Martin Bridgstock re-views an old biography, and discovers much about the evolution of Charles Darwin.
(An edited version of this book review was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2022, Vol 42 No 3)
This year is the 140th anniversary of Darwin’s death, so it is appropriate to revisit a book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, simply titled Darwin, that is itself now over thirty years old. I am embarrassed that I had not read this brilliant biography until now. Perhaps it was partly the book’s enormous 677 pages which deterred me. Still, I recently found a copy and worked through it. My view of Darwin was transformed. His scientific work was awesome, gradually transforming our understanding of life on this planet.
In addition, the authors place Darwin in his time, a likeable, mildly progressive country gentleman. The science is enormously important, but so is the social background. I am grateful to the authors for giving us this detailed and rounded picture of a great scientist and a great man.
In his lifetime, he witnessed the titanic political battle between the Whigs and the Tories and played a part in it. The Tories, early in the nineteenth century, represented the interests of powerful landowners in Great Britain. The Church of England provided religious backup, teaching divine creation and stressing the God-given nature of Britain’s class structure. The Whigs, by contrast, believed in progress and had a clear set of objectives, including “extended suffrage, open competition, religious emancipation (allowing Dissenters, Jews and Catholics to hold office), and the abolition of slavery”. Darwin came from a line of Whig gentry. His father was a doctor and had amassed wealth from his work. In addition, the Darwins were related to the Wedgwoods, who had made a fortune from pottery.
Charles Darwin went to Edinburgh to study medicine, but he hated the sight of blood, and found the teaching appalling. Still, there were signs of his future vocation. He loved “beetling” – collecting and identifying insects. Darwin also joined a student science club, and here he made his first scientific presentations. He also met political radicals who wanted to overthrow the biblical story of creation. Why? Because the Church of England preached biblical creation and the political status quo, so a blow against one was a blow against the other. By the time Darwin dropped out of Edinburgh University, he was on his way to becoming a scientist.
What next? Charles went to Cambridge University with a view to becoming an Anglican clergyman. This was logical, as many clergymen were distinguished naturalists, including some of Darwin’s friends. Darwin worked to pass his exams, eventually passing tenth out of 178 candidates. Some theology did impress him. He adopted Paley’s argument for design. If you saw a watch in a field, you would naturally infer the existence of a watchmaker. And, of course, a living being is much more complex than a watch. Mostly, though, Darwin continued his beetling and also began “botanising” – finding and classifying plants.
A possible solution
It is clear from his record that Darwin was very bright and fascinated by biological science. However, biology was mostly a hobby, practised by rich people and country clergymen. And the dominance of the Church inhibited scientific development.
Then came a possibility. A place had fallen vacant for a geologist on a ship that was sailing round the world. However, his father was not convinced enough to finance the trip. Charles appealed to his uncle Josiah Wedgewood, who thought it was a fine idea. Darwin’s father changed his mind, and Charles Darwin embarked on the Beagle for five years of voyaging round the world. He was never the same.
The Beagle was small and accommodation was cramped. In addition, the captain, Robert Fitzroy was a Tory with an explosive temper. Still, Darwin grasped the opportunities given him. One concerned Charles Lyell’s controversial theories of geology. Lyell’s key argument was termed uniformitarianism: the geological structures of features of the world could be explained by the processes we can see now – erosion, deposition of silt, volcanic upthrust and the like. Of course, this necessarily implied that the Earth was enormously old.
On one of his first landfalls in South America, Darwin saw a band of fossil seashells and corals 30 feet above sea level. Later, on a long expedition inland, he stood upon mountains thousands of feet high- and saw similar fossils beneath his feet. In the Chilean city of Concepción he saw a catastrophe. A terrible earthquake struck the city. Then a twenty-foot tidal wave rolled in. Darwin’s key observation, though, was that a bed of live mussels had been elevated several feet above sea level. So Lyell was right. Both coasts of South America were being elevated by vast forces, which were slow-acting. So the Earth must be unimaginably ancient, and a huge hole was blown in his creationist beliefs.
While on the Galapagos Islands he had collected a number of bird specimens. He noted that the four Mockingbirds were from different islands, and some of them were different from each other, He thought there were also finches, wrens and relatives of the blackbird. Eventually, he turned these over to a bird expert, John Gould. Gould reported that Darwin was wrong: they were all finches. Darwin had not annotated his finds properly, but it looked as if the finches on different islands had developed differently. Species were not unchangeable.
Darwin also saw humans behaving in ways that suggested that intra-species warfare – and indeed extinctions – were common. In southern Argentina, Darwin met General Rosas, who was conducting a war of extermination against indigenous rebels. Then, in Tasmania, he saw the culmination of this process. The main island of Tasmania apparently had no aborigines. The shattered remnants of the indigenous peoples had been shipped off to smaller islands. Extinctions could happen within one species, Darwin summised.
