Debating Darwin at the Cape

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    This paper focuses attention on the fortunes of Darwin's theory among the English-speaking community in Cape Colony during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The paper begins with a review of early encounters with Darwin dwelling particularly on the response of figures like Roderick Noble - professor and editor of the Cape Monthly Magazine, the geologist John Shaw, and Sir Henry Barkly, governor of the colony. Besides these more theoretical responses, Darwin's ideas were also mobilised in a range of scientific inquiries on such subjects as birds and butterflies. But most conspicuous was the use of evolutionary thought-forms in the work of the eminent philologist Wilhelm Bleek, cousin of Darwin's leading German apologist, Ernst Haeckel. The prevailing sense is of a liberal intelligentsia calmly interacting with a novel theory with all due deference. During the 1870s, an address by Langham Dale at the South African Public Library injected new energy into the Darwin discussion. Dale expressed disquiet over some of the anthropological implications of evolution as well as its apparent reductionism, and this stimulated a range of reactions. Several anonymous commentators responded but the most sustained evaluation of Dale's position emanated from the Queenstown physician and later politician, Sir William Bisset Berry. Then, in 1874, copious extracts from John Tyndall's infamous 'Belfast Address' were printed in the Cape Monthly and this added yet further impetus to the debate. Tyndall's seeming materialism bothered a number of readers, not least Hon William Porter, former attorney-general of Cape Colony. To figures like these the materialist extrapolations of radical Darwinians such as Haeckel were deeply disturbing, not just for religious reasons, but because they seemed to destabilise the moral and pedagogic progressivism that lay at the heart of their civilising credo. While reservations about Darwin's proposals were certainly audible, taken in the round Darwinian conversations among the English-speaking literati at the Cape were conducted with liberal sentiments, not least when evolutionary science approached questions of race. For Darwin's writings were seen to confirm a monogenetic account of the origin and unity of the human race, and could readily be called upon to justify the paternalistic ideology that governed colonial affairs.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-15
    JournalJournal of Historical Geography
    Early online date28 Jan 2016
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2016


    • Darwinism South Africa Cape Town Evolution Colonial science

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