Tag Archives: Martin Bridgstock

The Evolution of Darwin

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.

Later Life

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).

Leave a comment

Filed under Book reviews

A tidal wave of beneficent trends

by Martin Bridgstock

(An edited version of this book review was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2018, Vol 38 No 3)

Some years ago Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (Pinker 2012) made a great impression. In this book – using over a thousand pages of text and 100 diagrams – Pinker supported his case that, over the long run, human beings are becoming less violent toward each other.  There were exceptions to the decline in violence, but Pinker seemed to make a powerful case for his argument. In addition, he presented a list of factors which, in his view, led to this decline in violence.

Since that time, Pinker’s argument has been verified. Johan Norberg (2016), a Swedish writer and Angus Deaton (2013), a Nobel prize-winner in economics, have come to the same conclusion. The key finding, the long-term decline in interpersonal violence, has to be welcome to everyone. Its sheer magnitude sometimes takes an effort to grasp. For example, an Englishman living in the 1300s was twenty times as likely to die violently as an Englishman in the twentieth century (Pinker 2016:73). Overall, Pinker’s case for the trend away from violence seems to be well supported.

Many wonderful trends

Now Pinker has returned with another book, titled Enlightenment Now (Pinker 2018). It is short compared to the other book – only 550-odd pages and 75 diagrams – but far more ambitious. He documents the evidence that the human condition is improving on more than a dozen important measures. And he has a single underlying theory to explain this.

Rather than list all the trends, I will put them in a separate table, with an example or two for each. Cast your eyes over the table. I suggest looking at the examples for Life, Wealth and Knowledge. Let me stress that in the hundreds of pages and dozens of illustrations which make up Pinker’s book, there are far more trends than I can list here. And all point in the same direction: the human condition worldwide is improving. Usually these improvements took place first in Europe and North America. However, the other parts of the world are improving too, and usually catching up with the leaders. 

Table 1. Major trends charted by Pinker, with selected examples

 Life. Life expectancy is increasing Around 1780, world life expectancy for humans was about 30 years. Today it is 71.4 years. (Pinker 2018: 53-4 )   Major diseases are in decline, often because of mass vaccination (Pinker 2018: 64).

Sustenance. The food supply per person is increasing and so childhood stunting and famine deaths are in decline (Pinker 2018: 70-71). The size of families is decreasing, too: apparently once parents are reasonably sure that their children will survive, they stop having large families (Pinker 2018: 125).

Wealth. GDP per capita is increasing worldwide and as a result extreme poverty is falling. In 1820, nearly 90% of the world’s population lived on US$1.90 (2011 dollars) or less. Today only about 10% live on so little (Pinker 2018: 87).

Inequality. Inequality may be increasing, but the general trend is for everyone to become richer (Pinker 2018: 120)

The Environment. Because of advancing technology, the risk of environmental catastrophe is receding, and most environmental indicators are improving (Pinker 2018:132-3).

Peace. The peaceful trends discerned in Pinker’s earlier book are shown to have continued (Pinker 2018: 157-9).

Safety. Steady reduction in vehicle accident deaths, plane crash deaths and most other forms of accidental death (Pinker 2018: 179-182).

Terrorism. Worldwide, deaths by terrorism are dwarfed by those from war and accidents (Pinker 2018: 192)

Democracy. Despite recent hiccups, Pinker cites the Polity Project as showing a steady advance for democracy in the world (http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/polity1.htm) (Pinker 2018; 207).

Equal rights. A general rise in liberal values in nearly all areas of the world over the last 50 years (Pinker 2018: 227). A decline in racist, sexist and homophobic jokes on the internet (Pinker 2018: 218).

Knowledge. Great rises in literacy worldwide (Pinker 2018: 238). Back in 1475 20% or less of the people in European nations were literate. Today over 90% are, and the rest of the world is improving too.

Quality of Life. Decline in working hours in Europe and the USA, decline in housework hours, rise in useful household devices. Increase in leisure time (Pinker 2018: 249-256)

Happiness. Reported life satisfaction is correlated with physical wellbeing, and seems to be improving (Pinker 2018: 269-279)

Existential Threats. The worldwide stock of nuclear weapons is diminishing (Pinker 2018: 318), and doom-laden predictions have repeatedly been proved wrong  (Pinker 2018: 309)

The Cause of It All

However, Pinker is not simply a Pollyanna, exclaiming at how wonderful everything is. He has a theory as to what underlies all these wonderful trends, and he also thinks that there is a threat to the entire process. As the title of his book suggests, he regards the Enlightenment as being a key cause of all this human improvement.

What do we mean by the Enlightenment? Pinker concedes that, unlike the Olympics, there was no opening and closing ceremony: you can argue about it endlessly (Pinker 2018: 7-8). However, he distinguishes some features of Enlightenment thinking.  One theme is the use of reason, which leads to doubt and questioning. Another is the refinement of reason to understand the world. (Personally I regard this as an extension of reason, or using it in a special way.) Part of this understanding involves knowing ourselves, and how our minds and bodies work. A third attribute is humanism, involving a morality which privileges human welfare. Finally there is a belief in progress. Pinker stresses that these basic themes are not absolute: people are not completely reasonable, nor is progress guaranteed.

