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.

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