Humanist Perspectives: issue 154: The Darwinian Mind: Making Human Nature Natural

The Darwinian Mind:
Making Human Nature Natural
(part iii — 19th Century Reactions to the Darwinian Mind)

by Robert G Weyant

In the first two articles of this series we looked at the varied and confused meanings of the words ‘soul’ and ‘mind’ as well as some of the problems they have raised over the centuries. We then looked at Charles Darwin’s materialist view of ‘mind’, the evidence on which he based his view and the attributes he gave to ‘the Darwinian mind’. In this article I shall discuss some of the problems raised in the 19th century by Darwin’s ideas about the human mind.

Paintings in this article are by Shea Moir and Chorlotte Campbell.

Historians of science have identified three different issues that were debated by Victorians following the publication of Darwin’s ideas in the Origin in 1859. They were, first, whether species, in fact, were changeable; that is, whether species had really evolved. Second, whether human beings were part of the evolutionary process. And third, whether natural selection alone was an adequate explanation of the evolutionary process. According to one Darwin scholar, Alvar Ellegard, who appears to have read every newspaper and periodical published in Great Britain between 1859 and 1872, by 1870 the evolutionary view as applied to non-human species had been generally accepted among educated Britons including virtually all scientists and many clergymen. The evidence was just overwhelming, but not everyone was interested in evidence and the acceptance was certainly not universal. Ellgard quotes the weekly journal Family Herald in 1871 as observing, “Society must fall to pieces if Darwinism be true.” What was still being debated was human origins and the adequacy of Darwin’s major evolutionary mechanism, natural selection. The latter issue was a technical one and debate on it tended to be limited to scientists. It was really whether human beings, and particularly the human mind, had evolved that was at the centre of the most heated public controversy over Darwin’s ideas. At this point, with his general ideas on evolution already secured, Darwin entered the discussion of human evolution with the publication of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871 and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872. Whether deliberately or not, Darwin had made it possible for people to deal with the question of whether animal species were mutable before they had to face up, explicitly, to the implications of that question for the origins of human beings. In addition, two important works by Darwin’s colleagues preceded his discussions of the evidence for human evolution and helped set the stage. They were Charles Lyell’s (1797–1875) The Geological Evidences for the Antiquity of Man (1863) and Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863). It was Huxley who termed the place of human beings in nature, ‘the question of questions.’ Lyell presented evidence to show that the known geological eras, clearly demarcated in the Earth’s crust, suggested many millions of years in which evolution could have worked. He was older than many of the other evolutionists, already England’s pre-eminent geologist when Darwin read his three-volume work, Principles of Geology, while on the Beagle voyage, and his acceptance of Darwin’s views was hesitant and difficult for him because of his religious beliefs. But the evidence slowly persuaded him. Huxley presented structural evidence to show that human beings, despite obvious differences from the apes, were more like some of the higher apes than some species of apes were like other species of apes. Adding to the debate was the recovery of the remains of primitive relatives of human beings such as the first Neanderthal skull found in a cave near Düsseldorf in 1856.

he never publicly discussed what many people felt were the obvious philosophical and theological implications to be drawn from the existence of the continuum

Although Darwin discussed at length the evidence relating to the psychological continuum between human beings and other species, he never publicly discussed what many people felt were the obvious philosophical and theological implications to be drawn from the existence of the continuum. This distinction between the scientific evidence for evolution and nonscientific implications that were drawn by all sorts of people, some of whom understood the scientific evidence and others who didn’t, would be an important and often confusing part of the 19th century debate. Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895), who came to be known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog,’ was not reticent about speculation. In 1874, just two years after the publication of the Expression of the Emotions, Huxley gave an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Belfast. The talk was titled On the Hypothesis That Animals are Automata, and Its History. In it, Huxley reminded his audience of Descartes’ view of animals as living machines and then put forward a number of propositions “which constitute the foundation and essence of the modern physiology of the nervous system.” They established the brain as the organ of sensation, thought, and emotion, and the movements of animals as due to the contraction of muscles that are caused by the motion of matter in motor nerves, through mediating sensory nerves. Huxley, the traditional materialist, was describing what occurs in the nervous system in the traditional terms of matter in motion but he was not claiming to know what the process is that produces consciousness.

