All drama but no crisis

Life's Splendid Drama
May 23, 1997

Peter Bowler is our most productive and provocative historian of evolutionary thought. Already noted for textbook surveys of the environmental sciences and the "idea" of evolution, as well as monographs on paleontology and progress, the "Darwinian revolution", anti-Darwinian development theories and Charles Darwin himself, Bowler has kept up a blistering pace of publication. Life's Splendid Drama, is his eleventh book in 20 years.

In a corpus of this size and scope, devoted mainly to the past two centuries, there is inevitably a touch of repetition. This, however, enables Bowler to hone and apply his arguments across an ever-wider literature. Like his other works, Life's Splendid Drama stands high above the gritty day-to-day detail of scientific practice. Manuscripts, notebooks, instruments, and experiments - the raw materials of the latest microhistory of science - are all but invisible. What counts for Bowler is what matters to working scientists: polished publications. And what counts in these texts is less the discursive strategies, the ambiguities, the semantic tensions and elisions, than what scientists themselves set store by - pure ideas.

But however unfashionable this approach, Bowler shuns the hindsight of scientists who translate earlier ideas into imprecise modern equivalents or assess the ideas by up-to-date standards. His starting point is avowedly historical, his task reconstructive. For the first time he tells a "story" in which biology's recent preoccupation with evolutionary mechanisms is not back-projected as the theme.

This is a welcome departure. For much of the post-Darwinan period, morphology was the key evolutionary discipline. Scientists reconstructed life's history from the physical resemblances among extinct and extant species. A forest of phylogenetic trees sprang up, and Bowler explores it with magisterial rigour, chopping through chapter by chapter, exposing cross-sections of debate at each evolutionary stage, from arthropods, through fishes and amphibians, up to birds and mammals. Standing back, then, he surveys the growth and distribution of the wood, the ancestral patterns in time and space. Metaphors abound here, and in a rich concluding chapter he finds "ladders" as well as trees, "steps" as well as lifts, and a series of "acts" in which races of animals rise and fall, dominate and die, all comprising what one scientist called "life's splendid drama".

A more Darwinian scenario might have been "full of sound and fury" and signified nothing, as Bowler - no idiot tale-teller - knows. It is a sign of his historical sensitivity that the book takes both its title and its chapter sequence from an age when evolution was thought to have a master plot driving onward and upward to "man". "The one departure from the orthodox pattern," Bowler notes, "is that this book does not end with a chapter on human origins." This strategy is possible only because the author has already devoted a whole book to that topic, Theories of Human Evolution, which "should be read as the final chapter of a truly comprehensive account of the way life's splendid drama has been portrayed".

But if his order of exposition follows the "orthodox" pattern, what about the story? Is Life's Splendid Drama "Darwinian"? Does it tell a chancy contingent tale? What drives it on? A volume in the series Science and its Conceptual Foundations, edited by the evolutionary epistemologist David Hull, might be expected to emphasise the natural selection of ideas. But no: Bowler, to his credit, does not subject intellectual history to a theory that only history can explain. Instead he writes like Darwin himself, or indeed the scientists of the period, whose historical outlook was progressive and teleological.

From first to last Bowler unfolds a "path toward modern Darwinism" on which there is a "steady move toward a more Darwinian way of thinking". Darwin's "radical insights" took time to "sink in", but "decades of steady activity ... paved the way", and the "Darwinian revolution" saw a "steady transformation" of life's history in which teleology was finally abandoned. "For every forward-looking student of phylogenetic research, there were many others who retained the old faith in nonselectionist mechanisms" but "by the 1920s and 1930s paleontologists ... were taking the first, and perhaps crucial, steps on the way toward a more open-ended view of how life has developed."

This story may be orthodox by scientists' standards but to others it is passe. A more open-ended history of biology is needed, one animated by gritty detail and social contingency, a drama in which humans shape the paths of change and progress may falter or fail. Until it is written - it will require a collective effort - we have Bowler to help us through history's thicket, and a splendid Michelin's Guide he has made.

James Moore is reader in the history of science and technology, Open University.

Life's Splendid Drama: Evolutionary Biology and the Rconstruction of Life's Ancestry, 1860-1940

Author - Peter J. Bowler
ISBN - 0 26 06921 4
Publisher - Chicago University Press
Price - £30.25
Pages - 538

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