As he works through all the trends operating in the world today, Pinker tries to link them back to Enlightenment influences. For example, Enlightenment thinking values commerce because it involves free exchange and economic improvement. Although commerce can be tough at times, it creates wealth and is far, far better than war, destruction and murder. Again, Enlightenment thought leads to the questioning of cruel judicial punishments.

In my view, the least convincing of Pinker’s arguments is the one over inequality. His chapter on this is largely a response to the French economist Thomas Piketty (2013). Using massive amounts of evidence, Piketty argued that western nations are becoming less equal. Capital, for several decades, has grown faster than wages, and this means that the top few per cent of the population are accumulating more and more wealth, while the bottom half are making almost no progress at all. Pinker’s counter-argument is that, in absolute terms, even the poorest people are better off than they used to be (Pinker 2018: 97-120). My personal view is that if some people are becoming poorer relative to everyone else, it is little comfort to learn that they are better off than previous generations. I suspect that events like the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit are at least in part an outburst against adverse economic trends.

Unlike the earlier book, Enlightenment Now has attracted a great deal of criticism. One reason is that Pinker focuses a good deal of scorn on western liberal intellectuals, who are overwhelmingly gloomy about society and the way it is going.  As Pinker points out, this gloom is not based on evidence, and again and again has been shown to be unjustified (Pinker 2018: 39-52). He has a series of explanations as to why intellectuals argue — wrongly – that things are getting worse. One explanation is the relentless focus of the popular media on violence: no matter what the overall crime rate, if there is a drug-crazed shooting or an atrocity, the media will focus upon it. This distorts our understanding because we use the ‘Availability heuristic’ (Pinker 2018: 41-2). When we readily remember an event, we assume things generally are like that event. So we may be disgusted by what has happened in Syria or the Yemen, or what was done to the Rohingya and regard these as characterising our age. As Pinker argues, however, in previous ages there were far more such atrocities, and they were accepted almost without comment. In addition, gloomy pessimism is often regarded as being far more profound than optimism – even when the optimism is supported by evidence and the pessimism isn’t.

Another reason why Pinker’s book has attracted criticism is because of what he calls ‘counter-Enlightenments’ (Pinker 2018: 29-35). The Enlightenment has suffered a series of reactions from religious and nationalist groups, and also from ideologies of the right and left. These movements do not accept evidence-based arguments and so are uncomfortable with the optimistic message of Pinker’s book. He makes this explicit when, partway through, he writes:

In writing the chapters on progress, I resisted pressure from readers of earlier drafts to end each one by warning, “But all this progress is threatened if Donald Trump gets his way.” Threatened it certainly is (Pinker 2018: 334)

Then he reviews the progress achieved in various fields, and points out that President Trump’s actions and words appear to oppose nearly all of it. In addition, the various nationalist outbursts in Europe could also threaten further progress. There is, Pinker stresses, nothing certain about continued improvements, and so the Enlightenment is well worth defending.

Science and Skepticism

Now the Enlightenment is the basis for two other important features of modern society. One is science, the other skepticism. Pinker (2018: 392-3) points out that science rests on two key ideals. One is that the world is comprehensible to our minds. This is borne out by the success of science. The other assumption is that we should allow the world to tell us what it is like. The traditional sources of belief, and the traditional authorities, are generators of error. Only by carefully formulating theories, and being willing to accept that the evidence may show them to be wrong, can we make scientific progress.

Skepticism, of course, stems from a similar set of ideals. Skeptics examine certain types of belief and question whether they are supported by evidence. It does not matter to skeptics who holds certain beliefs, or whether they stem from one ideology or another. The key question is, does the world tell us that they are true?

Is Pinker right?

Broadly, there are two different ways in which Pinker’s argument can be questioned. Is his evidence for massive, worldwide progress in a whole range of fields justified? And is his stress upon the Enlightenment as a key element in this progress justified? The answer to the first question is almost certainly yes. Pinker makes his sources of information clear, and it is easy to check them. He gets his facts right. The second question is more complex. Norberg (2016) for example, uses the same evidence as Pinker, but traces the improvements to free enterprise rather than the Enlightenment. My personal judgment is that the Enlightenment is a key feature in current progress, but not the only one: If we discard Enlightenment thought, we will suffer in the long run.

As a retiree, I have often worried about what kind of a world we are leaving our children and grandchildren. The short answer appears to be: with some exceptions, a lot better than the world we found. Provided we don’t lose sight of Enlightenment values, the future promises to be much better than the past.


Deaton, Angus (2013) The Great Escape. Health, wealth and the origins of inequality. Oxford and Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Norberg, J. (2016) Progress: Ten reasons to look forward to the future. London, Oneworld.

Piketty, Thomas (2013) Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Pinker, Steven (2018) Enlightenment Now.  The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. London, Allen Lane.

Pinker, Steven (2012) The Better Angels of our Nature. London, Penguin.

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).

Leave a comment

Filed under Book reviews