Would evolutionary theory be any different if Charles Darwin had met a watery demise while aboard the HMS Beagle, author asks.
Book review: Darwin scholar Peter Bowler's intellectually playful look at 'what if'.
Peter J Bowler
The University of Chicago Press
At face value, the premise of this book - how evolutionary theory might have progressed if Charles Darwin had fallen overboard from the HMS Beagle before publishing On The Origin of Species - seems faintly absurd. Most people with a nodding acquaintance of the subject know that Alfred Wallace had simultaneously but independently produced his own version of evolution. Regardless of the proponent (and notwithstanding some modern-day US Republican senators), this was an idea whose time had arrived. But Peter Bowler, a Darwin scholar and a professor emeritus from Queen's University Belfast, is somewhat more intellectually playful in his exploration of his "counterfactual", pondering if Wallace's less-adversarial attitude towards religion might have made the churches less condemnatory than it was of Darwin's theories. He's also unafraid to draw a long hypothetical bow, postulating on whether Darwin's premature watery end would have prevented social Darwinism and with it events like Hitler's eugenics and the Holocaust. Bowles' tongue might often be firmly in his cheek but he certainly makes the reader think "what if?"
* John Henzell