The Meaning of Evolution: The Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin's Theory

University of Chicago Press
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Did Darwin see evolution as progressive, directed toward producing ever more advanced forms of life? Most contemporary scholars say no. In this challenge to prevailing views, Robert J. Richards says yes—and argues that current perspectives on Darwin and his theory are both ideologically motivated and scientifically unsound.

This provocative new reading of Darwin goes directly to the origins of evolutionary theory. Unlike most contemporary biologists or historians and philosophers of science, Richards holds that Darwin did concern himself with the idea of progress, or telos, as he constructed his theory. Richards maintains that Darwin drew on the traditional embryological meanings of the terms "evolution" and "descent with modification." In the 1600s and 1700s, "evolution" referred to the embryological theory of preformation, the idea that the embryo exists as a miniature adult of its own species that simply grows, or evolves, during gestation. By the early 1800s, however, the idea of preformation had become the concept of evolutionary recapitulation, the idea that during its development an embryo passes through a series of stages, each the adult form of an ancestor species.

Richards demonstrates that, for Darwin, embryological recapitulation provided a graphic model of how species evolve. If an embryo could be seen as successively taking the structures and forms of its ancestral species, then one could see the evolution of life itself as a succession of species, each transformed from its ancestor. Richards works with the Origin and other published and archival material to show that these embryological models were much on Darwin's mind as he considered the evidence for descent with modification.

Why do so many modern researchers find these embryological roots of Darwin's theory so problematic? Richards argues that the current tendency to see evolution as a process that is not progressive and not teleological imposes perspectives on Darwin that incorrectly deny the clearly progressive heart of his embryological models and his evolutionary theory.
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About the author

Robert J. Richards is professor in the Departments of History, Philosophy, and Psychology at the University of Chicago. His earlier book, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior, also published by the University of Chicago Press, received the Pfizer Award of the History of Science Society.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Feb 2, 2009
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Pages
222
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ISBN
9780226712055
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Language
English
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Genres
Science / General
Science / History
Science / Life Sciences / Evolution
Science / Philosophy & Social Aspects
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Uniting the personal and poetic aspects of philosophy and science in a way that the German Romantics themselves would have honored, The Romantic Conception of Life alters how we look at Romanticism and nineteenth-century biology.
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"All art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one." Friedrich Schlegel's words perfectly capture the project of the German Romantics, who believed that the aesthetic approaches of art and literature could reveal patterns and meaning in nature that couldn't be uncovered through rationalistic philosophy and science alone. In this wide-ranging work, Robert J. Richards shows how the Romantic conception of the world influenced (and was influenced by) both the lives of the people who held it and the development of nineteenth-century science.

Integrating Romantic literature, science, and philosophy with an intimate knowledge of the individuals involved—from Goethe and the brothers Schlegel to Humboldt and Friedrich and Caroline Schelling—Richards demonstrates how their tempestuous lives shaped their ideas as profoundly as their intellectual and cultural heritage. He focuses especially on how Romantic concepts of the self, as well as aesthetic and moral considerations—all tempered by personal relationships—altered scientific representations of nature. Although historians have long considered Romanticism at best a minor tributary to scientific thought, Richards moves it to the center of the main currents of nineteenth-century biology, culminating in the conception of nature that underlies Darwin's evolutionary theory.

Uniting the personal and poetic aspects of philosophy and science in a way that the German Romantics themselves would have honored, The Romantic Conception of Life alters how we look at Romanticism and nineteenth-century biology.
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