a threat to our deepest values, the theory of evolution has utterly transformed our view of life, religion, origins, and the theory itself, and remains controversial, especially in the United States (where 90% of adults do not subscribe to the full Darwinian vision). Replete with fresh material and new insights, Evolution will educate and inform while taking readers on a fascinating journey of discovery.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Infectious good reading. The prose is limpid, the chapters are luminous."
—James Moore, co-author of Darwin

“The history of evolutionary science from the 18th-century to the present is a history of controversies and seemingly incompatible views. It takes an author like Ed Larson to provide an account of this crucial history. . . .The reader will be rewarded by an intellectual delight.”
—Ernst Mayr

"Larson masterfully takes us from the 18th century French enlightenment to the 21st century evolution wars. From Buffon and Cuvier, through Darwin and Wallace, to Dawkins, Gould, and Wilson, he provides a scholarly, readable history of the ups and downs of the theory of evolution. Larson shows us how firmly this theory is established, as firmly as Einstein's theory of relativity."
—Duncan M. Porter, Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project

"Larson has written a brilliant introduction to the history of evolution, equally sensitive to scientific, religious, and social factors. It is, hands down, the most readable and reliable account available."
—Ronald L. Numbers, Hilldale and William Coleman Professor of the History of Science and Medicine. Department of Medical History and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin

"Ed Larson is both a historian and a writer who knows how to bring his subject alive. In Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory he combines the latest historical scholarship with an understanding of recent issues in science, religion and social debate. This powerful book will help everyone understand the foundations of modern evolutionary ideas and the origins of the latest controversies."
—Peter J. Bowler, Queens University Belfast

"An indispensable guide to the sometimes weird, but always wonderful, world of Evolution. Every species inhabiting this contested territory is here: Darwinian materialists, Lamarckian progressivists, hopeful-monster mutationists, theistic evolutionists, neo-vitalists, six-day creationists, mathematical geneticists, intelligent designers, molecular reductionists and on and on. Yet this is no monochrome chronicle of disengaged scientific ideas. It is a rich and compelling narrative portrayed in glorious technicolour, as grand and sweeping in scope as the theory of evolution itself. In the struggle for shelf-life among publications on evolution, Edward Larson's book is superbly fitted for long-term survival."
—David N. Livingstone, author of Darwin's Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought

“Larson’s acclaimed gifts as a writer who can make the history of science exciting to a wide audience are visible again. The story, which takes seriously the cultural meanings of new science, has many twists and turns and is told with humor and vivacity.”
—JOHN HEDLEY BROOKE, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion, University of Oxford

