Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place IV

Though Darwin's health remained uneven, he continued to write books. His next one was The Descent of Man, which was published in 1871. This filled in another gap left by Origin of Species and directly discussed the process of human evolution from earlier species. We know far more about this today than Darwin could possibly have known, but at the time it cemented his position as the primary thinker behind the idea of evolution. As with his other books, he drew from his many correspondences and was helped in the editing by his family, in this case particularly by his daughter, Henrietta. The book sold well, and Darwin's celebrity increased. Besides his knack for writing popular books, he looked the part of a sage, with a tall stature, a long gray beard and a serious countenance. I noticed that Daniel Dennett, the contemporary philosopher, seems to be doing a perpetual Darwin imitation in his physical appearance. This book was followed by On the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872, which turned out to be his most popular book to date. It sounds lighter than the others and contained many illustrations, which made it easier for the public to absorb.

By 1872, the Darwin family had become a mini-industry, and his wife, children and siblings all played roles in attending to the demands that arose. Emma, for her part, did not share Darwin's views on religion, but this didn't cause a rift between them, perhaps because in those days feminism wasn't prominent and married couples operated more on a duty-based model than one based on equality. The children were open to the ideas of their father, and they became comfortable with his brand of skepticism. Darwin didn't particularly like being popular, and his family became adept at managing the growing stream of visitors arriving at their house, sometimes unannounced.

In 1869, Wallace had published an unexpected article in the Quarterly Review in which he partially rejected natural selection. Apparently he had been taken in by the then-popular worldview of spiritualists and mediums who had been staging séances. This came as a shock to Darwin, but didn't damage their relationship. What is interesting to me is that Wallace consequently forfeited some of his authenticity as a co-founder of the theory of natural selection. In this instance, Darwin's plodding, empirical method proved to be an advantage over people who were in some respects more intelligent than he was. Though Darwin was not given to psychological self-analysis, he recognized that he had an ability sometimes lacking in university people and intellectuals, because he doggedly stuck to empirical procedures. Apparently, Wallace got carried away in thinking that a separate layer of reality that was unrelated to most species had provided for the development of humans. This explanation left the door open to spiritual forces and a human consciousness that transcended physical reality. I have noticed a similar phenomenon myself, particularly during the 1960's and 1970's, when gurus were popular, though they usually turned out to be charlatans. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that people with high IQ's have a greater tendency to become unhinged from reality than practical, down-to-earth people. In person, Darwin was not a scintillating conversationalist, and he never dazzled those in his presence with the variety of his ideas.

The popularity of spiritualism during the Victorian era leads up to my favorite part of the biography, which includes G.H. Lewes and George Eliot. Darwin was on friendly terms with Lewes, who had written a favorable commentary on pangenesis, and Darwin had visited them at their house in 1868. He also attended one of their Sunday literary gatherings in 1873. Middlemarch was published in 1871, and George Eliot was at the peak of her fame in the 1870's. Though Lewes and Eliot were slightly disreputable, because they weren't married, they became acceptable for socializing by both men and women around this time. Emma was dying to meet George Eliot, and, as it happened, in January, 1874, Darwin's son, George, arranged a highbrow séance at Erasmus Darwin's house in London with the medium Charles Williams. In attendance were Lewes, George Eliot, Francis Galton, T.H. Huxley, Emma and Darwin, among others. Some of them were believers, but many were skeptics. Darwin described the event as follows:

We had grand fun, one afternoon, for George hired a medium, who made the chairs, a flute, a bell, and candlestick, and fiery points jump about in my brother's dining room, in a manner that astounded every one, and took away all their breaths. It was in the dark, but George and Hensleigh Wedgwood held the medium's hands and feet on both sides all the time. I found it so hot and tiring that I went away before all these astounding miracles, or jugglery, took place. How the man could possibly do what was done passes my understanding. I came downstairs, and saw all the chairs, etc., on the table, which had been lifted over the heads of those sitting around it. The Lord have mercy on us all, if we are to believe in such rubbish. F. Galton was there and says it was a good séance.

According to Henrietta Darwin, "Mr. Lewes I remember was troublesome and inclined to make jokes and not sit in the dark in silence."  Francis Darwin reported that his father said "it was all imposture." Not long after this, Charles Williams was exposed as a fraud.

If you're tired of hearing about Charles Darwin, your misery will soon be over. Darwin has only nine years left to live, and my next post will be my last on Janet Browne.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place III

When Alfred Russel Wallace got home, he and Darwin developed a cordial relationship but did not seem especially close. Wallace moved in with his sister's family in London and, after spending several years living in exotic and remote locations, he disliked the crowded city. Furthermore, although Darwin introduced him to his scientific peers, such as Charles Lyell, Wallace was an introvert and felt uncomfortable in wealthy, upper-class society. One senses that Darwin deliberately distanced himself from Wallace as co-discoverer of natural selection, and he avoided being photographed with him. Behind the scenes in England there was always political infighting within the scientific community as one person or group tried to outflank another with the goal of domination. In particular, the Darwin-Huxley-Lyell-Hooker group was often in conflict with a group led anonymously by Richard Owen, which regularly produced articles critical of Darwin's work.

