Evolution Weekend: Darwin: ‘The Man and His Legacy’

Darwin the man and Darwin the legacy cannot be easily separated from one another. To understand his work, it is necessary to know something about his life, and to get a handle on his life without touching on his work would be entirely absurd. To this end, this section of the Evolution Weekend will feature a brief look into the life of Darwin, to be further followed in the coming weekend editions with a number of articles by Darwin experts and others from a range of fields covering both subjects.

Darwin the man and Darwin the legacy cannot be easily separated from one another. To understand his work, it is necessary to know something about his life, and to get a handle on his life without touching on his work would be entirely absurd. To this end, this section of the Evolution Weekend will feature a brief look into the life of Darwin, to be further followed in the coming weekend editions with a number of articles by Darwin experts and others from a range of fields covering both subjects.

Charles Darwin

Darwin has become iconic in the 1990s. Look at the press coverage of ‘Darwinian Fundamentalism’, ‘Evolutionary Psychology’ and ‘Selfish Genes’. As a result we see him bestriding the Victorian era like a giant.

Yet his was a distant century, the ‘Wonderful Century’ – no less wonderful for its intellectual than its technological feats. His workhouse age was very different from our secular, deregulated world founded on naturalistic principles and fast information exchange. Only recently has Darwin’s evolution in its Dickensian setting become well understood, thanks to a labour-intensive ‘Darwin Industry’. Teams of international scholars in the 1980s cracked Darwin’s dogged path to natural selection; textual exegetes painstakingly transcribed his hieroglyphic notebooks, while contextual analysts plumbed his cultural assumptions. As a result, today we have a much deeper understanding of the troubled evolutionist in his milieu. Even so, the findings have sometimes been surprising.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was published in the Origin of Species in 1859. As its implications sank in, late Victorians saw the ‘very foundations of human thought’ being relaid, affecting ‘the entire intellectual life of our Western civilisation’. Darwin had predicted no less in his clandestine evolution notebooks.

Looked at telescopically, Darwin’s theory capped forty years of scientific upheaval. From 1800-40 profound changes left the earth not only in a Deep Time frame, but gave life a historical lineage. This appreciation, during Darwin’s youth, of life’s long heritage was of enormous consequence. Poking a spy-hole into the past revealed previously unimaginable vistas. Georges Cuvier in turn-of-the-century Paris realised that the deeper the fossils lay in the rock strata, the less they looked like living animals. Life’s ascent could be followed in the cliff face. It broke an archaic belief that animals were the same now as on their Day of Creation. Etienne Geoffroy St Hilaire further argued that animal anatomies were related: they showed internal patterns of relationships, indeed Jean-Baptiste Lamarck notoriously suggested that animals actually transformed, one into another. For Darwin’s mentor Charles Lyell in 1830-33 ancient geological changes were brought about by causes much like those today, resulting in a continuous ‘evolution’ of the landscape.

During Darwin’s productive years – the decade following the Reform Bill in 1832 – radicals and reforming Whigs derided the idea of Creation by miraculous whim. Their Nature was a regular process; their God a Lawgiver. Natural law – rather than Divine caprice – ruled biology no less than politics. There, in a nutshell, were the precedents for placing an impeccable Whig, Charles Darwin, at the crossroads of history – for making Lyell’s geological gradualism apply to animal life too. This had evolved through the aeons, leaving its fossil remains in the rocks and anatomical evidence deep inside animals.

Darwin’s Early Life

So who was this man shattering the complacency of ages? Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was the least likely at first sight to have capped this nineteenth century revolution. Being born into the Shropshire gentry and trained for the Church hardly boded well. Our familiar bearded-sage image comes from the short Autobiography that Darwin wrote late in life, a book which the old man laced with self-deprecating musings, smokescreens and anecdotes. But the tireless work of historians in the 1980s has replaced this with a dynamic image of the young Darwin, fresh ashore from the Beagle. We now have an annotated transcription of Darwin’s evolution notebooks. No less important is the definitive Correspondence of Charles Darwin, begun in 1985. This will contain 15,000 letters in 32 projected volumes, with completion expected in 2012. With ten volumes out, reaching the year 1862, the Correspondence already allows us to portray Darwin’s life of curious contradictions. We see the man who introduced chance into nature relishing his clockwork daily routine, the man who universalized life’s struggle for survival cocooning himself with his wealth, the patron of causal hardcore biology trying quack remedies for his debilitating sicknesses, including tying electric chains around his vinegar soaked neck.