Huxley’s conclusion was that animals were not automata in the Cartesian sense — that is, they were not unfeeling, unconscious machines. But, he argued, they were automata in the sense that whatever consciousness they had was a product of the functioning of the material brain and, hence, their behaviour was strictly determined by the laws of nature. In concluding that animal consciousness has a material basis and that animal behaviour is strictly determined, he noted, “I feel happy in running no risk of either Papal or Presbyterian condemnation for the views which I have ventured to put forward.” But he then went on to detonate Darwin’s bombshell. Since animals and human beings exist on the same psychological continuum, he argued, different in degree but not in kind, with the human mind the result of the completely natural processes of evolution then, he wrote, “to the best of my judgment, the argumentation which applies to brutes holds equally good of men.” That is, human beings must be automata in the sense that animals are. As Huxley put it, mental events are like “the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine … without influence upon its machinery.”

A reaction against 18th century Enlightenment mechanism and materialism took the form of 19th century vitalism and romanticism, but during the early 19th century a new type of materialism and a new approach to science was forming among a younger generation of scientists. Eventually, a materialism that was less likely to view human beings as machines and more likely to see them as complex physical-chemical organisms began to develop, along with a positivist approach to science. By 1857, on the eve of the Origin, materialist thought had progressed far enough that Frederick Albert Lange (1828–1875) was offering a course on the subject at the University of Bonn which, in a few years, was published as his massive The History of Materialism (1866).

Most people are aware of the relationship between Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), a naturalist working in the Malay archipelago, and Charles Darwin. In 1858, after having worked on his theory of natural selection for twenty years, amassing evidence and perfecting arguments, Darwin received a letter from Wallace in which he outlined an almost identical set of ideas to Darwin’s. Although Wallace lacked the evidence that Darwin had been patiently collecting, Darwin always referred to Wallace as the co-founder of natural selection and on most aspects of evolution they were in agreement. It was Wallace’s letter that spurred Darwin to publish his ideas although he constantly fretted that he still hadn’t collected all of the evidence he needed. Darwin, as we have already seen, actually had two major mechanisms for species change — natural selection and sexual selection. In addition, when discussing how learned habits might, over time, become heritable instincts, he discussed a kind of neo-Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics. Wallace was much more of a purist. He believed that natural selection and only natural selection should be used to provide an explanation of evolution; what couldn’t be explained through natural selection had to be viewed with skepticism. Wallace was also a spiritualist. He had been taken up with the craze that had swept Victorian England for mediums, table rapping and chats with the departed. Both Darwin and Huxley had attended séances and believed them to be nonsense. We should be clear that these were not religious beliefs for Wallace; he thought them to be empirically provable. Still, it was difficult to square these beliefs with a human mind that was simply the activity of an evolved material brain. What could possibly live on after the brain had died? Wallace thought there must be something more and he attempted to give his views a kind of rational, scientific backing.

In 1877 Wallace published a paper titled The Action of Natural Selection on Man in which he summarized some reservations he had concerning the ability of natural selection to explain all evolutionary phenomena. What Wallace argued was that there was no question that human beings had evolved from non-human ancestors and that natural selection could account for most of the facts of that evolution. But he believed that, at the point where human intelligence had become sufficient to begin to understand and control the natural circumstances under which human beings lived, the effects of natural selection had been weakened and cultural factors, rather than the physical environment, began to play more important roles. Tools, clothing, improved methods of hunting and raising food, and language would all work to modify the effects of natural selection on human beings. Equally important would be the development of social and moral feelings that would lead to human beings taking care of the weak, the infirm, the aged and those other individuals who would normally be eliminated by natural selection working alone. In this, of course, he was undoubtedly correct. At that point, he argued, the physical development of human beings due to pressures from the physical environment alone would effectively have ceased while mental development through cultural pressures would have continued.