Darwin's further research at home occasionally resulted in books. Before Wallace came back, a lesser-known naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, had returned from the Amazon, and Darwin took a great liking to him. Bates was more complementary to Darwin than Wallace, because his research helped buttress Darwin's main theory without the potential for stealing it. Bates specialized in butterflies and had noticed that some mimic others in their appearance, and that this is an example of natural selection at work. Darwin was delighted to have a non-threatening naturalist offer examples that supported his theory, and he strongly encouraged Bates to publish, which he did. Nevertheless, Wallace remained a crucial ally of Darwin, and, in an 1864 article, Wallace became the first to explicitly advance the idea that natural selection had produced modern humans. In a peripherally related manner, within scientific circles at that time, the notion that some races are superior to others was widespread. Darwin had been disappointed that some of his friends, Lyell in particular, stopped short of linking natural selection to humans, and Wallace's ideas were therefore closer to those of Darwin.

During the 1860's, Darwin's health deteriorated further, and though he was only in his fifties he looked old. With his increasing fame, prominent medical doctors visited him in Downe (the spelling had changed from Down), but none of them were able to cure him. At times he was bedridden for protracted periods. Friends, such as Henslow, and two of his sisters died. However, Darwin continued his research. Because of his celebrity, he began to socialize at the highest levels of English society, and Emma was ecstatic about getting to know the Tennysons personally. His five surviving sons initially provided him with some consternation, as they showed no particular talents, but, like him, once they started in college they generally improved by applying themselves, in much the same way that he had earlier.

His research from this period resulted in the publication in 1868 of Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. In this book he attempted to explain how sexual reproduction actually works and allows traits to be passed from parents to offspring. He was not mathematically-minded and typically relied on the observation of physical attributes, which prevented him from developing a theory such as Mendel's, with dominant and recessive traits. He came up with a theory that he called "pangenesis," in which living matter contains unseen "gemmules" which carry inheritable characteristics from parents to offspring. This book was completely ignored and did nothing to enhance his reputation. In Darwin's defense, I suppose that you might say that it was a very early speculation about genetics, but it was of little value at a time when molecular biology didn't exist and the very idea of DNA was several decades away. In any case, Darwin was well aware that his theory of natural selection would remain incomplete without such understanding.

Other than the social and historical aspects described in the book, I am still finding it lacking in the sense that little is done to sum up Darwin's ideas in relation to modern science. The reader is left with the impression that Darwin had one important insight, which he maximized to the utmost by employing a pragmatic careerist strategy that made him the primary beneficiary of acclaim. In Browne's account, if you took away Darwin's privileged background and gave it to Alfred Russel Wallace, today we might be talking about Wallaceism instead of Darwinism, and Charles Darwin might be seen as an obscure Victorian hobbyist.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place II

Origin of Species soon became widely discussed. One of the first major events in England occurred at the British Society for the Advancement of Science meeting held in Oxford in June, 1860. At that time, the public was unusually interested in science, and Oxford was in the process of catching up with Cambridge in scientific research. On this occasion, which Darwin characteristically didn't attend, Thomas Henry Huxley held a public debate with Bishop Wilberforce. As of then, Darwin had hardly thought about the religious implications of his work, but it didn't stop others from recognizing the incompatibility between Darwin's evolutionary time line and that presented in the Bible. Darwin had played down the idea that humans descended from earlier primates, though readers readily made that inference. Wilberforce may not even have read the book, but the publicity enhanced Darwin's reputation. Thereafter, Huxley became Darwin's primary defender in England. The book was also published in the U.S., where it was attacked by Louis Aggasiz, who then taught geology and zoology at Harvard. By current standards, Aggasiz would be considered a creationist. Fortunately for Darwin, his friend, Asa Gray, the Harvard botanist, became his main defender in America. With all the publicity, in the popular press Darwin was often depicted as an ape. Soon the book was translated into German and French. The translators, particularly of the French edition, took great liberties with the text. The German edition became popular, whereas Darwinism never really took off in France, which, at that time, was quite conservative.

On a side note, I should mention that I always find it interesting how scientists who are at the top of their field of research in one area are sometimes foolish and ignorant in other areas. Thus, Aggasiz, who discovered and illuminated the previously unknown eras of glaciation, was utterly wrong about evolution; his reputation has diminished considerably, and he is now considered a racist. A more current example would be Freeman Dyson, who died recently. He was a leader in the field of quantum electrodynamics, while in his later years he labeled anthropogenic climate change as a political movement that wasn't fully supported by science, which caused James Hansen, who is far more knowledgeable on climate science, to rebuff him.

