Friday, November 13, 2009

Darwin's Evolutionary Context

Last night David Quammen, author of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin gave a lecture at Centre. His book was read by all the first-year students. This is Darwin year for two reasons - the bicentennial of Darwin's birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

I had known that Darwin had the basic idea of evolution through natural selection long before he published it. I had not really processed, though, just when he had his big idea. Darwin's notebooks show that it was 1838 that he had his big intellectual breakthrough. This is right in the middle of founding era of sociology.

1827 August Comte coins the term "sociology" and articulates the Law of the Three Stages of scientific evolution.

1838 Darwin conceives biological evolution by natural selection.

1848 Marx and Engels publish "The Communist Manifesto" articulating the theory of social evolution through struggle over the means of production.

It was only in 1859 that Darwin finally published the book that made "evolution" a term we think of primarily in biological terms. We are still living with the legacy, though, of the several kinds of evolutionary ideas, biological and social, in sociology. In general, the social sciences turned away from evolutionary theories just as biology was turning toward them. Now that biology is being re-incorporated into social science (especially in family studies), we may see a new turn in sociological thinking on evolution. Or a new reaction.

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