Back to Britain
Returning to Britain, Darwin discovered that he was a minor scientific hero. His findings and reports were well-known among naturalists. His friend, clergyman Rupert Henslow, had summarised some of his notes and published them as a twelve-page pamphlet. Darwin farmed out his geological and naturalistic specimens, looking for people who had expertise in the different areas. He made the rounds of his friends and acquaintances, not revealing the massive changes that were going on in his mind.
Gradually, the parts of Darwin’s personal life fell into place. He proposed marriage to his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and she accepted. They got on well, and in addition Emma had a substantial dowry from her family to add Charles’s father’s contributions. The couple lived in London for a few years, then bought a large house in the village of Down (later Downe) in the south-eastern county of Kent. The Darwins slotted easily into the role of country gentry and had a sizeable staff of servants and gardeners. There were still problems. Emma Darwin was a devout Christian, and was deeply distressed about Charles’s spiritual state.
Darwin developed nasty digestive problems, which plagued him for the rest of his life. There has been much debate over whether he picked up an unpleasant bug on his world travels, or whether it was all psychosomatic. My guess is that the bug was genuine, but at times of stress the symptoms became worse. After endless consultations, Darwin limited his working hours to about three per day. He also minimised his exposure to stressful situations. Slowly, steadily, over the decades, he built a massive body of work.
Building the Theory
A popular myth is that Darwin read the work of Thomas Malthus, and this gave him the idea for evolution. Not really. Malthus’s ideas had been public property for years, Darwin finally read the sixth edition of the “pitiless parson’s” thesis, and it gave him the key to understanding how life changed. Malthus’s argument was that the human population would eventually outrun the food supply, leading to mass starvation. Helping with food supplies was useless: the population would simply expand again. So, for Malthus, humanity was doomed to misery. Salvation lay only in heaven.
Darwin saw the analogy with the natural world. Living things always reproduced beyond the food supply, so there was a relentless battle to survive and propagate. He’d seen this in London, paupers battling for scraps in piles of rubbish. Only the fittest could win in this struggle, eliminating those with inferior abilities. Darwin’s new view was shocking for several reasons. First, he portrayed nature as a grim world in which all living things struggled to survive. Second, there was the shocking idea that blind forces of nature could produce creatures who were aware and intelligent. There seemed no need for a creator. Third, there was the indignity – for respectable Victorians – that humans are descended from ape-like creatures.
Darwin, a respectable country gentleman, was aware of how horrific his theory would appear. So he concealed his ideas, researching, writing and developing the argument. He confided in a few selected people. Joseph Hooker, the botanist, read and critiqued two drafts of what became On the Origin of Species. Darwin kept drafting and developing, until in 1858 his hand was forced – someone else had the same idea.
Publishing the Origin
Alfred Russel Wallace was younger than Darwin, born into modest circumstances in London. He travelled to what is now Indonesia, and worked at collecting bugs, sending them back to Britain. Wallace also began corresponding with Darwin and finally sent him a stunning paper. Darwin admitted that it was an excellent summary of his proposed big book, and that some of Wallace’s words and phrases appeared in the book as chapter headings. What was Darwin to do? A solution was reached. At the next meeting of the Linnaean Society, in London, Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell explained the situation to members. Then Lyell read extracts from Darwin’s draft and Hooker read Wallace’s paper. There were no questions, but it was on the record that evolution was first discovered by Darwin and Wallace. Incidentally, when he heard what had happened, Wallace was delighted.
Darwin decided to focus on a shortened version of his big book, and it was published the following year. To his astonishment, On the Origin of Species sold extremely well. Reviews and comments were polarised, but among the rising class of professional scientists it was accepted and praised. The fact that the book’s author was an affable and respectable country gentleman certainly helped. Supporters like Huxley, Hooker, and Wallace confronted the deniers, and usually defeated them. Inevitably offers came to translate the book into other languages. Darwin was cautious, trying to make sure that foreign translations did not espouse revolutionary politics.
Emma gave birth to ten children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. When chloroform became available to ease the pains of childbirth, the Darwins used it. On one occasion the doctor was late for the birth and Darwin himself administered the anaesthetic. Charles was grief-stricken at the deaths of his children, especially his favourite daughter Annie. It severed his last shreds of religious faith.
At Down House, Darwin’s life was mostly tranquil. His routine of working was, he said “like a clock”. He investigated pigeons, barnacles and earthworms. In each case he was thorough, extending the boundaries of knowledge and also showing how the development of these creatures could be explained by natural processes. He published 21 books and monographs, some of them running to several volumes.
On matters of religion, Darwin was clear. When two miliant German atheists sought his support, he replied that he remained an agnostic: he didn’t know.
He eventually died of angina at the age of 73, expecting to be buried in Downe churchyard. Instead, with the family’s agreement, he was interred in Westminster Abby in the company of other great scientists like Lyell and Newton.
About the author
Dr Martin Bridgstock is a retired senior lecturer in the School of. Biomolecular and Physical Sciences at Griffith University. Amongst other publications, he is the author of Beyond Belief.
(Reblogged with the permission of both the author and the Editor of The Skeptic).