The history of the interrelation between Charles Darwin and Italy begins long before Darwin’s main works were published. In 1814, the Italian natural scientist Gianbattista Brocchi published his Concchiologia fossile subappenina con osservazioni geologiche sugli Appenini e sul suolo adiacente, in which he supported the theory that species can disappear and do actually become extinct, based on his detailed examination of the fossilized remains of crustaceans. With this theory, he contradicted Carl von Linné, J. E. Walch, Georges Cuvier, and Jean Baptiste Lamarck, who all, in their different ways, ruled out the possibility that a species could disappear entirely. Brocchi explained the disappearance of species by analogy with the life cycle of an individual. Just as an individual is born, grows old, becomes weaker, and finally dies, he believed that species became increasingly weaker down the generations. Brocchi believed he could prove that before they disappeared, extinct species had become smaller and smaller from one generation to the next and then finally died out. In this way, Brocchi saw the tiny spiral snail as the last stage of development of the originally much larger ammonites. Strangely, although Brocchi drew these parallels between the life of the species and the life of the individual, he did not use them as the basis to explore further what would seem the next obvious question about the origin of the species. He therefore accepted a gradual aging of species irrespective of exceptional external changes (catastrophe theory) but rejected Lamarck’s theory that one species could develop into another.
Through Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830— 1833), in which Brocchi’s theories were examined at length, Charles Darwin came into contact in the 1830s with Brocchi’s theory that species could change independently of external influences and gradually disappear. This caused him to doubt the claim made in Natural Theology (1802), by William Paley, that the species were contrived to be perfectly adapted, and eventually brought him to the theory of transformism.
In 1830, the famous dispute between Cuvier and Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire took place at the Académie des Sciences in Paris about whether there were several designs in nature (Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire) or just one basic design (Cuvier), a debate behind which was the fight between fixism (Cuvier) and Lamarckism (Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire). In 1859, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. In the period between these two important dates, the question of the origin of the species played only a minor role among natural scientists in Italy. This was because, with a few exceptions like Franco Andrea Bonelli and Carlo Porro, they were occupied mainly with questions of systematics and classification. Bonelli, Francesco Baldassini, F. C. Marmocchi, and some others responded positively to Lamarck’s theories, while natural scientists like Camillo Ranzani and Filippo Parlatore rejected them with the arguments previously produced by Cuvier against Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire as “pantheistic” and therefore unchristian. As early as 1856, Carlo Luciano Bonaparte, on the other hand, claimed the variability of species within a geological period and classified human beings in the order of the apes. Faced with the choice between fixism and Lamarckism, many natural scientists in the Italian states chose to tread a third path: Returning to the model of a “Great Chain of Being,” which had already been discussed in the 18th century, they assumed a gradual difference and consequently a relation between the species, but without regarding this as chronological evolution. Among others, Filippo De Filippi Parlatore and Gabriele Costa also advocated a nonevolutionary, systematic connection of this kind between the species, although in a different form. It is important to remember that many extremely different evolutionary theories inspired by natural philosophy were circulating at that time within the scientific community in the Italian states. These theories bore reference to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Carl Gustav Carus, among others. This demonstrates that numerous attempts were made to reconcile creationism and evolution.
The publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which had already been circulating in Italy since 1862 in French translation, was at first received with relative composure, since the innovativeness of Darwin’s approach was not initially recognized among natural scientists. Rather, Darwin’s theory was received simply as one of many that were circulating at the time. He excited interest mainly with regard to the possibility he suggested of a genealogical system of species.
