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Bert Theunissen. vol 47 (1998) nr. 4 p. 475-490

The scientific and social context of Hugo de Vries’ Mutationstheorie

Hugo de Vries conducted the research that would culminate in his mutation theory in the 1880s and 1890s. This was a period of social and cultural upheaval. Many intellectuals believed that European civilization was ‘going to the dogs’, and feelings of cultural decline and pessimism spread in speech-making artistic and literary circles; yet exactly the opposite sentiment can also be discerned. A more forward-looking and positive attitude characterized the position of many who were no less aware of the rapid changes that society was undergoing. Dutch historians have recently shown that this optimistic stance was more characteristic of how the fin de siecle was experienced in The Netherlands (e.g. Van Sas 1991). Dutch intellectuals were agreed that society was about to change drastically. The consequences of the country’s relatively late but rapid industrialization were beginning to be felt, economically as well as socially, and the first stirrings of worker movements convinced many that society was in a state of crisis. The classical liberal ideology of minimal state intervention seemed to have definitely outlived its effectiveness. Social reform was deemed to be inevitable. However, while it was acknowledged that the social order was in a critical state and that the future was uncertain, a distinct sense of optimism emanates from most publications in which these matters were discussed. Dutch intellectuals believed that a new and better order would result from the crisis—an order in which all strata of society would be given their due rights and in which the state would acquire a new role. Depending on their political affiliations, different authors voiced widely differing views on how this new social order was to be attained and what it would look like. Among the diverse socialist, liberal and conservative alternatives proposed, those of the liberals are of particular importance here since most academics, including Hugo de Vries, were liberally inclined (De Rooy 1987; Stuurman 1991, 1992).

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