Melton prior Institut


Linton- Life in the Collections

William James Linton:

106) Darwin's Probabilities. A Review Of His "Descent Of Man."

Hamden / CT 1896

The small 16-page booklet is bound in stiff grey wrappers with a paper label bearing the title and an engraving of a flying bat, suggesting the baneful quality of its subject.

Linton had preserved his sense for crucial current issues and his readiness to quixotic combat to the very end. His tract is an effort to detect that Darwin´s theory of the origins of species lacks real evidence and could therefore only be considered as an assumption. “From the Descent of Man I gather a vast number of observations showing the wonderful variety, and no less wonderful unity of life; but of Man’s descent, or ascent, from any other animal I find nothing but conjectures to show that it might be so. Nor can I find in the whole book evidence of any one species changing or developing into another.”

Linton’s polemics were not such much targeted against Darwin’s biological theses, but against evolutionism as the most prominent scheme of thought and its moral consequences. He had been concerned with Edward Caird’s evolutionist interpretations of the histories of philosophy and religion and in 1866 he had met Herbert Spencer along with the opportunity to be instructed by him. Spencer’s extension of Darwinism to the fields of sociology and ethics had been extremely popular, especially in North America, where it became the ideological substantiation of predatory capitalism in the Gilded Age. In fact the organic mechanism of Social Darwinism had been just another variation of narrowed Utilitarianism backing the politics of laissez faire economy.

Moreover Linton was quite aware of the menace of a Darwinian justification of racism. In his Memories he refers to the Negro Bones theory, which circulated in the Southern states and which sought to prove that in Darwinian terms African Americans would be of inferior origin. Darwinian metamorphosis had been the linguistic background of Linton’s anti-apartheid piece Catoninetales, where he pleas for humanity as the grounding of societal relations. In his view the calamities of Darwinism were twofold: It would replace the Christian gospel of Universal Humanity as a societal ideal with a brute struggle for dominion, and beyond that it could be considered as a fundamental assault on man’s freedom of choice. In consideration of the devastating impact of Darwinism on 20th-century politics, one can hardly take Linton’s final conflict for marginal.

As Linton’s biographer Francis Barrymore Smith noticed, his resistance both to Darwinism and orthodox Christian determinism had finally taken on the form of a stoic agnosticism, fearing neither reward nor punishment “accrue to me or await me in any future, beyond the natural consequences of my own acts.”

He died on New Year’s Eve 1897.