In the nineteenth century evolution, progress and natural laws were intimately related in understandings of nature. Scholars are coming to treat all of these themes as part of related and intertwined cultural processes rather than distinct and independent lineages. At the beginning of the century, the evolution of species, especially man, and the evolution of the earth were generally considered absurd and beyond the bounds of learned discussion. Because of the great interest in Darwin and evolutionary biology today, we tend to speak in terms of the history of evolutionary thought, as if many thinkers struggled in vain to come up with Darwin's theory. But this is a rather ahistorical understanding. In fact a much wider variety of concerns were proposed and debated before and after Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). For example, the possibility of geological, social, economic, technological and intellectual change or progress seemed to challenge the orthodox Genesis-inspired steady-state system created by God. Victorian evangelicals were particularly opposed to ideas of progress because they contradicted their understanding of the Bible and the Fallen state of the world.

For most of the century the question was not, do organisms evolve, but rather does nature change by itself? The crux of the question was where the agency for change lay. Was it with God or some other unseen divine creator or intelligence, or did nature simply work in the ways it did by virtue of its properties? Many believed in a complex mixture of both of these. Victorian ideas of natural and social progress were descended from French revolutionary and Enlightenment thinkers like Condorcet, Volney and Baron d'Holbach. So too the Victorians' talk of natural laws was a legacy of the French Revolution.

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Last modified 11 August 2023