Saturday, March 21, 2020

Charles Darwin: Voyaging VI

I've finally finished this volume. Janet Browne, the author, has been conscientious, but there isn't much evidence of psychological acuity, as I mentioned earlier. When you come right down to it, on a day-to-day basis, Darwin was pretty boring. What has emerged is that he had persistence and an intuitive sense about evolution along with far superior resources than most of his contemporaries.

A highly controversial and successful book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, anonymously written by Robert Chambers and published in 1844, set back Darwin for several years. The ideas in it were quite similar to his own at that point, but the book contained several errors and was strongly attacked in a review by Adam Sedgwick, the Cambridge geology professor and friend of Darwin. Among his professional associates, Darwin was the only nascent atheist, and they closed ranks on Vestiges in unison. In this situation, Darwin proved to be the opposite of a revolutionary, and he buried his dissent by withdrawing into a close anatomical study of barnacles that lasted until about 1852. Although the barnacle study seems like a form of escapism, Darwin managed to hone his observational skills while pursuing it, and in the end he emerged with a sense that hermaphroditic barnacles had evolved into sexual barnacles, and that sexual reproduction must play a role in natural selection. He had been intrigued by the fact that men have nipples, and while in that instance he would have been wrong to conclude that humans were ever hermaphroditic, it was still a sign that sexual reproduction has evolutionary advantages.

Emma continued to produce babies, with Henrietta born in 1843, George in 1845, Elizabeth in 1847, Francis in 1848, Leonard in 1850 and Charles in 1858. All of these children except the last survived to adulthood, so Darwin had in total seven surviving offspring out of ten. In 1848 his father died, and he received a substantial inheritance that left him wealthy for the remainder of his life. Much to Darwin's dismay, his favorite child, Anne, died from a disease in 1851. Darwin would be considered a male chauvinist today, because he was careful about sending his sons to college but made no such effort for his daughters. It is apparent that the Darwin household was fairly conventional for the time. Darwin himself was firmly in charge, and Emma managed the daily affairs while Charles continued his research and began to study pigeons, plants and seeds on the property, which included a large greenhouse. One of his pet projects was to determine how plants and animals became distributed across the globe. Darwin's health was always dicey, and he suffered from severe flatulence, which affected his social life away from home. He decided to take the "water cure" with James Gully at a fashionable resort for the rich, and he found it to be a success, despite the lack of real scientific evidence. Emma was more robust, and she thought that Charles was a hypochondriac. The social life in Down consisted mainly of visiting relatives, along with occasional stops by Darwin's colleagues. By the end of the book, Darwin has befriended both Thomas Henry Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace, who are going to play pivotal roles in his future as he begins to publish on natural selection. As Browne points out, Darwin was talented at building a large international network of people who could help him both in developing his ideas and in obtaining samples for his research.

It is a little frustrating to me to have read so many pages (543) without even arriving at any of Darwin's most significant work. Yet there is some consolation in seeing how haphazard the process was and how difficult it was to overcome the prevailing belief system, including that of the scientific community. In hindsight, it seems to me that the ideas that Darwin was about to roll out were fairly obvious, even if you allow for the fact that DNA was yet to be discovered and that no one had heard of Gregor Mendel. At a minimum, this is a cautionary tale about how conventional wisdom can neutralize and destroy good ideas, even among well-educated people. For all their scientific zeal, Darwin's friends consisted almost entirely of conformists who took no interest in challenging the status quo.

As you may have guessed, I'm a little burnt out on Darwin at the moment and plan to pause before starting on the next volume. This will provide me with an opportunity to catch up on current events.

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