Publishers Weekly
Larson, a Pulitzer-winning historian (Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion), traces the history of the contentious concept of evolution from Darwin's predecessors, like Cuvier and Lyell, to his early advocates, like Asa Gray (who tried to keep God in the mix) and Thomas Huxley, and "postmodern" advocates such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. Larson reminds readers that Darwin hasn't always been held in as high esteem as he is today, even among scientists: at the beginning of the 1900s, the concept of evolution was widely accepted, but natural selection was not. Larson demonstrates that only through advances by mid-century population geneticists like Haldane, Fisher and Wright and sociobiologists like the late William Hamilton have most scientists come to accept all of Darwin's theories. Larson devotes chapters to dark episodes in evolution's history like the early 20th-century eugenics movement and the Scopes trial, where, Larson proposes, Clarence Darrow's theatrics may have done the cause more harm than good. This latest entry in Modern Library's Chronicles series isn't "evolution for dummies"-it requires concentration and some effort-but Larson's survey should make valuable reading for young people going into the sciences and other science buffs. Illus. not seen by PW. (On sale May 4) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize winner Larson (Richard B. Russell Professor of History, Univ. of Georgia; Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion) has written a good deal on evolution. His latest work is a clear, concise, and highly informative overview of evolutionary thought from ancient speculations to the emergence of a neo-Darwinian synthesis. It focuses on those essential facts, events, and ideas that have contributed to the successes of scientific evolutionism. First Larson discusses the geopaleontological framework, Charles Darwin's pivotal writings, and the supporting research of Ernst Haeckel, Thomas Huxley, Charles Lyell, and Alfred Russel Wallace. Then the author pays special attention to the discoveries of fossil hominid evidence by the Leakey family (among others) and advances in understanding genetics, emphasizing the major breakthroughs made by Thomas Hunt Morgan and Ronald A. Fisher. Of particular relevance is the critical treatment of eugenics. Next Larson examines the ongoing challenges to both evolutionary science and materialistic naturalism posed by religious creationism and biblical fundamentalism. He includes an analysis of the so-called John Scopes "Monkey Trial" (1925) and its far-reaching consequences for science education. His survey ends with a discussion of DNA, altruism, and sociobiology. Larson is to be commended for stressing the value of both scientific inquiry and the evolutionary framework. This outstanding book is highly recommended for all academic and public libraries.-H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A brisk survey of the origins and development of modern biology's key idea. Larson (History and Law/Univ. of Georgia; Evolution's Workshop, 2001, etc.) picks up the thread in the 18th century, when biologists began to question the biblical account of creation. French naturalist Georges Cuvier, recognizing that certain animals had become extinct, invoked the biblical flood to explain the extinctions. Not all his contemporaries bought that explanation; English geologist Charles Lyell argued that Earth's history was better explained by the steady working of everyday processes over sufficient time. That insight, coupled with Thomas Malthus's explication of population dynamics, was at the root of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, "survival of the fittest." Larson aptly summarizes the familiar story of Darwin's discoveries and the ensuing sensation, with good coverage of such important supporting figures as T.H. Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace. He also offers balanced treatment of the religious objections to the proposal that human beings arose from some lower form without divine intervention, as well as to the idea of "improving" the human species by selective breeding, a notion that in the form of eugenics led eventually to the Nazi death camps. Still, most 19th-century biologists enthusiastically endorsed evolution. Filling in gaps in the fossil record, they built a strong case for evolution in such species as horses and, eventually, human beings. Meanwhile, Gregor Mendel formulated the laws of heredity. When Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA, the precise mechanism of Mendelian heredity became clear, and the notion that acquiredcharacteristics might be inheritable finally died. While fine-tuning of the details of the theory continues, evolution is now as firmly established as any principle in science. Larson does a fine job of showing the main intellectual currents, effectively setting them in historical context. Thoroughly readable, evenhanded, and well documented.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Modern Library Chronicles Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.79(d)

Read an Excerpt


Bursting the Limits of Time

Georges Cuvier had a large head-a famously large head-and an ego more than sufficient to swell even it. From his position atop the French scientific establishment during the first third of the nineteenth century, he accumulated high academic posts and official honors like some favored children collect toys: never enough and all kept in play. For his contributions to laying the foundations of modern biology, Cuvier willingly suffered comparisons to Aristotle, the acknowledged founder of the science. As a naturalist, Cuvier fancied himself "the French Newton"-bringing order to the life sciences much as Isaac Newton brought order to the physical sciences. Cuvier's rigorous empirical methods opened windows into the earth's biological history that would lead others to a vision of organic evolution he steadfastly refused to see. More than any other naturalist, he so greatly influenced the style and substance of nineteenth-century biology that the history of the modern scientific theory of evolution rightly begins with him-its staunchest foe.

