This book exams the history and development of theories of evolution from pre-enlightenment to the present day. Natural selection, orthogenesis and Lamarckism all play prominent roles, which have waxed and waned in popularity throughout this time.
The progress of theories of evolution is seen in the context of developments in other areas of biology, and also other sciences such as palaeontology, geology and physics as well as broader cultural changes. Bowler suggest that even after the publishing of the Origin of Species, Darwinism did not become mainstream until after developments in heredity and genetics in the first part of the twentieth century, and is still generating controversy today.
Bowler describes the ongoing interplay between theories of evolution and philosophy, religion, politics, and how these factors influence the acceptance and promotion or otherwise of the various theories of evolution, and also how theories of evolution have been [mis-]used to support often contrary ideological positions.
I think that Bowler's account would also provide a good case study with which to evaluate competing philosophies of science.
The book is erudite, and dense. It presents complex and subtle ideas clearly, but is not light reading, requiring, at least from me, concentration and effort. However, it does pay off: I came to this book with a background in biology rather than history and think this book helped me to a deeper understanding of both.
A very exhaustive and deep-rooted study of the concept of evolution, of the "darwinian revolution", with the authors, the various schools of thought, the historical and scientific or extra-scientific disputes, and the idealogical and political significance. We find the precursors of the idea of evolution: Linné, Buffon, Cuvier, Lamarck..., the more direct sources of the theory of Charles Darwin: Lyell, Humboldt, Malthus, and the grand father of the author, Erasmus Darwin, and also the rivalry with Alfred Russel Wallace. Since his masterpiece "On the Origins of Species", 1859, and refering to his whole Work, Darwin's heritage appears considerable, with so many scientists and the diversity of existing interpretations. We can quote: the Social Evolutionism of Herbert Spencer, Neo-Lamarckism, Neo-Darwinism, Creationism, Intelligent Design, Socio-Biology (E.O. Wilson)... and by the way considering the relationship with other matters such as ethology: Konrad Lorenz. The elements of the "New Synthesis" of the XXth century are clearly exposed: the "Evolutionary Modern Synthesis" based upon the Gregor Mendel's laws of heredity and the natural selection theory of Darwin. See: Julian Huxley: "Evolution The Modern Synthesis". Peter J. Bowler refers to epistemology (Karl Popper, Thomas S. Kuhn), having in mind to show how difficult it is to investigate within such a rich cause, how complexity is inherent in this topic, and keeping one's attitude: Darwin's theory with his significance and his implications is far more subtle that what we usually think.
Bothered at today's frequent glib dismissals of evolution? Read this and get informed. You may be curious and scientifically minded, or religious and uneasy with the sermons that seem to set up easy targets before shooting them down. The main thing is, you want more. Find out how evolution links with palaeontology, geology, zoology and the taxonomy of species, as well as how evolution is the result of hundreds of years work, and how it has survived and benefited from the relationship with hostile religion. This book is slow but steady, and never takes the reader's views for granted. This is the sort of book everybody should read.