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 of 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.

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