The public discussion about Darwin began in Italy in 1864, with De Filippi’s famous lecture on L’uomo e le scimmie (Man and the Apes), in which he attempted to reconcile Darwinism with Christian dogma by classifying human beings in a separate fourth kingdom of nature alongside the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms. Although this was after the appearance of Thomas H. Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature (1863), Lyell’s The Antiquity of Man (1863), and Carl Vogt’s Vorlesungen uber den Menschen (1863), it was 7 years before Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871) was published. In the same year, Giuseppe Bianconi gave a lecture at the Accademia delle Scienze in Bologna, in which he assumed an “independent emergence” of human beings and took the view that there was absolutely no genealogical relationship between man and animals. Alexander Herzen’s lecture Sulla parentela fra l’uomo e le scimmie (On the Relationship Between Man and Ape), in 1869, in Florence, then also caused a sensation. Raffaello Lambruschini and Niccolo Tommaseo opposed Herzen. In response to the accusation that Darwinism was attempting to degrade humans by making them into apes, Herzen pointed out in his reply that neither he nor Darwin had ever claimed that man originated from the apes, but only that both man and ape originated from the same ancestor. The dispute between Herzen and Lambruschini also had more of a political character, since Lambruschini supported the theory of the “Great Inquisitor” in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, namely, that it was not right to deprive the people of their belief in religious myths as it would cast them into despair. Herzen, on the other hand, insisted that scientific truth by its inherent merit must not be concealed.
After 1859, numerous natural scientists declared their support for Darwin, including Michele Lessona and Leonardo Salimbeni. One of the most important supporters of Darwinism in Italy was the natural scientist Giovanni Canestrini, from Trento, who had translated The Descent of Man into Italian with Salimbeni in 1864. Strangely, the translators from English corresponded with Darwin in French and German, and peculiarly, there are several errors of translation in the Italian version that can also be found in the French translation of 1862. One example is the incorrect translation of the English word metaphorical in Darwin’s explanation of the term natural selection into metafisico (i.e., metaphysical). As in the French version, selection was also translated into the Italian elezione, which is approximate to “choice or election,” which encouraged an interpretation with problems.
In 1866, that is to say, 5 years before Darwin’s The Descent of Man, Canestrini’s monograph L’origine dell’uomo (The Origin of Man), dedicated to the same subject, was published. In this work, he defended Darwin against criticism, by Giuseppe Bianconi for example, in Italy. On the other hand, he deviated from Darwin’s opinions in several areas. Unlike Darwin, who had been much more cautious in this area, Canestrini believed that evolution was a process of advancement to things more complex and elevated. As far as systematics is concerned, Canestrini does not classify man in the same order as apes. He claims that man is not descended from apes, but that ape and man are descended from one common ancestor.
In the same year, Geminiano Grinelli attacked Canestrini in his publication L’origine divina e non bestiale dell’umanitâ (The Divine and Not Animal Origin of Man), and in 1874, Giuseppe Bianconi published in French his book opposing Darwin’s theory of descent, La théorie Darwinienne et la création dite indépendante (Darwin’s Theory and the So-Called Independent Creation). In this work, the dispute surrounding Darwin is not so much about the dispute between creationists and evolutionists as about the fight between an “idealistic” evolutionism inspired by “natural philosophy” and Darwin’s evolutionism, which is considered to be empirically materialistic. In his work published between 1872 and 1875, in Bologna, I tipi animali (Typology of the Animals), the Hegelist Angelo Camillo De Meis summed up the situation at the time perfectly when he wrote: “Even non-Darwinians admit to evolution, but they understand it as a necessary and rational process since, according to them, mutation first occurs ideally in the substantial form and then subsequently in the natural form.” Augusto Verra also objected to Darwin’s “empiricism” in his Il problema dell’Assoluto (The Problem of the Absolute), which was published in Naples in 1882.
Two years after Darwin was appointed a member of the Accademia dei Lincei in 1875, Luigi Bombicci published his II processo di evoluzione nelle specie minerali (The Evolutionary Process of Minerals), in which he describes evolution as a general process of both animate and inanimate nature. In the same year, the work by Pietro Siciliani, La critica nella filosofia zoologica del XIX secolo (Criticism in the Philosophical Zoology of the 19th Century), appeared, which was somewhat more critical about Darwin. In 1880, Giacomo Cattaneo published his Saggio sull’evoluzione degli organismi (Essay on the Development of Organisms) and 2 years later, the Darwin obituaries by Paolo Mantegazza and Salvatore Tommasi appeared. The latter had already published an important essay, Sul moderno evoluzionismo (On Modern Evolutionism) in 1877, in the periodical Rivista Europea. Now, in his obituary, he summed up the decision for or against Darwin in this way: “either evolution or miracle.”