It was almost as if, Wallace argued, humans had been given larger brains in anticipation of needs that had not yet arisen. But that would necessitate conscious, rational planning

Wallace accepted that the part of the human body that was essential for mental activity was the brain and he reasoned that when the effects of natural selection alone were weakened the brain, as a physical organ, would have ceased to grow in size. But, he pointed out, within the human species there was little significant difference between the average size of the brains of civilized Europeans and uncivilized savages. Moreover, the limited fossil evidence that was available to him at the time led him to believe that there was relatively little difference between the size of modern brains and those of our early human ancestors. He concluded that these early humans had a larger brain size than their simple life styles necessitated. After all, how much brain matter was needed to work with simple flint tools? Why should primitive hunting and gathering humans have brains more-or-less the same size as modern philosophers and scientists? It was almost as if, Wallace argued, humans had been given larger brains in anticipation of needs that had not yet arisen. But that would necessitate conscious, rational planning, not simply the mechanical processes of natural selection. He concluded that, “The brain of prehistoric and savage man seems to me to prove the existence of some power, distinct from that which has guided the development of the lower animals through their ever-varying forms of being.” Exactly what that guiding power might be, Wallace did not say; it was not necessarily supernatural. He did, however, speculate that, “a superior intelligence has guided the development of man in a definite direction, and for a special purpose, just as man guides the development of many animal and vegetable forms … and we must therefore admit the possibility that, if we are not the highest intelligences in the universe, some higher intelligence may have directed the process by which the human race was developed, by means of more subtle agencies than we are acquainted with.”

Again, the evolutionists were not arguing against religious belief but against bringing what appeared to be pseudo-religious speculations into a scientific discussion where they did not seem to be required.

The important point here is that Wallace was willing to cut off human mental processes from the kind of natural development, based on the processes of evolution, which the Darwinians saw as accounting for the other characteristics of all living creatures and attribute it to the action of the conscious planning of “a superior intelligence.” In this he was probably giving too much importance to the mere size of the brain and, of course, he knew nothing about the details of how genetic inheritance actually works, something we are still learning to our occasional surprise. Darwin was disappointed by Wallace’s position. If the human mind had developed by some other means than the natural processes that had produced everything else, then it was possible that the human mind did not have a material basis as Darwin, Huxley and other evolutionists had argued. Such a conclusion would effectively negate the possibility of a scientific study of psychological phenomena. Note that the argument against Wallace’s conclusions was not that there was no higher power in the universe, something that Darwin and Huxley believed was not provable, but that known natural forces rather than the unknown activity of such a higher power were responsible for the human mind. Again, the evolutionists were not arguing against religious belief but against bringing what appeared to be pseudo-religious speculations into a scientific discussion where they did not seem to be required. Their argument would be even more effective today with our increased, though still limited, knowledge of genetics and brain functioning.

The early evolutionists, with some good reason, often felt themselves to be under siege and they sometimes reacted in ways that are more typical of social and political movements than scientific disciplines, although their reactions have not been unknown in other areas of science. Their behaviour was, perhaps, exacerbated by the fact that the various scientific disciplines were sorting themselves out at the time, scientific societies were being formed, scientific journals were beginning to be established and university programs in science were working out new curricula for the various disciplines. Somewhat unscientific struggles for control of these aspects of science occurred. We need to remember that the whole enterprise was still relatively new; the very word ‘scientist’ was suggested for use only in 1840 at a meeting of the newly formed British Association for the Advancement of Science. Since they all believed that evolution had occurred or they wouldn’t have been evolutionists, internal debates centred on such technical issues as how much of human activity could be explained by evolution, whether natural selection alone could account for the observed evolutionary changes and how rapidly evolutionary change had occurred. These debates took place, of course, within a context of little or no knowledge of how inheritance actually works and crude methods, at best, of dating paleontological discoveries. In a way this was all a bit odd since even the major players such as Darwin and Huxley didn’t agree on every point, but there is no question that orthodoxies and political alliances grew up (perhaps one should say ‘evolved’) among the scientists.

One of Huxley’s protégés was St George Jackson Mivart (1827–1900) who at the age of sixteen had become a convert to Roman Catholicism. Since he was a Catholic, Mivart could not attend Oxford or Cambridge and so he was trained for the law at Lincoln’s Inn and was called to the bar in 1851. But his first love was really biology and he educated himself in anatomy and zoology before meeting and impressing Huxley. Being both a Catholic and an evolutionist was to present Mivart with some problems. There were other Catholics who were evolutionists including some clergymen and Darwinism was being actively debated within the Catholic Church, the problem being seen not to be evolution as such, but human evolution and what that would imply for Catholic dogma. Attempts were made to ‘soften’ Darwinian evolution through Lamarckian mechanisms and the idea that species change in response to instructions implanted in them by God. In addition, some Catholic thinkers attempted to reinterpret authorities such as Thomas Aquinas in such a way that they could be seen as supporters of evolution. Mivart took part in these efforts to reconcile his two beliefs, evolution and Catholicism. In fact, neither the evolutionists nor the Catholic hierarchy were pleased.

