Charles Darwin and the New Biologooy of the Nineteenth Century

Friday, March 8th, 2002
Richard Burkhardt
Event Description

In terms of its size, complexity, pace, expense, and expected practical applications, the project of sequencing of the human genome is a far cry from the endeavors of a nineteenth-century gentleman naturalist like Charles Darwin. However, if the social organization of science has changed dramatically since Darwin's time, certain strong continuities exist between the social and economic concerns of Darwin's day and our own. When it comes to tracing the roots of "the New Biology," it may be useful to situate Darwin's biological achievement not only within the science of Darwin's day but also within its broader social context.
Here we pay special attention to the enterprise of plants and animal breeding in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. We examine how the experience of breeders informed Darwin's path-breaking theory of evolution by natural selection. We then go on to consider the ways in which the general topic of breeding wound its way through Darwin's thinking in such a fashion that the scientific, the social, and the personal were all interconnected. Darwin's observations on the problems of relaxing natural selection in civilized society, his worries about less favored classes or races out-breeding more favored classes or races, and his argument that evolution has made men more intelligent than women all serve to suggest that social assumptions can be unconsciously imported into ostensibly scientific judgments. Likewise, his anxieties about the hereditary effects of inbreeding in his own family remind us how questions of theory or practice may come home to us in the most pressing way in our own personal lives. In addition to having made an absolutely fundamental intellectual contribution to the biological sciences, Darwin thus provides an important example of the kinds of societal and personal concerns with which the New Biology of our day is certain to intersect.

Richard Burkhardt

CAS Resident Associate and Department of History