Darwin is often hailed as the sole founder of evolutionary theory, but Janet Browne’s lecture emphasized that his theory was based not only on his own observations, but also years of research by preceding scientists. Today, however, Darwin has become so famous that mountains, cafes, and even a city are named after him. Conversely, the scientists that made his theory possible are not household names. The Darwinian Revolution, then, is not a revolution that can be attributed to one person. It may not even be able to be considered a revolution at all.
This is not to say that Darwin was not a brilliant scientist, because he was. Modern science would not be as advanced as it is today without his research. However, it is also important to remember the other scientists that shaped his work. For example, Alfred Wallace also put forth the theory of evolution by natural selection, and some of his work was published with Darwin’s, but he did not receive nearly as much credit for the theory as Darwin. Herbert Spencer and Robert Chambers both wrote about evolution before Darwin but also have not reached the same level of fame and are not credited with the idea. It can be argued that Darwin’s Origin of Species is the most famous account of evolution by natural selection because it was supported by the most evidence. However, is Darwin a revolutionary if his evidence is based of the forgotten works of his predecessors and not entirely his own findings?
The Darwinian Revolution can be compared to the Scientific Revolution in that it happened over more than a century of time and thus its status as “revolutionary” is contested. Darwin devised his theory of natural selection years after his voyage on the Beagle, during which he simply collected evidence but did not yet fully understand what it meant. Even Darwin’s most notable work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, did not put forth the entire theory of evolution; it provided evidence for the theory of natural selection. All of evolutionary theory was not put together until as late as the 1950s, despite the fact that Darwin’s book is often credited with explaining the theory in its entirety. The now renowned symbol of “Darwin’s finches” was not actually made famous until the 1950s. All of this now seems like overwhelming evidence that the Darwinian Revolution was not an immediate revolution, but a gradual accumulation of evidence and ideas from different sources over about 150 years.
The remarkable fame Darwin has acquired over the years is an interesting phenomenon, perhaps explaining a certain characteristic of human nature. Humans seem to have a tendency to idolize one person within a movement, to designate one figure the “hero” they decide to revere. However, the Darwinian Revolution, and all revolutions and movements, are almost always based of the work of many. “Heroes” have to draw inspiration from somewhere, learn from someone. Revolutions and drastic changes in thought do not come out of nowhere, so it is important to study a revolutionary’s predecessor and give them credit.