The Use of Biological Concepts in the Writing of History

  • Allen D. Breck


Much of the controversy over the question whether historiography is an “art” or a “science” is derived from the encounter of nineteenth-century historians with biologists and with the popularizers of the Darwinian hypothesis. That it was a two-way encounter, with profit on both sides, there is no doubt. It should be possible, therefore, to assess the impact of the “grand style” of the historian’s vision on the development of biological theory, to show how the ways in which historians took for granted such concepts as “growth,” “development,” “rise and fall,” “emergence,” and produced theories which accorded well with mid-Victorian optimism in a world becoming increasingly Europeanized. It would be fascinating to explore the fact that historical writings in the nineteenth century, with its frequent emphasis on the growth and development of institutions, races, and nations, was a considerable part of the air which biologists breathed, and that the impact of historical thought on biological reasoning was not inconsiderable.


Nineteenth Century Biological Concept Historical Thought American Historical Association Inevitable Development 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    “On Trading and Usury,” 1542, quoted in Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (New York: Knopf, 1944), 242.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Walter J. Ong, Darwin’s Vision and Christian Perspectives (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 134.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Among general surveys, William Irvine’s Apes, Angels, and Victorians (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955) is useful.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    A Generation of Materialism (New York: Harpers, 1941). See particularly 12–13, 246, and 255 ff.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The Origin of Species (New York: Appleton, 1897), 9. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (New York: Oxford, 1946), especially 129 ff, 332.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    History (New York, 1908), 14. Morton White, Foundations of Historical Knowledge (New York: Harpers, 1965), 262. See also The New History (1912) passim.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    The Holmes-Pollock Letters (Cambridge: Harvard, 1941), I, 57. For Spencer, see Principles of Sociology, 3d ed., (New York, 1925), part 2 of Chapter II.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    K. Marx and F. Engels, Gesamtausgabe (Berlin, 1932), Vol. II, part 3, p. 447. See also Friedrich Engels, The Dialectics of Nature (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1941).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence (New York, 1942), 125.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    The Dialectics of Nature, ed. 1941, 19. See the Gesamtausgabe, III, part e, 77–8. In 1908 Lenin in his Materialism and Empiro-Criticism relied on physics rather than on biology, astronomy, or geology for his analogies.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Franz Mehring, Karl Marx (New York, 1935), 555. See also Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (New York: Oxford, 3d edition, 1963), 274.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    James Allen Rogers, “The Russian Populists’ Response to Darwin,” a perceptive essay in The Slavic Review, 22 (September 1963), 456–468.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    See Mutual Aid (New York: McClure, 1902), passim. Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    H. Stuart Hughes, Osward Spengler, A Critical Estimate (New York: Scribner’s 1954), 4. See also Charles Loring Brace, “Darwinism in Germany,” North American Review (1870).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    E. N. Saveth, “Race and Nationalism in American Historiography: Late Nineteenth Century,” Political Science Quarterly, 54 (September 1939).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography (New York: Heritage Press, 1942) especially Chapter XV, “Darwinism.”Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Merle E. Curti, The Growth of American Thought (New York: Harper, 1943), 554–555. William S. Jordy, Henry Adams: Scientific Historian (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1952). Roy Nichols, “The Dynamic Interpretation of History,” New England Quarterly 8 (June 1955).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    See not only “The Strenuous Life” but essays such as “How Not to Help Our Poorer Brother,” “Social Evolution,” and “The Law of Civilization and Decay.”Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Henry F. May, The End of American Innocence (New York: Knopf, 1959). Howard G. Odum (ed.), American Masters of Social Science (New York: Holt, 1927).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Boyd C. Shafer, “History, Not Art, Not Science, but History,” Pacific Historical Review, 29 (May 1960). Compare Theodosius Dobzhansky, The Biological Basis of Human Freedom (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1956). See also Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Discovery of Time (New York: Harper, 1965), particularly Chapters 8 and 9 on Darwin’s world.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1972

Authors and Affiliations

  • Allen D. Breck
    • 1
  1. 1.University of DenverUSA

Personalised recommendations