College Quarterly
Summer 2006 - Volume 9 Number 3
Reviews Evolution: The History of an Idea, 3rd edition
Peter J. Bowler
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

As an intellectual pursuit, the history of ideas is problematic. It forces individuals to come to terms with questions of causation. Does history make ideas or do ideas make history?

Materialists are inclined to treat ideas as epiphenomenal by-products of economic, geographic or technological forces, and not independent agents of stability or change. By these lights, political upheavals such as the American Revolution were the result of the conflicting material interests of British mercantilists and American commercial elites. Thus, all the rhetoric about freedom and democracy was just a public relations strategy to win popular support for slave owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to maximize their wealth by overturning trade restrictions and tariffs. Major movements in music and poetry are likewise said to be the consequence of social trends as, for instance, in the case of romanticism which is considered a reaction to the industrial revolution. No “dark satanic mills”? No William Blake! Or, later on, no industrial revolution? No Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, nor any Little Nell either.

In the alternative, idealists (who else?) tend to treat ideas as more real than the chaotic, confused and cluttered world of contingent, historical reality. Ideas, in this view, seem to have lives of their own. Their evolution can be traced from one era to another through a careful reading of the texts produced by famous philosophers, scientists and artists. So, they believe it is possible to write histories of essentially contested concepts such as beauty, justice, mind, virtue, good and evil, and so on by tracing the use of such terms over the centuries and interpreting how they have been altered by influential thinkers in ancient, medieval and modern times. The links among thinkers and the effects that one may have had on another are difficult to state with any precision, especially when such efforts are carried on as exercises in pure thought and without attention to social context and historical detail. That does not, however, dampen the enthusiasm of people who wish to map out the development of the concept of love through the ages, nor does it deplete the energy of those who, like me, have made a satisfying hobby of the search for links in the developmental chain of the concept of Cynicism by exploring its progress from Diogenes of Sinope to Jesus, and from St. Francis of Assisi to Oscar Wilde and Abby Hoffman. As the basis for a personal parlour game, it is a pleasant distraction; as for its scholarly worth, I have my doubts.

For both supporters and detractors, the history of ideas provides a singular opportunity to express fundamental ontological and epistemological beliefs, and to do so in many varied ways. Some focus on themes such as individualism and collectivism, freedom and determinism, faith and reason and other similarly bipolar subjects. Others are fascinated by intensive synchronic studies and construct tapestries of whole cloth seeking to capture the quintessence of the age of reason, the age of anxiety, the roaring twenties, the dirty thirties, whatever the sixties might have been or whatever other grand notion comes rapturously to mind. Some restrict themselves to a single geographic area; others go global. However designed, the quest for meaning and for changes in meaning can become a life’s work, though seldom one that outlasts the absorption of the author.

In the most recent edition of Evolution: The History of an Idea, we have a rare treat, a volume that takes one of the most controversial and one of the most important concepts in science and provides a comprehensive, dependable and genuinely informative account of how the idea of evolution has evolved over human history but most importantly during the 19th century, the time when the fact of evolution had not yet been fully accepted by thinking people.

Much of the debate about evolution has focused on the question of the human origins, a matter that caused no end of consternation among certain elements of religion opinion and no small number of secularists as well. Human vanity has already suffered serious blows from the cosmology of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, who chucked our Earth out of its place in the very center of the universe. Some pride, however, could still be kept because although we may have been decentred, so to speak, we were nonetheless biologically unique, creatively special and ontologically separate from the beasts, the fish, the “winged fowl” and the creatures that “creepeth” upon the land. Then, along came evolution, not at first in the work of Charles Darwin, but in earlier versions elucidated throughout the “age of enlightenment” and culminating in the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, published a decade before Darwin’s birth and a half-century before the release of his Origin of Species.

Peter Bowler does a handsome job of placing the scientific controversies about evolutionary biology in their proper context. He blends a consideration of pre-evolutionary thought on the matter of origins into his narrative. He explores parallel developments in the related scientific fields, and particularly in geology. He summarizes clearly the main issues that divided scientists in the past (e.g., catastrophism), and those that divide them today (the implications of sociobiology and “Ultra-Darwinism” as embodied in the work of such contemporary writers as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett).

Evolution, in Bowler’s book, is not just a cornerstone of modern science and human self-awareness (though that is surely enough to make it one of the most important concepts in science and in human life); it also affects almost every other social and intellectual realm. As far as the materialist vs. idealist debate is concerned, Bowler exercises prudence and good judgment by refraining from turning his work into a polemic for either side. As a scientist, of course, his place cannot be anywhere but among the materialists, but there is more than one kind of materialism and the field is vast. Bowler takes up questions such as the ideological origins of Darwinism, asking whether Darwin’s debt to Malthus made his theory a biological apology for capitalism, or whether his emphasis on the struggle for survival among species anticipated Marxism. On such matters, he offers a balanced approach and his method is to lay out the relevant facts and to let them speak for themselves. That the facts support a sociology of knowledge in which science is inevitably shaped by external social forces is unexceptional and undeniable. Bowler, however, does not partake of any sort of crude materialist reductionism. The intellect, in this view, remains free and reflective—especially when it recognizes necessity and thus acquires the capacity to transcend it. In this, Bowler offers a nuanced and subtle approach that disdains simplification in style and in substance.

A point to stress and a major reason for recommending this volume highly is Bowler’s expressed purpose in writing it. He has not, he says, written “an academic monograph but … an introduction accessible to someone who with no background in either biology or history.” But (and it is a crucial “but”), his book is not “a popularization in the sense of turning history into bedtime reading.” It is a serious and detailed contribution to the literature that is of value as an undergraduate text, a serviceable guide for professional biologists and an excellent introduction for the serious and intelligent laity. It also does something that few volumes of this kind attempt, much less accomplish. It leaves the reader wanting more, and it provides an excellent bibliography that approximates a handbook for further reading that will remain of use long after the first reading of Evolution: The History of an Idea has been completed.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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