Born in 1769 into an educated, bourgeois family in the Protestant, French-speaking portion of the independent French-German duchy of Württemberg, Cuvier was trained at a regional academy to serve in the duke's government. Pushed by his mother to excel academically, Cuvier's formal education included a solid introduction to natural history, a traditional subject encompassing such modern fields as biology, geology, oceanography, mineralogy, and paleontology. This subject became his passion. In 1788, with no government position open to him at home, Cuvier accepted employment as a private tutor for a French noble family in Normandy. There, as a sideline, he immersed himself in the study of marine invertebrates. From the relative safety of rural Normandy, Cuvier witnessed the French Revolution that began, from his perspective, with high hopes in 1789 but turned terribly ugly during the early 1790s. Becoming a citizen of France in 1793, when the French government annexed his homeland, Cuvier accepted a post in the revolutionary administration of Normandy even as he turned viscerally against the central regime's Terror and focused his own attentions on zoological fieldwork. In 1795, when a moderate republican government took power in Paris and promised to rebuild the central scientific establishment decapitated during the Terror, Cuvier moved to the capital in search of a career in science. There were plenty of openings for a naturalist of his obvious brilliance and driving ambition. Cuvier gained an assistantship at the renowned Museum of Natural History, and never looked back. His subsequent rise was meteoric. The study of natural history would never be the same.

Cuvier concentrated his scientific research on the burgeoning field of comparative anatomy; he was convinced that the internal structure of an animal revealed its function and therefore its true nature. In biology as in all else, form followed function for Cuvier. His research profited greatly from his position at the world's premier natural-history museum-an institution that rapidly became ever more comprehensive in its zoological holdings as Napoleon's armies plundered the collections of Europe and sent home live, preserved, and fossilized specimens from as far afield as Russia and Egypt. Ultimately, Cuvier proposed that there are four (but only four) basic anatomical types (he called them "embranchements") of animals: vertebrates (with backbones), molluscs (with shells), articulates (such as insects), and radiates (such as starfish). "Lesser divisions," he wrote, "are only modifications superficially founded on development or on the addition of certain parts, but which in no way change the essence of the plan."1 This view, built solidly on anatomical analysis and still reflected (with modifications) in modern taxonomy, shattered the hierarchical concept dating from Aristotle of a single great chain of beings rising in fine gradations from the simplest living form to humans at the top. The idea within biology of giving an anthropomorphic order to all living things gave way to studying them on their own terms.

Cuvier was the first naturalist to have at his disposal a suitably complete collection of the world's mammals-past and present-to make definitive distinctions among them. He made the most of this advantage, hoarding it to himself, his collaborators, and his protegés. In 1796, for example, he announced that, based on his anatomical comparisons of actual specimens, the elephants of India and Africa constituted two distinct species, and that both of them differed from the elephant-like mammoth found only in fossil remains. The positive identification of other living and extinct mammals followed one after another in rapid succession. To account for so many extinct species, as early as 1796 Cuvier announced "the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some kind of catastrophe."2

Before Cuvier, European naturalists typically held that no species-all of them perfect in their original creation-ever died out. Fossils had no fundamental significance: Such things were simply sports of nature or remnants of some still-living species. Overturning this view, Cuvier ultimately concluded that all fossilized animals differed in kind from modern ones and that no modern species existed in truly fossil form. He boldly claimed the power "to burst the limits of time, and, by some observations [of fossils], to recover the history of the world, and the succession of events that preceded the birth of the human species."3

Suddenly, life had a history different from the present, and fossil fragments revealed it. "As a new species of antiquarian," Cuvier explained, "I have had . . . to reconstruct the ancient beings to which these fragments belonged; to reproduce them in their proportions and characters; and finally to compare them to those that live today."4 The modern science of paleontology was born in Cuvier's laboratory. Because of his conviction that the form of any animal precisely served its functional needs, Cuvier confidently assumed that trained researchers could, in principle, reconstruct its entire structure from any one of its functional parts. Paleontologists could do for extinct animals what comparative anatomists did for living ones-definitively identify them. Doing so for all of the earth's past and present species became Cuvier's goal for science-and he himself would launch the effort, doing his own best work with fishes and four-footed mammals.

A compulsive worker, stern and impatient, Cuvier never doubted his own ability as a science researcher, educator, and administrator. He mastered the treacherous shoals of French academic politics just as ably as he mastered comparative anatomy. Even as he climbed the professional ladder within the Museum of Natural History, Cuvier gained leadership posts at the National Institute and the University of France-giving him unparalleled influence over patronage within the country's highly centralized science establishment. Napoleon named Cuvier to the Council of State in 1813, and he deftly kept his seat (and steadily expanded his portfolio) under three succeeding monarchs. Remarkably, even though every ruler he served was forcibly driven from office at least once, Cuvier held each of his official posts for life and died peacefully in his bed in 1832.