Darwin remained aloof from the debates and took up new botanical hobbies such as the collecting of insectivorous plants and orchids. Although his research on plants was mainly amateurish, as in his other areas of interest, he was extraordinarily well-connected: his closest friend, Joseph Hooker, was then the assistant director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He liked to experiment with organisms and theorize about their reproduction. Despite having a competitive nature, his shyness and lack of self-confidence made him reluctant to engage directly in public intellectual exchanges, and he was happy to allow others to perform that role for him. Emma developed a friendship with Huxley's wife, Henrietta, and they shared interests in subjects such as the poetry of Tennyson, quite the opposite of their scientific husbands. Darwin, it seems, had little interest in or appreciation of the arts, and while relaxing at spas he was satisfied by the best-selling fiction of the day, regardless of its quality. He liked living in a tranquil household with ample time to pursue his hobbies; demanding research and taxing debates didn't interest him much.

For her part, Browne is offering a perspective that is above all sociological. She doesn't have much to say about where Darwin's ideas fit in intellectual history and seems more concerned with the details of his daily life and how his social milieu enabled his ascent to prominence as one of the most important thinkers of the nineteenth century. So far, she has mentioned Malthus and Lamarck, Darwin's two main predecessors, without discussing their work in detail or comparing it closely to Darwin's. She has said nothing about where Darwin's theories stand in relation to modern evolutionary theory. With her particular emphasis, it is easy to see that though Darwin did have a deep insight into nature, he lacked many of the academic skills that would be necessary for him to succeed today. I'm as far as 1862, when Alfred Russel Wallace returns from Malaysia, which sets the tone for the next chapter.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place I

This book starts where the other left off, in 1858, when Darwin was 49, and that year turned out to have an explosive effect on the remainder of his life. Darwin had been fussing over his researches and putting off a major exposition of his ideas, when in June he received a package from Ternate, an island in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). It contained a letter and an essay from the young Alfred Russel Wallace, with whom he was barely acquainted. The essay was on evolution and was better-written than anything that Darwin had been able to produce, and he immediately became worried that someone would beat him to the press. To make matters worse, the letter requested that he forward the essay to Charles Lyell for consideration. This created a moral crisis for Darwin. Wallace was from a poor family, had no college education and made a living finding exotic specimens for museums and collectors in England. He had no professional or academic credentials, and Darwin could easily have buried his essay so that it would never be seen by experts or the public. He decided to leave the matter entirely up to Lyell, and Lyell, along with Joseph Hooker, the botanist who was also a close friend, chose to present Wallace's essay along with a comparable essay by Darwin at the Linnean Society. This came at a bad time for Darwin, as various family members were ill from infections, and his youngest son, Charles, died on June 28. Darwin still managed to piece together an essay from his previous writings, and both essays were read at the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858. There was little reaction to the essays when they were read, and they were later printed in the society's Journal.

The situation with Wallace became a motivator, and Darwin immediately started work on what was to become On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Darwin was not a good writer, and he prevailed upon Emma and one of her friends to help him improve upon the manuscript. He also solicited advice from his friends and scientific acquaintances. In those days, publishers and editors did little to correct manuscripts, and the burden often fell on the author. Darwin also carefully calculated who the audience would be, and the book was written both for the general public and the scientific community. He was pleased that his publisher, John Murray, chose to sell copies to Mudie's Circulating Library, which guaranteed a wide readership. The book was published on November 24, 1859, while the exhausted author was recovering from digestive problems and eczema at a spa in Yorkshire.

The first review, of an advance copy, appeared in the Athenaeum and was written anonymously by John Leifchild, who said "If a monkey has become a man—what may not a man become?" He considered the book too dangerous to read and thought that it should be handed over to theologians for safety. This review severely upset Darwin, and disturbed him for many years. On the other hand, as far as I've read, most of Darwin's colleagues found the book acceptable, though they may have had a few quibbles. The exceptions were the religious conservatives: Adam Sedgwick, the geologist, and Richard Owen, the naturalist, rejected his main thesis. Thereafter, Darwin and Owen broke off their friendship permanently. Another reader who objected was Robert FitzRoy, from the Beagle. FitzRoy wrote an anonymous letter to the Times, regarding which Darwin remarked privately to Lyell, "It is a pity he did not add his theory of the extinction of the Mastodon &c from the door of the Ark being made too small."

I've entered into the period in which Darwin became extremely famous. This is an era that interests me a lot, because it includes others with whom I'm quite familiar, such as George Eliot, G.H. Lewes and William Morris. Adam Bede, Eliot's first novel, was also published in 1859, and Morris was then living in Kent. My picture thus far is that Darwin was not particularly talented beyond having a deep conviction about how life operates, based on his direct observations, without intermediary qualifiers, well before most others. Someone could have done the same thing much earlier than he did, and you can do it yourself now without reading anything. Therefore, although Darwin deserves credit for presenting the first coherent and defensible theory of evolution, many other factors that had nothing to do with his insights came into play in a manner that permitted him to derive the maximum credit for the discovery. From Browne's meticulous account it is obvious that Darwin's high social rank and family wealth, along with his particular intellectual drive, were what made On the Origin of Species possible. One need only compare him with Alfred Russel Wallace to see how, under different circumstances, Darwin could easily have been a minor figure of intellectual history. I'll have more to say on this later, but thought that I should mention how Browne's biography both celebrates and demythologizes Darwin's work.