'An Experiment on a Gigantic Scale': Charles Darwin on Domesticated Nature, Inbreeding, and the Inevitable Unfolding of Human History

Theodore Varno, University of California, Berkeley, and PACHS Dissertation Writing Fellow

Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science

Friday, April 17, 2009 - 5:00pm

The Franklin Institute, 222 North 20th Street

The greenhouse at Down House, where Charles Darwin conducted many of his experiments on self-fertilization in plants.

Discussion, 4:00 - 5:30 p.m.,
followed by social hour and light dinner

The Franklin Institute, 222 North 20th Street

Please download and read the paper in advance. Abstract. We like to remember Charles Darwin as a globetrotting naturalist surrounded by the exotic flora and fauna of the Galapagos, but he worked out the crucial elements of his theory of descent with modification surrounded by domesticated animals and cultivated plants in the English countryside. Today, we are accustomed to thinking of this as one of the theory’s great strengths, as it allowed Darwin to provide plentiful empirical evidence to support his thesis. In the decades immediately after Origin of Species was published, however, the connection between species in the wild and breeds and varieties in human societies, between natural selection and the artificial selection practiced by humans, proved highly controversial to both evolution’s opponents and its supporters. This paper narrates the tale of how Darwin developed between 1859 and 1877 a research program around inbreeding and hybridism in animals and self- and cross-fertilization in plants in order to demonstrate that varieties are incipient species. The paper also suggests how, in the process, he brought into being a new conception of the relation between history, nature, and human society and a way of thinking about nature that would prove dangerously seductive to biologists over the next century.
Theodore Varno is a doctoral candidate in the History Department of the University of California, Berkeley, and a 2008-2009 PACHS Dissertation Writing Fellow. His dissertation traces debates about inbreeding across several intellectual communities from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century and examines specifically the relationship between agricultural change and evolutionary theory.