The Meaning of Evolution The Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin's Theory
by Robert J. Richards
University of Chicago Press, 1992
Cloth: 978-0-226-71202-4 | Paper: 978-0-226-71203-1 | Electronic: 978-0-226-71205-5


Did Darwin see evolution as progressive, directed toward producing ever more advanced forms of life? Most contemporary scholars say no. In this challenge to prevailing views, Robert J. Richards says yes—and argues that current perspectives on Darwin and his theory are both ideologically motivated and scientifically unsound.

This provocative new reading of Darwin goes directly to the origins of evolutionary theory. Unlike most contemporary biologists or historians and philosophers of science, Richards holds that Darwin did concern himself with the idea of progress, or telos, as he constructed his theory. Richards maintains that Darwin drew on the traditional embryological meanings of the terms "evolution" and "descent with modification." In the 1600s and 1700s, "evolution" referred to the embryological theory of preformation, the idea that the embryo exists as a miniature adult of its own species that simply grows, or evolves, during gestation. By the early 1800s, however, the idea of preformation had become the concept of evolutionary recapitulation, the idea that during its development an embryo passes through a series of stages, each the adult form of an ancestor species.

Richards demonstrates that, for Darwin, embryological recapitulation provided a graphic model of how species evolve. If an embryo could be seen as successively taking the structures and forms of its ancestral species, then one could see the evolution of life itself as a succession of species, each transformed from its ancestor. Richards works with the Origin and other published and archival material to show that these embryological models were much on Darwin's mind as he considered the evidence for descent with modification.

Why do so many modern researchers find these embryological roots of Darwin's theory so problematic? Richards argues that the current tendency to see evolution as a process that is not progressive and not teleological imposes perspectives on Darwin that incorrectly deny the clearly progressive heart of his embryological models and his evolutionary theory.


Robert J. Richards is professor in the Departments of History, Philosophy, and Psychology at the University of Chicago. His earlier book, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior, also published by the University of Chicago Press, received the Pfizer Award of the History of Science Society.


List of Illustrations


1 The Natural History of Ideas

2 Evolution vs. Epigenesis in Embyogenesis

3 The Theory of Evolutionary Recapitulation in the Context of Transcendental Morphology

Early Recapitulation Theorists

Naturphilosophie and Transcendental Morphology

Oken’s Transcendental Morphology

Evolutionhary Recapitulationsm of Tiedemann, Treviranus, and Meckel

Von Bear’s Critique of Recapitulation Theory

4 Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Species Change

Serres, Grant, Green, and Lyell on Recapitulation and Evolution

Darwin’s Theories of Species Change

Natural Selection as the Mechanism of Progressive Evolution

5 Darwin’s Embryological Theory of Progressive Evolution

The Embryological Model as Formulated in the Notebooks

Owen’s Rejection of Recapitulation and Evolution

Darwin’s Knowledge of von Baer

Historical Evaluation of Darwin’s Principle of Recxpitlwion

Recapitulation in the Essays and the Impact of Agassiz’s Fishes, 1842–1844

Owen, Cmvbers, and Milne-Edwards, 1844–1846

The embryology of Barnacles and the Criteria of Progressive Development, 1846–1854

Huxley’s Objections to Recapitulation and Darwin’s Experiments

Embryological Recapitulation in the Origin of Species

The Role of Recapitulatixiton in the Descent of man

The Logic of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

6 The Meaning of Evolution and the Ideological Uses of History