Napoleon ennobled him as a chevalier; Louis XVIII promoted him to the rank of baron; under Charles X, he became a grand officer of the Legion of Honor; Louis-Philippe made him a peer of France. "Cuvier was short and during the Revolution was thin," one biographer wryly noted. "He became stouter during the Empire; and he grew enormously fat after the Restoration."5 Still there was that massive head, crowned with a thick mane of hair. According to one observer, Cuvier's head "gave to his entire person an undeniable cachet of majesty and to his face an expression of profound meditation."6 Here was the lion of nineteenth-century French science and founder of modern comparative anatomy and paleontology. Yet his reasoned scientific arguments for the theory of special creation held back the tide of evolutionary thought, which had been rising since the Enlightenment, for a generation.

On the matter of organic evolution (or "the transmutation of species," as the concept was then called), it was not simply that Cuvier died before the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and therefore never seriously considered the idea. He studied it carefully (albeit not in the light of Darwin's later arguments for it) and found it wanting. Although Cuvier's conclusions on this score reflected his religious and social beliefs, they were founded on his scientific understanding of nature. These added factors-religious and social-

reveal telling aspects of pre-Darwinian Western thought about biological origins. They will be examined first.Living in a particularly volatile era of French religious history characterized by alternating phases of Enlightenment scepticism, Revolutionary atheism, and Restoration Catholicism, Cuvier stood apart from most others within the cultural elite of France by remaining a churchgoing Protestant during his entire life. Indeed, he visibly aligned himself with his religious minority by overseeing government programs for Protestant education and serving as vice president of the Protestant Bible Society of Paris. He married a socially prominent Roman Catholic widow of the Terror, Anne Marie Coquet du Trazail, but they raised their children as Protestants. When his daughter Clémentine adopted an evangelical form of Protestantism, however, she grew to doubt her father's salvation and prayed for his conversion. That was not about to happen, at least on her terms. By definition, evangelicals publicly proclaim their religious beliefs and seek to convert others. But for Georges Cuvier religion was a strictly private matter. Perhaps it had to be so for him to prosper in French science and politics, but that lends an unjustifiably cynical slant to Cuvier's case. Although he was the very embodiment of reason in science, Cuvier accepted religious truth as existing wholly apart from reason. This made his private religious beliefs virtually invisible to others; despite considerable speculation, they have remained so to this day. Yet surely he was a Bible-believing Christian of some sort, and biblical Christianity carries with it certain presuppositions about origins. These presuppositions informed Cuvier's thinking about evolution just as they would for so many other Christians.

The biblical account of creation appears in the book of Genesis, which is sacred scripture for Jews, Christians, and Moslems. For the orthodox, Genesis represents the revealed word of God and, as such, carries special meaning in some literal, allegorical, or mystical sense. Even for liberal theists, led during the nineteenth century by a growing number of German and French theologians whose work Cuvier read, the Genesis account carries meaning as an early record of the Jewish people's understanding of God's role in Creation. Indeed, for those like Cuvier who accepted Moses as its author, Genesis gains authority as one of the earliest written records of creation. Accorded any of these meanings, the Genesis account becomes foundational for one's understanding of nature.

