Generally, we tend to associate powerful theories with the people who first proposed them and say that without Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg, Turing, or all the other scientists featured in countless books as visionaries, our world wouldn’t be the same, and the knowledge we take for granted now would’ve never made it to us. Well, this is somewhat true. Change who discovered, say, germ theory and how it was proposed, and you’d have different criticisms and politics, and adoption curve by the scientific establishment of the day so the world would indeed be a different place. But when it comes to the knowledge, it would largely be similar. That’s one of the greatest things about science. Call physics "objectology" and change the variables in the formulas, and the body of work will still describe pretty much the same processes with the same mechanics because that’s just the way nature works. The differences would be in what bleeding edge ideas would dominate the debate among the experts and professionals, not the basics.
And so, a new book by historian Peter J. Bowler, argues that without Darwin, biology as we know it today would be virtually the same. Were the young naturalist thrown overboard during a storm as he traveled the world, compiling evidence for his theory, there were many scientists waiting to fill the role of evolution’s historical focal father. Wallace probably fits the bill best since it was his version of the theory that prompted Darwin to dust off his by then 20 year old manuscript. And if Wallace’s ideas failed to get any attention, the idea of natural selection was still in the air, it just needed a solid footing to really take off and fuse with genetics. If anything, argues Bowler, neo-Darwinian synthesis might have actually been expedited with Wallace because his theories had more developmental underpinnings, and would turn the field’s focus to complex genetics we’re trying to master to the forefront sooner. And of course there would’ve still been vocal creationist opposition to the idea in all forms. It’s basically a given, much like gravity and entropy.
Even the charges of evolution inspiring eugenics and the horrors of the Holocaust would’ve still persisted because the people who were ultimately responsible for them were looking for any kind of excuse to reshape humanity to their liking. Considering that their understanding of selection was pitiful and their knowledge of hereditary mechanisms was non-existent, they weren’t exactly interested in the science. They just wanted a patina of facts to hide their bigotry and racism, and anything that sounded like it could be bastardized into serving their goal was used. Hundreds of years before them, religion was used to justify mistreatment of minority groups throughout much of the Western world, be it selective accusatory clauses from the Old Testament, or invoking the loathsome Deicide Doctrine to defend systematic segregation and prosecution of Jews. In fact, much of the legendary Witch’s Hammer reads like the furious ranting of a misogynist who would easily show up any self-appointed Men’s Rights Activist on the web, the 15 century male version of Andrea Dworkin. Would Kramer have abused evolution to fuel his misogyny? Absolutely.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that Darwin’s accomplishments were trivial or that Galileo was simply stealing from Eratosthenes, or that the re-invention of the steam engine was no big deal. There was a good deal of research, work, and insight involved in doing what they did and being the first to have your work recognized and adopted so widely is still a feat. It doesn’t matter that others could’ve done it too because how nature works will always be there for someone to come along and discover. What matters is that they seized the moment and advanced our civilization, giving us new fields to explore. But Bowler’s exercise also proves an important point. Science is ultimately about the facts. The data comes first, the theory to explain why the data is this way is second, and the people who put it all together come third. And while visionaries deserve all their accolades, they are not completely indispensable At worst, their absence from history would’ve delayed a discovery. Nature didn’t uniquely open up to them to grant them insight Anyone can discover something new and fascinating, and sometimes something that can change the way we think about the entire universe. And that’s what makes science such a terrific endeavor.