Mivart remained convinced that evolution of the physical body had occurred but had specific doubts about whether natural selection could account for human intellectual development, especially ethical judgments. Unlike Wallace’s doubts, these were, without question, doubts that grew out of his religious beliefs. In 1871 Mivart published a book titled On the Genesis of Species, in which he voiced his reservations about orthodox Darwinism. He later wrote that he had two purposes in publishing his views that natural selection alone was not an adequate basis for the evolution of the human intellect. First, he explained his scientific rationale for this belief; second, he argued that nothing in Darwin’s theory was necessarily antagonistic to Christianity. Mivart continued to attempt some compromise between the evolutionists and his Church, but his timing was not great. In 1864 Pope Pius IX, having become alarmed by modern, liberal elements within society, issued a ‘Syllabus of Errors’. In effect he argued that in a wide range of areas such as science, education and the law, the teachings of his Church had to take precedence and he then went on to condemn freedom of religion and freedom of opinion, arguing that they lead to moral corruption and what he phrased, “the propagation of the pest of indifference.” Five years later, in 1869, an ecumenical council called by the Pope proclaimed the new doctrine of ‘Papal Infallibility’ on matters of faith and morals. Some members of the Church hierarchy were convinced that Darwin’s materialist scientific work had a ‘hidden agenda’ of social and philosophical goals including the elimination of religious thought and the introduction of such practices as sterilization and birth control. Given the possibility that the devil did make Darwin do it, the Church was in no mood for compromise. But neither were the evolutionists. Mivart’s attempts to explain evolution while maintaining a distinction between the human body which was material and had evolved, and the human mind which was placed in each person by an individual act of creation, was beyond the evolutionists’ pale. In the end, Mivart’s scientific colleagues shunned him, keeping him from obtaining positions and memberships of any substance in the scientific community. In 1893 Mivart’s writings were condemned by the Holy Office at Rome. He stubbornly continued to argue for a possible reconciliation between his science and his religion and, in 1900, was excommunicated by the Archbishop of Westminster. On April Fool’s day, 1900, rejected by both his science and his Church, Mivart died of a heart attack.

By the end of the 19th century many, perhaps most, scientists were questioning the adequacy of natural selection as the sole explanatory mechanism for evolution. Darwin’s proposed mechanism for inheritance, pangenesis, was not taken seriously and people were uneasy about his views on the possible inheritance of acquired characteristics. Scientific debates on some of the details of the evolutionary process, which continue in modified form today, have sometimes been used by opponents of evolution to argue that biologists do not accept evolution as a scientific fact. This, of course, is nonsense since evolution is the concept that ties together all of modern biology. But it was not until early in the 20th century with ‘the modern synthesis’ of evolutionary thought with the new field of genetics, that scientists were able to see, in detail, how natural selection might work in bringing about species change.

“The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”

The 19th century unquestionably played host to a number of differences of opinion concerning evolution and, particularly, human evolution and the naturally evolved human mind. But these disagreements were not, as they are sometimes pictured, all arguments between enlightened scientists and unenlightened clerics. They also took place within the scientific community and between individuals who were not pitting science against religion. In some cases people did have difficulty giving up long held religious beliefs and while many were won over by the scientific evidence, some were not. Others were pursuing concerns that had nothing to do with either science or religion. As one highly evolved Victorian, Oscar Wilde, wrote, “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.” In the next, and final, article of this series, I shall look at some of the influences of ‘Darwin’s mind’ on our thinking.

Further Reading

Robert Weyant is a retired university professor and former Dean of Arts at the University of Calgary. This is the third of his four-part series on Darwin. Part 2 was a finalist for a Western Magazine Award for 2004.

Issue 154 is sold out!

Individuals can access all of the articles from this issue on this website for free. Organizations interested in helping us reprint and distribute more copies of this issue can contact us at