The first chapter of Genesis tells of God creating the heavens and the earth, then plants and animals, and finally humans-everything in six days. All types of plants and animals are said to reproduce "according to their kind." Read literally, this precludes evolution from one "kind" of plant or animal to another. Regarding humans, the account declares that God separately created them in His own image and likeness. The second chapter of Genesis contains an alternative creation account in which the order of the appearance of life forms on earth is somewhat reversed-but with a similar emphasis on the special creation of humans by God. Indeed, it is this second account that first introduces Adam and Eve as the progenitors of the human race, with God directly forming them as man and woman. The Bible does not state when these creation events occurred, but most early Christians probably assumed they all happened within the past six thousand years. During the mid-1600s, Anglican archbishop James Ussher of Dublin used internal evidence within the Bible to calculate the year of creation as 4004 b.c., or less than three thousand years before Genesis was supposedly written by the Hebrew leader Moses. Printed in the margins of the Authorized, or King James, version of the Bible, Ussher's chronology became quasi gospel for British and American Protestants during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Generally speaking, Christian leaders from the early church through the Reformation did not view the Bible as a scientific text. They interpreted it as a divinely authored or inspired volume of separately written books and letters filled with spiritual meanings, some of them allegorical. Science, in the sense of a distinct intellectual tradition seeking rational explanations for physical phenomena, began with ancient Greek natural philosophy roughly five hundred years before Christ. Although most individual Greeks probably accepted religious or mythical explanations for natural phenomena, some Greek philosophers sought to separate the supernatural from the natural by proposing purely materialistic accounts of nature. Nothing is aught but physical matter in meaningless motion, the ancient Greek atomists proclaimed. The origin of life and individual species posed a particular problem for Greeks intent on devising purely materialistic explanations for natural phenomena. Creation implies a creator, and so to dispense with the need for a biological creator, such ancient philosophers as Anaximander, Empedocles, the atomists, and the Epicureans advanced various crude notions of organic evolution.

Based on his close study of animal anatomy, however, Aristotle concluded that species are absolutely immutable. Each species always breeds true to its form, he maintained, and never gives birth to a new type. Rejecting both creation and evolution, Aristotle (an atheist) simply posited that species are eternal. Integrating the Genesis account with mainstream Aristotelean science, premodern Christian naturalists viewed species as created by God in the beginning and thereafter fixed for all time in a perfect (albeit fallen) creation. Well into the nineteenth century even Cuvier saw no scientific reason to reject Aristotelean thinking on the fixity of species-and fully appreciated the religious advantages of retaining it. Whether read literally or allegorically, the Genesis account harmonizes with the idea that species, once created, never change.

By 1800, Cuvier also had compelling social reasons for maintaining the traditional Aristotelean view of species. The breakdown of established authority associated with the Enlightenment in eighteenth-century France coincided with a revival of pre-Christian speculation about organic evolution and biological reductionism or materialism. At its core, the Enlightenment (the intellectual launching pad of modernity) involved a rational critique of previously accepted doctrines and institutions. To the extent that Christianity was based on divine revelation rather than human reason, it lost credibility among enlightened thinkers. Similarly, to the extent that they lacked rational justification, political and cultural institutions trembled or fell-including the ancien régime. During the 1790s in France, King Louis XVI lost his head and the Roman Catholic church was outlawed. Revolutionary currents swirled though natural history, as well. Some radical naturalist and

savants challenged static concepts in science, including the fixity of species; many of them rejected any ongoing role for the supernatural in the natural. Rational materialism gained ground in scientific, social, and political thought-with no clear separation among these disciplines. Disorder became the order of the day, and a reaction became inevitable.

Among eighteenth-century French scientists, Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, personified the Enlightenment. One of the foremost descriptive naturalists of his day, Buffon was also a highly original theorist who, as superintendent from 1739 to 1788 of the Royal Garden (which became the Museum of Natural History after the Revolution), commanded the position and prestige to promote his novel ideas about nature. In all these respects-academic field, official status, and scientific renown-Buffon was Cuvier's predecessor but never his precursor. Although historians still debate whether Buffon was an outright atheist or simply a radical deist, he certainly rejected Christianity and sought materialistic explanations for the origin of the earth and its inhabitants. This led him to evolutionary thought.

Meet the Author

EDWARD J. LARSON is Russell Professor of History and Talmadge Professor of Law at the University of Georgia. He is the recipient of multiple awards for teaching and writing, including the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. His most recent book is Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands. His articles have appeared in dozens of journals including The Atlantic Monthly, Nature, The Nation, and Scientific American.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago