Thirty years ago I (Ruse, 1979) published a book with the main title The Darwinian Revolution. No one questioned whether or not I had a real topic. There was a Darwinian revolution and my book was about it. Today, one could not be so sure. The idea of scientific revolutions has been questioned; Darwin’s contribution has been challenged; and even if you can come up positively on these matters, what on earth are we talking about anyway? These are the 3 questions I shall address in this article.
Historian Jonathan Hodge (2005) has been one of the strongest naysayers on this matter. He thinks that the whole talk of scientific revolutions, something of an obsession by many historians and philosophers of science in the years after Thomas Kuhn’s engaging and influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), is deeply misleading. The term is obviously taken by analogy from politics and even there it is doubtful that there are such things (at least that there are such things with common features) and in science likewise we have no reason to think that there are such things with common features. In any case, the talk is wrong-headed because it drives you to concentrate on some people and events and downplay or ignore other people and events.
In response, let us agree at once that focusing on revolutions (in science) does rather skew things in certain ways. Dwelling at length on Darwin carries the danger of ignoring the contributions of others in the 19th century, from the Naturphilosophen (people like the German anatomist Lorenz Oken who saw homologies everywhere) at the beginning to the orthogeneticists (people like the American paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn who thought that evolution has a momentum that carries it beyond adaptive success) at the end. Worse, it gives the impression that unless you have something dramatic and crisis-breaking, the science is of little value. Remember, the alternative to Kuhn’s revolutionary science is normal science, and this has (a perhaps undeserved) reputation of a 3-hour sermon by a Presbyterian minister on a wet Sunday in Scotland.
Against this, however, one can point out that the history of science as a professional discipline is little more than 50 years old and that you have to start somewhere. In the case of Darwin, even 30 years ago there was no real synthesis. The tragedy would have been if historians of science had stopped there and gone no further. But this is clearly not true. In the past 30 years or more, staying just with the history of evolutionary thinking, there has been a huge amount of work on people before and after Darwin, and on his contemporaries like Thomas Henry Huxley [for instance, Desmond (1999)]. To name but 3 researchers, one can pick out Robert J. Richards