Darwin’s Apostles: The Battle Continues

David Orenstein and Abby Hafer have written a delightful new book, Darwin’s Apostles: The Men Who Fought to Have Evolution Accepted, Their Times, and How the Battle Continues. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. In the 160 years since then, much has been written about Darwin and evolution, but this entertaining, well-written book sheds new light on the issues from an original viewpoint, with a unique focus on Darwin’s apostles, his scientist friends who fought to get his ideas accepted.

In 1860, a famous debate at Oxford University on Darwin’s just-published book On the Origin of Species pitted scientists who explained the evidence for evolution against a bishop who was not a scientist, had not read the book, and had been coached by someone who didn’t know about the evidence from botany. The bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, tried to insult the scientists with a joke about their monkey ancestors, and Thomas Henry Huxley famously responded that “He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.”

The Oxford debate prefigured the science vs religion controversy that continues to the present and was epitomized in Bill Nye’s debate with Ken Ham. The critics of evolution don’t understand it. They ignore the evidence, misrepresent evolution, and spew forth a Gish gallop of claims that can’t be examined and debunked in the debate format. They brandish the Bible as the source of all truth. They rely on religion and emotion, and they pad the audience with supporters. Both sides claim victory. Public opinion is valued over truth. 

Orenstein and Hafer explain that Darwin’s book didn’t appear in a vacuum. The time was ripe, the ground prepared by Linnaeus, awareness of the Earth’s age, fossils, geology, Malthus, extinction, even the writings of Darwin’s grandfather. It upset the religious applecart bigtime by suggesting that species and even humans did not appear de novo as special creations of the Christian God. Even when scientists didn’t want to accept that shocking paradigm change, Darwin’s precision and elegant writing and the masses of data he presented gave real scientists no choice.

Darwin did little to advance his thesis in the public eye. He was ill and a virtual recluse at Down House. Five respected scientists who were his friends stepped up to spread the word in defense of evolution despite the risk to their reputations. The book calls them his apostles. It provides their biographies. Some apostles are well-known, some largely forgotten, but all are colorful. Their lives provide an illuminating glimpse of what life was like in their period of history.

Thomas Henry Huxley was known as Darwin’s Bulldog. A brilliant debater and showman, the book calls him the Christopher Hitchens of his time. Newspapers were the social media of the day, and he knew how to use them. He was an influential speaker and writer, explaining that you can’t doubt evolution without doubting science itself. Science was not a paying profession, so like all but one of the other apostles and Darwin himself, he started by studying medicine. Hired as an assistant surgeon for a 4-year voyage to Australia and New Guinea on the HMS Rattlesnake, he established himself as a naturalist by sending back specimens and writing about them.

The renowned zoologist Richard Owen denied evolution and claimed that humans could not be classified as primates because their brains had three unique anatomical differences from the brains of apes. That simply was not true. Huxley knew from dissecting animal brains that those three structures were not only present in all apes and monkeys, but they were often larger in other primates than in humans. His feud with Owen led to an amusing incident when his protégé William Henry Flower ambushed Owen at a conference, saying the memorable words “I happen to have in my pocket a monkey’s brain.” He proceeded to do a public dissection to demonstrate the presence of the structures Owen claimed were not present. Huxley may have put Flower up to this stunt.

Joseph Dalton Hooker was originally opposed to evolution but was convinced when he saw that it explained hitherto inexplicable facts. He became known as Evolution’s Midwife. Like Huxley and Darwin, he went on a four-year research expedition (in his case, to the Antarctic) and collected specimens. On three later botanical expeditions he got insights into how separated populations can develop into different species. At the famous Oxford debate, he was the one who confronted Bishop Samuel Wilberforce with evidence from botany and showed that the bishop had not read Darwin’s book.

Asa Gray was an American botanist who did field research with Hooker and who became Darwin’s chief advocate in the United States. The one apostle who did not give up his religious beliefs, he tried to reconcile science and religion and was known as Darwin’s Dove. He had an ongoing feud with Louis Agassiz, his colleague at Harvard who opposed evolution and believed the human races were separate species created by God.

John William Draper was a chemist who studied light and figured out the basis for the electric light bulb more than 30 years before Edison patented a practical light bulb. He was also the first person to photograph the full moon. He was an atheist, a freethinker, and an abolitionist. He enthusiastically defended Darwin’s theory and was one of the speakers at the Oxford debate.

Alfred Russel Wallace did not attend the Oxford debate. He was out in the field, where he had made his own observations that led him independently to the same conclusions as Darwin. He sent Darwin his essay on natural selection, galvanizing Darwin to publish the popular one-volume Origins to establish his priority instead of continuing to work on his planned multivolume proof. They are both credited as independent co-discoverers of evolution by natural selection, but Darwin had indeed figured it out first. 

Wallace trained as a surveyor but he read widely and developed an interest in botany, geology and astronomy. He became a travelling naturalist and spent years in the Amazon, collecting enough examples to demonstrate variation within a species; but most of his collected specimens and notebooks were lost in a shipwreck. He later worked in the Malay Archipelago. He discovered Wallace’s Line, with a geologic explanation for the different species on either side of the line. He married late in life, and as with all the apostles who had children, he lost a child to illness.

He was less successful when his fearless mind took up other causes: phrenology, spiritualism, and opposition to vaccines. Michael Shermer fleshes out these contradictions in his 2002 biography In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wal- lace (Oxford University Press), in which he explores how Wallace saw these positions as scientific.

After the biographies of the apostles, the book covers 19th century reactions to Darwin’s book, including the use of his ideas by Marx, Social Darwinists, and others to support their social ideas and policy choices. Scientists continued to criticize Darwin but usually not on scientific grounds. The few that tried to object on scientific grounds usually based their objections on misunderstandings. For instance, Lord Kelvin thought the earth wasn’t old enough for natural selection to act. Critics who don’t really understand how evolution works argue that structures like a wing are “irreducibly complex” so they couldn’t possibly have developed through small variations and natural selection; one zoologist argued that half a wing serves no purpose. One serious objection was that there was no explanation of an underlying mechanism; that would have to wait for the infant science of genetics to discover DNA and work out the mechanics of evolution through genetic modification.

Another chapter discusses how the apostles reached out, reacted, and advocated, with a chronology of major acts in support of Charles Darwin. They set a laudable example by risking their careers and sometimes their lives for the truth. Another chapter covers the freethought movement and shows how Darwin’s ideas have been used and misused in arguments about issues like slavery, poverty, birth control, eugenics, women’s rights, and injustice. 

The chapter “The Storm Clouds Rise Again” covers 20th and 21st century reactions to natural selection, with creation science, intelligent design, efforts to suppress the teaching of evolution in schools, distrust of science, and pronouncements like this quotation from Ken Ham:

“No apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.”

The theory of evolution is more than a “theory.” Evolution is an established fact. It is powerful in its ability to explain and predict. As Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” But it is still under attack. The book points out that “Darwin’s detractors, forever a fearful lot, cannot stop working to unseat his grand laws for the sake of their own ill -formed comfort and uninformed philosophies.” 

Our world is under threat, and science is our only hope. At the end of this book, the authors say, “Sadly, we live in an era when the idea of scientific truth itself is being disparaged by some of the most powerful people in the world…Today’s tenacious evolutionary biologists, climate scientists, and even national park employees are showing themselves to be some of the unlikely heroes of our time. They will need their apostles too. Their apostles are us.”

This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.