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.

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