Even art critics need fact checkers; or, how ahead of his time *was* Darwin?

In this morning’s Times, at least in the CT editions, Benjamin Genocchio reviews Endless Forms: Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts, an exciting show at the Yale Center for British Art.  By way of setting the exhibit up, however, he wanders off the path:

Darwin is to biology as Einstein is to physics, a towering genius so far in advance of his time that people thought he was out of his mind. His theory of evolution, the foundation of modern biology, was largely rejected and ignored when it was first published in 1859. And for decades scientists were skeptical about natural selection, the process that Darwin proposed to account for evolutionary changes.

Of course Darwin deserves all manner of credit, and I’ve no real objection to the comparison to Einstein.

Having said that, almost everything else in this paragraph is wrong.  Alfred Russel Wallace, for instance, would be very much surprised to hear that Darwin was so very far ahead of his time, and the vigorous debate over the Origin of Species, and its several editions, suggests that the idea was not “ignored.”

As to whether it was rejected, Michael Ruse, in the “Prologue” to the second edition of The Darwinian Revolution, notes one circumstantial, but telling, detail:

But if we want to draw our boundaries more closely and consider the main question to be the theory of evolution–When and how did people get converted to the idea of evolution?–we can narrow our study to about a twenty-five year span.  Consider: In 1851, when Cambridge University first offered exams in science, one question was as follows.  “Reviewing the whole fossil evidence, shew that it does not lead to a theory of natural development through a natural transmutation of species” (Cambridge University 1851, p. 416).  By 1873, however, a question told students to assume “the truth of the hypothesis that that the existing species of plants and animals have been derived by generation from others widely different” and to get on with discussing the causes (Cambridge University 1875, qu. 162).  If one makes the reasonable assumption that by the time something gets into undergraduate examinations it is fairly noncontroversial, it follows that in no more than a quarter of a century the scientific establishment had made a complete about-face on the question of evolution. (xi-xii)

Genocchio is right to state that the mechanism of Darwin’s theory was poorly understood until the 20thC, but it’s wrong to imply that the Victorians were just dismissive of evolutionary ideas.  Even Wikipedia gets this right:

The fact that evolution occurs became accepted by the scientific community and much of the general public in his lifetime, while his theory of natural selection came to be widely seen as the primary explanation of the process of evolution in the 1930s, and now forms the basis of modern evolutionary theory.

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