Tensions in Darwin’s thought

The tensions listed below are evident in reading the introduction and first four chapters of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (first published in 1859), but are even more evident when looking at the development of his thinking over the preceding two decades (see, e.g., Ospovat 1979).  The significance of identifying tensions I explain to biology-in-society students as follows:

Many scientific accounts can be read as stories or narratives (Landau 1984).  Stories are more compelling if they adopt a familiar structure (Landau’s structuralist account) and if they resonate with other stories (the hermeneutic emphasis). Identifying the structural themes and noticing connections between parts highlights the causation implied and perhaps exposes weaknesses in the account. For example, Hrdy (1981) uses four dualities that at first seem to reinforce each other—large/small cell, egg/sperm, “female”/”male” unicell, female/male mammal—but then allow us to ask what is anything the relationship is say between a sperm and a male. After all, sperm can carry an X or a Y chromosome. To pursue critical thinking around structural themes, use the pairings to reflect on how the story could appear if the other theme in the pair had been emphasized.

uniformity of processes vs.
historically contingency of events

the balance of nature vs.
a struggle for existence

fixed, stable places (niches) vs.
scrambling for a place

stable equilibrium vs.

biological causes of changing conditions of life vs.
physical & climatic determination

ecological complexity integrated, like an organism vs.
an aggregate of individuals

nature passive or mechanical vs.
active or creative



Hrdy, S. B. (1981). An Initial Inequality. The Woman That Never Evolved. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press: 20-23.

Landau, M. (1984). “Human Evolution as Narrative.” Amer. Sci. 72(May-June): 262-268.

Ospovat, D. (1979). “Darwin After Malthus.” Journal of the History of Biology 12(2): 211-230.


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