Draper and Darwin at Oxford 1860

There are many interesting ideas in Draper’s 1860 Oxford BAAS address. Although he invoked Darwin’s name in the title, “The Intellectual Development of Europe (considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others) that the Progression of Organisms is Determined by Law,” there is actually very little about Darwin in the speech. Draper and Darwin did share some key assumptions about geology, biology, and physiology. But there was also some clear differences. Perhaps most important is that Draper negated the process of “natural selection” in his Oxford paper. Draper was also more willing than Darwin was in 1860 to address the question of human evolution. In his Oxford paper Draper argued for the equal application of natural law in physics and biology:

In the higher physiology as well as in the physical sciences orderly sequences are proofs of the operation of law. It matter not from what direction the examples may be drawn[—]the path of a stone thrown from the hand, the motions of a planetary body, the unvarying stages of development of a plant or an animal.[1]

Draper was actually quite comfortable claiming parallels between human physiology and other animals. He explained to his audience:

In the Physiology of Man considered as an Individual we ascertain the law of his development from an examination of his state at successive epochs and obtain light on the obscurities encountered in our studies by turning to other animal forms. We regard him as the first member of an infinite series of organisms all composed of the same elements[,] chemical and anatomical[,] subject to the same influences[,] governed by the same laws. We see no shadow of a great gulf between him and them. When instead of limiting our investigation of his life to the period of maturity we examine all that long career though which he passes from a mere microscopic speck[,] we find that as he moves from epoch to epoch he repeats in an ascending progress successively the structure of those[,] his humbler comrades[—]like them ever under the control of physical conditions[,] and advancing in his development in submission to an universal law.

But Draper was, of course, also interested in arguing that “man in civilization does not occur accidentally or in a fortuitous manner, but is determined by immutable law.” That is to say, he wanted to show that the same physical laws for biological evolution also applied to human society as a whole. Concomitantly, Draper believed that an understanding of these laws shows that society was essentially progressive:

There is a progress for races of men as well marked as the progress of one man. There are thoughts and actions appertaining to specific periods in the one case as in the other. The march of individual existence shadows forth the march of Race existence[,] being indeed its representation on a little scale. In this manner there emerges into prominence the noble conception that man is the archetype of Society, that individual development is the model of social progress.

Society was a living organism, which, just like all organisms, responded to external and internal laws:

Whatever may be the present state it is altogether transient. All systems of civil life are therefore necessarily ephemeral. Time brings new external conditions[,] the manner of thought is modified, with thought[,] action. Persons are the sum of organic particles, nations are the sums of persons, all are only transitional forms which have a definite cycle of motion[,] and that motion is never retrograde. The succession of social transmutation is as irresistible as the constitutional metamorphosis of the individual and so[,] too[,] it is in the intellectual public[,] ideas which are the sum of individual thoughts follow in an inevitable train. Everything is in movement.

The apparent “immutability of species” was simply a temporary moment in  “physical equilibrium” and nothing more:

Not man alone but all organic species depend on the physical conditions in under which they live. Any variation[,] no matter how insignificant it might be therein[,] would be forthwith followed by a corresponding variation in them form. The present invariability presented by the world of organization is the direct consequence of the physical equilibrium[,] and so it will continue as long as the mean temperature[,] the annual supply of light[,] the composition of the air[,] the distribution of water[,] oceanic and atmospheric currents[,] and other such agencies remain unchanged unaltered[,] but if any one of these or of a hundred other incidents that might be mentioned should suffer modification[,] in an instant the fanciful doctrine of the immutability of species would be brought to its true value. The organic world appears to be in repose because natural influences have reached an equilibrium. A marble may remain in motionless forever on a level table but let the surface be a little inclined and the marble will quickly run off. Looking at it in its state of rest we should hardly be justified in affirming that it was impossible for it ever to move.

In concluding his address, Draper turned more directly to his larger historical thesis, that nations, including the British empire, were also temporary, and would eventually be overcome by others, all according to immutable laws:

From the considerations now presented we see how completely the origin[,] existence[,] and death of Nations depend on physical influences which are themselves the results of immutable laws. Nations are only transitional forms of humanity. They must undergo obliteration as do the transitional forms offered by the animal series. There is no more immortality for them than there is an immobility for an embryo animal in any one of the manifold forms past through in its progress of development. Empires, the creation of Nations, are only sand hills in the hourglass of Time.

It was, then, perhaps Draper’s willingness to go “the whole orang” and then quickly consider its social implications, or perhaps his undermining of the British empire, with the implication that the American empire was now in its ascendancy as the next stage in the social evolutionary process, that might better explain why Draper’s presentation at the 1860 BAAS at Oxford was met with much criticism by Huxley and other supporters of Darwinism.

[1] John William Draper, “The Intellectual Development of Europe (considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others) that the Progression of Organisms is Determined by Law,” container 8, John William Draper Family Papers, Library of Congress, Washington DC.


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