Peter Chalmers Mitchell and antiwar evolutionism in Britain during the Great War

Crook D.P. (1989) Peter Chalmers Mitchell and antiwar evolutionism in Britain during the Great War. Journal of the History of Biology, 22 2: 325-356. doi:10.1007/BF00139517


Author Crook D.P.
Title Peter Chalmers Mitchell and antiwar evolutionism in Britain during the Great War
Journal name Journal of the History of Biology   Check publisher's open access policy
ISSN 0022-5010
Publication date 1989-01-01
Sub-type Article (original research)
DOI 10.1007/BF00139517
Volume 22
Issue 2
Start page 325
End page 356
Total pages 32
Publisher Kluwer Academic Publishers
Subject 1207 History and Philosophy of Science
1202 Building
1101 Medical Biochemistry and Metabolomics
Abstract It may be concluded that Mitchell's peace evolutionism incorporated most of the features of the cooperationist and Novicovian traditions. He questioned the conflict paradigm that underpinned biological militarism, and reinforced a holistic and more peaceful model of nature by reference to the emerging discipline of ecology. His "restrictionist" objections to the deterministic tendencies of much prevailing biosocial thought combined philosophical with biological arguments to assert that human history was sui generis, based upon the unique development of human consciousness and the cultural transmission of knowledge. Mitchell's opposition to biological militarism reflected Victorian anxieties about the legitimacy of evolutionary ethics. However, he introduced an innovatory note, linked to the "modernist" intellectual milieu of the time, when he put objections to the use of analogy on the grounds (1) that the Darwinist paradigm had not been properly established, and (2) that scientific laws themselves were uncertain and subjective. The first objection related to the bitter controversies that racked the biological world in the 1900s when mutation theory thrust the Darwinian concept of natural selection into temporary disrepute. In this respect Mitchell encoutered continuing Darwinist orthodoxy, not least from peace biology itself, while confusion was added by his personal devotion to Darwinism and his sociopolitical suspicion of Mendelian hereditarianism. The later triumph of a new Darwinian synthesis under men like R. A. Fisher made Mitchell's criticisms seem outmoded. In the second respect, Mitchell's attack on the primacy of naturalistic science echoed the epistemology of the "new physics" and movements such as German neo-Kantianism. However, positivism was still deeply embedded in Britain, indeed enjoying a resurgence from the last decade of the nineteenth century.79 Mitchell's critique of the Darwinist version of it seems to have been too novel and puzzling to influence a generation still convinced of the soundness of the science. Mitchell made more impact when he put his objections to the use of analogy on the grounds of professional methodology. As a naturalist, he could argue: It is impossible to make correct comparisons even between an insect and spider, two creatures so closely allied that only zoologists would separate them, unless we could trace the qualities of the insect and of the spider respectively down to their common ancestor, and in so doing we should almost certainly lose all that made the comparison interesting and significant, and be left with little more than the qualities common to all protoplasm..., It is quite true that the whole web of life is in physical and physiological community, but considerations drawn from any part of it require so much modification before they can be applied to any other part, that they become merely verbal.80 This type of criticism was to have a more lasting heritage. Chalmers Mitchell is worth remembering as an articulate early spokesman of a persistent, if often embattled, modern tradition that has resisted interpretations of human nature and history based upon genetic determinants or immutable biological laws, or upon the use of animal analogies to generalize too freely about human aggression and war.
Q-Index Code C1
Q-Index Status Provisional Code
Institutional Status Unknown

Document type: Journal Article
Sub-type: Article (original research)
Collection: Scopus Import - Archived
 
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