Darwin and early American psychology

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the latest issue of History of the Human Sciences, 21(1), John D. Greenwood examines the understanding of “mechanism, purpose and progress” at the dawning of the discipline.

In this article it is argued that although Darwin’s theory did play an influential role, early American psychology did not generally reflect the hereditarian determinism of his theory of evolution by natural selection. However, early American psychologists did accept one critical implication of Darwin’s theory, which is that evolution by natural selection does not ensure the highest development of the human race. This partly explains the social interventive zeal that was a distinctive feature of early American psychology. [Order reprints here.]

See below for related readings.


Greenwood, J.D. (2008). Mechanism, purpose and progress: Darwin and early American psychology. History of the Human Sciences, 21(1), 103-126. DOI: 10.1177/0952695107086189Bibliography: Darwin and Psychology

  • Baldwin, J. M. (1909). Darwin and the Humanities. Baltimore, MD: Review Publishing. The numerous celebrations which the double anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the publication of the Origin of Species has inspired, have resulted in many statements of Darwin’s influence in the Biological Sciences. It is natural that this should be the point of emphasis. Yet much repetition and some controversy have resulted; while the corresponding influence of Darwin and the growth of Darwinism, in the sciences of Mind, the Humanities broadly defined, have been but scantily traced out and recorded. Naturalists are not aware of the extent of it. Personally, I find it necessary as never before, to call myself a ‘Darwinian’ simply from having written out in this little volume the relationships of the several branches of humanistic study, as I apprehend them, from the point of view of Darwinism.
  • Boring, E. G. (1950). The influence of evolutionary theory upon American psychological thought. In S. Persons (ed.), Evolutionary thought in America (pp. 268-298). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. American psychology has been an indigenous integration of the German psychology of Wundt and the British biology after Darwin. James is the starting point of American psychology. With him and since American psychology has been functional and practical. The immediate relation of Darwin’s evolutionary theories are seen in the work on mental evolution both phylogenetic and ontogenetic. However the importance of the influence of evolutionary thought in American psychology is “not easy to validate or to assess.”
  • Caton, H. (2007). Getting our history right: Six errors about Darwin and his influence. Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 52-69. The Darwin Exhibition created by the American Museum of Natural History is the centerpiece of the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth. It opened in November 2005 and will circulate to a number of museums before terminating at the London Natural History Museum in February 2009. The Exhibition is also a major contributor to online instruction about evolution for schools. The quality of the Exhibition’s narrative is accordingly of some significance. This paper argues that the narrative is the legendary history that dominates public opinion. The legend has been thoroughly disassembled by historical research over recent decades. My criticism is organized as six theses. (1) Publication of the Origin was not a sudden (“revolutionary”) interruption of Victorian society’s confident belief in the traditional theological world-view. (2) The Origin did not “revolutionize” the biological sciences by removing the creationist premise or introducing new principles. (3) The Origin did not revolutionize Victorian public opinion. The public considered Darwin and Spencer to be teaching the same lesson, known today as “Social Darwinism”, which, though fashionable, never achieved dominance. (4) Many biologists expressed significant disagreements with Darwin’s principles. (5) Darwin made little or no contribution to the renovation of theology. His public statements on Providence were inconsistent and the liberal reform of theology was well advanced by 1850. (6) The so-called “Darwinian revolution” was, at the public opinion level, the fashion of laissez-faire economic beliefs backed by Darwin and Spencer’s inclusion of the living world in the economic paradigm.
  • Taylor, E. (1990). William James on Darwin: An evolutionary theory of consciousness. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 607, 7-33. Addresses 4 stereotypes that misrepresent W. James’s (e.g., 1890, 1902) interpretation of Darwin. First, the assumption that James knew the theory of natural selection chiefly through written material is rebutted by noting that James and Darwin had a social relationship and many mutual friends. Secondly, it is assumed that James’s published statements on Darwin began in 1868, but they actually began in 1865. A 3rd stereotype is that James’s interpretation of Darwin must have been derived from the tradition of natural theology according to W. Paley (1821); however, other influences are noted. The final objection is that most scholars are unable to see the continuity between James’s earlier work as a psychologist and his later work as a philosopher. Other influences on James’s ideas on evolution include F. W. Myers’s (e.g., 1903) conception of subliminal consciousness.

See also:

  • Faber, D. P. (1997). Théodule Ribot and the reception of evolutionary ideas in France. History of Psychiatry, 8(32, Pt 4), 445-458. Examines the endorsement of the otherwise disputed theory of evolution through Ribot’s 1873 publication entitled L’Heredite psychologique. Although the French scientific community was reluctant to honor Charles Darwin for his work, Ribot used an evolutionary framework for his thesis on heredity. The publication of L’Heredite psychologique was intended for lay readers at a period in French history when many scientific topics were popular. As a result, French readers were introduced to the Darwinian and Spencerian ideas that Ribot included, as an analysis of the text shows. This work was important for French psychology and psychiatry: it extended the domain of the former, and by endorsing degeneracy theory provided alienists with a scientific explanation of mental pathology which a somatic approach had failed to discover. It is concluded that this text is a synthesis of biology, evolutionary ideas and the features of heredity, addressed and related to social concerns of the last three decades of nineteenth century France.
  • Papini, M. R. (1988). Influence of evolutionary biology in the early development of experimental psychology in Argentina (1891-1930). International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 2(2), 131-138. A review of the antecedents and development of experimental psychology (EP) in Argentina suggests that experimentalism was the dominant view between 1891 and 1930. Factors contributing to the dominance of EP included the strong influence of European psychology and the impact of evolutionists such as Darwin. The influence of evolutionary biology is reflected in the work of Argentinian psychologists, including J. Ingenieros, H. G. Piñero, V. Mercante, and R. Senet.

-JTB.

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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