And why was he so desperately ill after coming to evolution anyway? Was it stress related? Did he fear a hostile social reaction to his ideas in an age which saw the gentry as the moral backbone of a Christian nation?

Above all, the new sources get us closer to answering the fundamental questions: why it was Darwin who took the leap that seemed so horrendous to his clerical friends – those pillars of the parish who saw God’s power upholding Anglican society. And why Darwin’s belief in evolution seemed almost criminal in his day. Confiding such a belief, he said, was ‘like confessing a murder’.

Talk of social crimes belies his impeccable upbringing. the son of a wealthy doctor, his mother (who died when he was eight) was the pottery industrialist Josiah Wedgwood’s daughter. Despite his mother’s Unitarianism and father’s freethought, Darwin received an Anglican education at Shrewsbury School. the youngster, an inveterate collector and dabbler in chemistry, hated its rote-learning Classical emphasis. Medical training at Edinburgh University (1825-7) proved equally abortive, with the teenager having no stomach for surgery. But here at least he was exposed to dissidence. He loved beachcombing for sea slugs and sea mats on the Firth of Forth, and, crucially, the man he accompanied was 33-year-old Dr Robert E. Grant, a sponge expert, Lamarckian evolutionist, a democrat and materialist, who trained Darwin in French-style invertebrate anatomy. At student clubs, where Darwin reported his observations, he saw fiery radicals censored for calling the mind a product of a material brain, and giving animals all of the human mental faculties. So besides training in field geology and natural history that would serve him well on the Beagle, Darwin was taught the social consequences of subversive science.

His freethinking father wanted him in a profession, and what better for a wastrel naturalist than the Church? So Darwin was bounced back again to conventional Anglicanism – three years of high living and divinity at Christ’s College, Cambridge (1828-31). Darwin had little calling (not that much was needed!), but his collateral education continued, as the beetling fanatic learned a conservative botany from Revd J.S.Henslow and strata mapping with geologist Revd Adam Sedgwick. He received his B.A. degree, but, as Henslow placed him at the captain’s table aboard a surveying ship, HMS Beagle, the parsonage faded away.

The Beagle Voyage and Its Aftermath – Darwin comes to Evolution

The aristocratic Captain Robert FitzRoy, fearing the loneliness of command, had requested a young gentleman companion – and that’s how a self-financed Darwin cruised the world, not as a lowly surgeon-naturalist. The Beagle voyage has passed into legend. It was an imperial-evangelical mission in the grand tradition. FitzRoy meticulously surveyed the South American coast ready for the merchant traders, while releasing the Christianised Fuegian ‘savages’ he had captured on his previous trip. In the Brazilian rainforest Darwin’s mind reached a ‘chaos of delight’. Memorable scientific events – disinterring huge mammalian fossils from the Patagonian cliffs, watching his first ‘wild’ humans (Fuegians), experiencing the earthquake which destroyed Concepción and seeing the land rise some feet out of the sea as a result (which reinforced his Lyellian belief in the slow uplift of the Andes and the consequential immensity of geological time), explaining the formation of Indian Ocean coral reefs, eating a small rhea and realizing afterwards that the bones belonged to a new species – so much punctuated his five gruelling years (1831-6) aboard this cramped, creaking, ten-gun brig.

More than legend, some of Darwin’s discoveries proved to be positively mythical. Studying finches on the Galapagos islands was once thought to have provided Darwin’s Eureka moment. But no longer. In truth his collecting was patchy and he did not recognise the birds as so many finches at the time. Darwin’s real productive phase followed in London (1836-42). Here his theorising coincided with the most turbulent years of the century. The Whigs in power were building the abominable workhouses and reforming British society to give disadvantaged Dissenters more say and Anglicans less privilege. It was at the Zoological Society in January 1837 that the ornithologist and bird artist John Gould described Darwin’s Galapagos birds as a unique group of finches adapted to diverse island environments. While the rising palaeontologist Richard Owen (the man shortly to describe the dinosaurs) diagnosed Darwin’s fossils, not as mastodons and rhinos, as Darwin had thought, but as colossal anteaters, armadillos and llamas, creatures related to those in South America today. It suggested some ‘law of succession’ from past to present.