In 1883, a few months before his death, Francesco de Sanctis, one of the most important intellectuals in the new Italy, also took up the cause of Darwin and emphasized his extreme importance, not only in the field of natural science but also in all levels of human life. This makes De Sanctis one of the first people to realize the significance and the possible consequences of Darwin’s theory. In his lecture Darwin e l’arte (Darwin and Art), given by De Sanctis in 1883 in several Italian towns, he said: “There may be people who do not know his books and have never heard the name of Darwin but still live surrounded by his teachings and under the influence of his ideas.”
Francesco de Sarlo covered at length possible “applications” for Darwinism in chemistry, astronomy, philology, and sociology in his Studi sul darwinismo (Studies on Darwinism), published in 1887. In his essay Darwinismo ed evoluzionismus (Darwinism and Evolutionism), which appeared in 1891 in Rivista di Filosofia Scientifica, Enrico Morselli also spoke in favor of an extension of Darwinism into other disciplines. In this article, Morselli attempted to link Darwin and Herbert Spencer and demonstrate the broad applicability of Darwinism. Not only this, he also supported the irreconcilability of Darwin with a “mystic, theological and finalistic evolutionism” as argued by Antonio Fogazzaro in Italy and Asa Gray in the United States. Morselli described the United States in this connection as “a country that tends towards every form of abstruse mysticism.” Among others, Alberto Sormani and Achille Loria examined the political consequences of Darwinism. In 1894, Enrico Ferri published his work Socialismo e scienza positiva, Darwin-Spencer-Marx (Socialism and Positive Science, Darwin-Spencer-Marx), in which he describes socialism as the logical extension of Darwin’s and Spencer’s theories. Of great importance in the question of the relationship between Darwinism and Marxism in Italy are Antonio Labriola’s Saggi sul materialismo storico (Essays on Historic Materialism), published in 1896.
In his work La teoria di Darwin criticamente esposta (A Critical Account of Darwin’s Theory), published in 1880, Giovanni Canestrini not only opposed Darwin’s theory of “sexual selection,” he also, and above all, opposed Darwin’s theory of pangenesis as expounded in his The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868). Despite his admiration for Darwin, Canestrini preferred Lamarck’s theory of inheritance, which he considered proven by numerous reports and observations.
Federico Delpino, Darwin’s most important direct contact in Italy, also disputed the theory of pangenesis. In 1869, Delpino’s essay Sulla darwiniana teoria della pangenesi (On Darwin’s Theory of Pangenesis) appeared in the Italian periodical Rivista contemporana. This impressed Darwin so much that he had Delpino’s text translated in the same year at his own cost and published in the English periodical Scientific Opinion. Referring to empirical assumptions about the unbelievably large number of “gemmules” that an organism would have to pass on in reproduction, Delpino, who took a spiritual position, objected that this would only be possible if the “gemmules” were immaterial substances. Assuming the empirical refutation of pangenesis, Delpino attempted in this way to reconcile Darwin’s theory of evolution with a spiritual finalism. According to Delpino, the evolution of the species did not take place gradually, but rather erratically and teleologically. He believed a “forming principle” governed evolution and guaranteed the harmony of nature, which could be seen, for example, in the parallel development of blossom and pollinating insects.
Finally, as far as the notorious “Anthropologia criminale” by a certain Cesare Lombroso is concerned, this is based entirely on pre-Darwinian theories and cannot, as Lombroso himself stated, be attributed to Darwin in any way.
Darwin last appeared in the headlines of the Italian newspapers in 2004, when it was announced that the Ministry of Education intended to remove the theory of evolution from the school curriculum, where it had not even been introduced until 1978, because it apparently placed excessive demands on children. However, the ensuing outcry by the general public and the scientific community finally led to a withdrawal of this suggested reform, and Darwin’s theory of evolution has remained a fixed part of the school curriculum.
- Corsi, P., & Weindling, P. (1984). The reception of Darwinism in France, Germany, and Italy. A comparative assessment. In D. Kohn (Ed.), The Darwinian heritage: A centennial retrospective (pp. 683-729). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Giuliano, P. (1991). Darwin in Italy: Science across cultural frontiers (Rev. ed., R. B. Morelli, Trans.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Paul, H. W. (1974). Religion and Darwinism: Varieties of Catholic reaction. In T. F. Glick (Ed.), The comparative reception of Darwinism (pp. 403-436). Austin & London: University of Texas Press.