Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place V

During his final years, Darwin seems to have scaled back on his work a little. He continued with plants, writing on insectivorous ones, and then switched to plant growth. His last book, on worms, turned out to be the best selling of all his books. His son, Francis, completed medical school but, like Darwin's brother, Erasmus, had decided not to pursue a medical career, and instead he worked with his father on his scientific projects. Another son, George, who taught mathematics, helped him with his math. Francis married and provided him with his first grandchild, Bernard, who was raised in Darwin's house when Francis's wife died shortly after childbirth. Although Darwin was modestly wealthy and his books had sold well for scientific works, as with comparable families in his social class, he had a large staff of about twelve people, which makes his household seem bizarre if you compare it to contemporary ones. He was thrifty in his expenditures, and by the 1870's this had put him at a disadvantage in his experimentation, since biological research had expanded considerably and he did not possess suitable laboratory equipment.

He wrote an autobiography, which was intended primarily as a family document, with no thought of publication. According to Browne, it offers a straightforward account of his life without referencing his emotional state or inner life. At Cambridge, "My time was wasted, as far as academical studies were concerned....we sometimes drank too much, with jolly singing and playing at cards afterwards." He said that in his later years he couldn't stand reading poetry or Shakespeare. According to Browne:

Looking back, he reckoned that he learned nothing at school; nothing from his father, who considered him "a very ordinary boy"; nothing from two universities except that which he performed under his own steam. Everything accomplished on the voyage was from his own hard work.

His depiction of himself as entirely self-made can hardly be accurate. If, for example, Henslow hadn't set him up for the Beagle voyage and he hadn't befriended Lyell, it would be hard to imagine him attaining either the necessary inspiration or the subsequent success of his scientific career. He also expressed harsher views on Christianity than he generally did among his friends and family.

In 1880, Wallace, who, besides becoming a spiritualist, was bad at handling his finances and was going broke. Darwin generously assisted him by going through channels to arrange for a government pension for him. Darwin's brother, Erasmus, died in 1881. Finally, Darwin himself died on April 19, 1882, probably from heart failure, at the age of seventy-three. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Summing up Browne's two volumes, I would say that while they are extremely thorough, they focus more on the details of Darwin's daily life than on the role of his ideas in the history of science. I don't think that she emphasizes enough how much change has occurred in the last 150 years of scientific research, and how viewing Darwin close up fails to highlight his strengths and weaknesses as a scientific thinker. From my point of view, as a dabbler in scientific readings, the ideas of Darwin and his peers seem primitive, though they were radical at the time. For example, Lyell, who is considered the founder of modern geology, had no knowledge of plate tectonics and little idea of the age of the planet. The fossil record in 1870 was minute compared to what we have today, and the evolution of the plant and animal kingdoms is vastly better-understood. Both Lyell and Darwin seem to have been wrong about gradualism, though Browne hardly explores this fact. For example, Darwin would be astounded to read Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, by Jonathan Losos, which I discussed earlier. In that book, Losos demonstrates how evolution can occur in only a few years, rather than thousands or millions of years. There is also a tendentiousness in Darwin's thinking, which seems to include the idea that evolution gradually leads to perfect organisms. In his mind, contraception was a bad idea, because it prevented the development of superior humans. More fundamentally, he didn't understand that sexual reproduction works well mainly because random mutations produce fitter organisms over time. He thought that, in advanced societies, males usually select their mates, and that their choices ultimately determine the fitness of their descendants. The actual situation is far more complex than that, and it sounds as if Darwin was simply repeating orthodox views of the social hierarchy in his milieu. So, although Darwin seems to have been a clearer thinker than most, he understandably lacked the superhuman ability to transcend various Victorian ideas, such as that of progress, which I don't think holds up well under scientific scrutiny.

I was also a little disappointed that even though Browne's discussion is sometimes sociological, she doesn't fully contextualize Darwin as a beneficiary of class privilege. It is easy to imagine someone like Darwin, who was a poor student and avoided confrontations, not flourishing at all under different circumstances. Today, someone like him probably wouldn't be admitted to Cambridge, and without family and college connections it would have been difficult for him to befriend Lyell and others and become part of the inner circle of scientists who called all the shots in Victorian England from behind the scenes. Browne describes how Darwin was quite talented at pulling strings in order to achieve the outcomes that he desired. He was also good at recruiting surrogates, Huxley in particular, to defend him, and therefore was able to avoid nearly all public contact. I don't think that if you placed him in a modern research environment, where he would be forced to adopt a narrow specialty and follow specific procedures, he would have done well at all. Browne does touch on this, but I don't think enough, because Darwin's success hinged on certain aspects of his environment that do not exist today.

One other point I thought I'd mention is that Darwin's opposition to religion was not something that he dreamed up by himself. Both his father and his grandfather were similarly skeptical, as was his brother, and Darwin probably absorbed it from his family.
In the broadest historical sense, it seems possible that the Reformation, led by Martin Luther, Henry VIII and John Calvin, sufficiently reduced Catholicism in the U.K. and Germany to free up scientific inquiry that might otherwise have been suppressed because of theological dogma. It may be no coincidence that the Industrial Revolution began in the U.K., whereas Catholic countries such as France, Spain and Italy significantly lagged. Even today it is notable that the countries most resistant to Darwinism tend to be the most religious. I might add that Darwin seemed to believe that morality had its origins in evolution rather than in religion, which I think makes him a precursor of E.O. Wilson, who popularized the idea of eusociality.

On the whole I found these books rewarding, though I could have done without the excessive detail. That tended to make the reading a bit too much like a BBC miniseries when I think it would have been more interesting to get to the heart of Darwin's ideas with briefer excursions into social history.

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