But it was Darwin’s tenacious follow-through that turned this into a law of evolution. Natural law had become the ideology of ultra-Dissenters looking to undermine the Creationist props of a privileged Established Church: from Robert Grant’s Edinburgh radicals to Charles Lyell’s gentlemen reformers, many saw this as the royal road to understanding nature. Darwin himself was of Unitarian stock, and radical Unitarians looked to material causality, not miraculous spirits, in nature. Reforming biology was an imperative, and for the astute that meant cracking the ‘mystery of mysteries’, the origin of successive species on the planet. But while the geological gents abhorred transmutationist solutions, which made man only a better sort of brute, Darwin had no qualms about evolution.

By spring 1837 he was a transmutationist. He wrestled with the issues of extinction, life spans of species, adaptation, llamas leaving mutated descendants, rheas changing into one another, and Galapagos finches diversifying as island castaways. He now had the specialists describing his haul in a series of books under his editorship, the Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1839-43), which gave him precise identifications to work on. In July 1837 he secretly opened the first of his transmutation notepads. For two years he left a blitz of telegraphic jottings on adaptation, populations, ecology, life’s primeval emergence and tree-like ramification, and the causes of variation in farmyard breeds. the prodigious mental work and worry told in the pit of his stomach. He began dreaming of executions; his notes mooted disarming tactics – how, when he published, he should mention that astronomers were once persecuted for their startling new ideas. He knew what to expect and he began to be ill.

But then nothing was taboo for him: ‘love of the deity effect of [brain] organization. oh you materialist’, he upbraided himself – even mankind’s innate belief in God was a survival stratagem. With the country racked by unrest, an increasingly radicalised Darwin aligned himself intellectually in 1838 with the anti-clerical dissidents:

“Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity, more humble & I believe true to consider him created from animals.”

Then in September 1838 came a breakthrough. Darwin was more deeply enmeshed in a Malthusian culture than anyone has realised. His freethinking brother Erasmus was sweet on the Whigs’ workhouse propagandist, Harriet Martineau. Darwin dined with them continually; theirs became his home circle, where Malthusian ideals and ‘heterodoxy was the norm’. Martineau’s poor-law pamphlets had even been sent to Darwin on the Beagle. Malthus’ daughter actually attended Wedgwood weddings, showing the close family connection. In an age when the poor were being incarcerated in workhouses on uncharitable Malthusian principles (to stop them breeding), Malthus’s claim that human populations always outstrip food supply was the talking point. Darwin read Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population and grasped its implication. He had already been primed by animal breeders, who culled their sickly runts. Now he understood nature’s culling machine: too many mouths are produced, forcing fierce competition. Any chance variation which confers an advantage in nature’s ‘war’ will thus survive and be perpetuated, causing species to change. This Darwin called ‘natural selection’.

Two months later in 1838 he married his wealthy cousin Emma Wedgwood. But the turmoil of his mind was reflected on his wedding night. After the reception he opened his notebook to jot down his uncle Jos Wedgwood’s wisdom on turnips.

Darwin’s reform of Nature, run of cost-benefit principles and uncharitable evolutionary practices, was essentially complete. He sketched out his theory. But with the country reeling from pro-democracy, anti-workhouse riots it was no time for a gentleman to go public. Atheistic Red Lamarckians were jailed as subversives. Darwin’s Cambridge divines derided their views as foul. Sedgwick saw evolutionists threatening the whole Anglican paternalist status quo. Hadn’t Darwin, the impeccable old-boy, secretly jotted: ‘Once grant that species…pass into each other….& whole [Creationist] fabric totters & falls’? What then of Establishment Anglican power? Darwin, moving through so many intersecting social circles, from Martineau’s to Sedgwick’s, knew that, for all the radical acceptance, his ideas would seem like reckless abandon to the Cambridge dons. For Darwin a gentleman’s character was sacrosanct. He could not risk besmirching his. He could not publish – yet, anyway.

The Squire of Downe

He not only sat on his theory. He took it away with him. In 1842 he and Emma escaped from London to live in a former parsonage in Downe, in the Kent countryside. Down House was at the ‘extreme verge of world’, and that’s where he was happiest, away from questioning voices. But he was sure of the power of his theory: in 1844 he wrote Emma a letter suggesting that, if he died, she should pay an editor £400 to publish his work posthumously. It was as though he wanted to die first.

The Darwins were rich: by the 1850s they were absentee landlords of two Lincolnshire farms, had £80,000 invested in industry and the burgeoning railways (£20,000 was sunk into the Great Northern Railway in 1854 alone) and took over £4000 in yearly profits. Wealth meant security and self-financing: Darwin’s home was his laboratory. Here his humdrum days were filled with books on coral reefs and South American geology. Of their ten children, two died, and ten-year-old Annie’s death from typhoid in 1851 stripped away Darwin’s final shreds of belief in Christianity. But still the pottering parish patriarch worked with the Tory vicar on the local Coal and Clothing club for the ‘clodhoppers’, while Emma gave charitable handouts. In 1857 Darwin even became a magistrate. One senses how much he had to lose.

He rarely confessed his ‘murder’, as he called it to the Kew botanist Joseph Hooker. Even so, Darwin’s subsequent scientific activity was tangential to his eventual presentation of evolution. His eight year study of barnacles (1846-54), leading to four definitive monographs, earned him the right to speak as a systematist. then came seed-floating experiments (1855), to see if seeds could survive seawater to colonise islands. He kept all the known breeds of fancy pigeons (1855-8) to understand first hand how fanciers produced new varieties, by what he termed ‘artificial selection’.

Thus did twenty years pass for the closet evolutionist. Through the decades he declined to stay in other people’s houses or attend many social events. the anxiety showed in his swimming head, depressions and sickness, for which he visited spas and experimented with diets and quack cures. Darwin’s social perceptions and evolution’s use by the rioters – to smash Anglican thraldom – provide the telling backdrop to this illness and publishing delay. Loss of social standing was a very real threat to a Victorian gentleman.

Origin of Species

But the 1850s brought quieter and more prosperous times for the country. Darwin felt more secure after winning the Royal Medal from the Royal Society in 1853. Moreover a rising group of secularists was professionalizing academic science. Led by T.H.Huxley, himself trying to raise standards by ousting the dilettante clerics and opening science to competition, they promised a better reception for evolution. Darwin invited Huxley to Downe in 1856. Immediately afterwards Huxley started challenging ‘Creation’ in his lectures at the Government School of Mines in Piccadilly, while Darwin finally – the years of procrastination over – began a huge tome, projected at three volumes, which he called Natural Selection.

Then on 18 June 1858 came a letter from a specimen-collector Alfred Russel Wallace from the Malay Archipelago, detailing a similar theory. It frightened Darwin into starting a shorter book to retain priority. Darwin’s and Wallace’s papers were read jointly at the Linnean Society on I July 1858 to a resounding silence. Darwin, his eighteen-month-old retarded son having just died, stayed away – but it was the kind of absenteeism that would mark his last years. His hastily-finished popular book, one to go over the heads of the experts – On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection – was published by John Murray in November 1859.

Darwin’s Champions

Not that Darwin was there to celebrate. He was secreted away at a spa on the desolate Yorkshire moors. the book sold out instantly and he started a second edition on the moors. Whatever the ‘platoon firing’, as Huxley called the conservative criticism, there was little of the personal opprobrium Darwin had feared. All that worrying had been for naught. And anyway he now had a public champion, Huxley, whose own Man’s Place in Nature (1863), discussing our ape ancestry (a subject avoided in the Origin), drew the poison. So even when Darwin belatedly published the Descent of Man in 1871 there was little ruckus. Huxley became the visible face of Darwinism. His marginal ‘agnostic’ (Huxley’s word) scientists deployed a non-miraculous science, backed by the Origin, to break the Classics and theology stranglehold of Oxbridge and to claw more power for themselves. Huxley allowed Darwin to sit back ‘like one of the blessed gods of Elysium, and let the inferior deities’ battle on his behalf. As a result, the retiring Darwin was perceived as a model of quiet scholarship and family respectability.

So strong was this image that on Darwin’s death in 1882 Huxley and his colleagues could persuade the Dean of Westminster to allow Darwin’s burial in the Abbey. And there, in the nation’s pantheon, somewhat ironically, the agnostic evolutionist rests: the diffident son of the Shropshire gentry who has forever changed mankind’s view of itself.

Dr Adrian Desmond is in the Department of Biology, University College London. He is co-author with James Moore of ‘Darwin’. His two-volume biography ‘Huxley’ was published as a single volume paperback in April 1997.

Author: Adrian Desmond

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