The Southern Star, 14 February 2009
CHARLES DARWIN, the originator of the theory of ‘Natural Selection’ as an explanation of the origin of species, was born in 1809, 200 years ago; and Origin of Species, that for which Darwin is especially celebrated—what is remembered as first setting forth the theory of Natural Selection—was published in 1859, 150 years ago this year.
Although mostly we think of Charles Darwin as the Old Sage of Victorian science—the grand old man of chiseled stone presiding over the fall of steps in the main hall in the Natural History Museum in London, for example—far from the madding crowd of the imperial metropolis, he was actually born into the world so exquisitely portrayed by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility—the world in between The Madness of King George and the novels of Charles Dickens.
Indeed, by the time Princess Victoria came to the throne in 1837 Darwin had already made his name, establishing himself in the wake of his five-year round-the-world Beagle voyage as a most promising young gentleman of science.
Darwin’s father, Dr Robert Darwin, was a leading physician (and property magnate) in the prosperous Shropshire town of Shrewsbury—up near the border with north Wales—and his mother, Susanna, was a Wedgwood, one of the Wedgwoods of the ‘Potteries’ in nearby Staffordshire; she was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the enterprising founder of the celebrated chinaware manufactory.
Following schooling—between the ages of 8 and 16—at the nearby Shrewsbury public school (which he hated), Darwin was sent to study medicine at Edinburgh University (as his father had done, and his father before him). However, before the young man was even at the halfway point in his studies he was withdrawn because, clearly, it was a complete waste of time and money: Charles had no stomach for blood and suffering, nor for the politics of medicine.
Instead, with a view to (maybe) taking up a career in the Church of England (and to make the peace with his father) Charles agreed to be packed off to Cambridge University to read theology, a subject in which he had no particular interest, except (perhaps) for what was called ‘Natural Theology’—an area of learning based on the idea that because Creation is the work of God, therefore we could come to know something of the Creator by studying his creation—Darwin always having been an avid collector of Cabinet of Natural History type things: butterflies, beetles, shells, rocks … anything and everything (it was almost a compulsion with him, even as a little boy).
His three years at Cambridge were happy days and there in the warren of Medieval and Renaissance colleges on the banks of the River Cam in the fenlands of England Darwin made several lifelong friendships—a network of people that would provide him with the first stepping-stones on what was to become his blossomy path to a place among the greats in the pantheon of science.
One of these, John Stevens Henslow, the reforming young professor of botany, was the source of the opportunity to circumnavigate the globe as part of the Beagle voyage.
Captain Robert FitzRoy, a 26-year-old Royal Navy fast-track officer—a heavy-duty aristocrat, related to the Marquis of Londonderry and the Duke of Grafton—was commissioned to take the 10-gun brig Beagle and complete the chart-making survey of the coastline of South America, a project which was an Admiralty initiative (with Spain having lost its empire during the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was seeking to make inroads into the newly liberated territories of South America). Returning via Australia, the South Seas, and South Africa, they were also to take a global chain of chronometric readings, test-running a new generation of Admiralty timepieces.
Just as Captain Cook had taken Sir Joseph Banks on his famous Pacific voyages in the preceding century, FitzRoy wanted to take a naturalist with him (a gentleman, naturally), who’d share his table and contribute to writing up an account of the voyage—a gentleman companion, one interested in Natural History and Natural Philosophy.
The Admiralty advised taking Professor Henslow, but Henslow, having just got married, felt he couldn’t go; nevertheless, in declining the opportunity for himself, Henslow put forward Charles, his protégé. It was the chance of a lifetime—the equivalent, in today’s world, of an opportunity to go on a NASA Space Shuttle trip.
The Beagle voyage was the making of Charles Darwin. Afterwards he wrote a best-selling account of the 5-year adventure (a classic journal-of-a-naturalist type publication), along with books on the geology of South America, on volcanic islands, and on coral reefs, all of which were highly regarded.
The period between his return from the Beagle voyage in 1836 and his wedding to Emma Wedgwood (a first cousin) in 1839 were Darwin’s ‘Eureka Years’. In a series of penetrating insights he saw it all, filling notebook after notebook after notebook. He would spend the rest of his life working up the observations and inspirations of that time of ‘mental rioting’, as he called it.
It was in this period back in London when he was questioning everything and sparking in all directions, that Darwin noticed that the Galapagos finch specimens (as well as the mocking birds and turtles) from each of the islands in the little Ecuadorian archipelago had different features—all the finches from one island had big puffin-like beaks and those from the next island were distinctly smaller and had long, narrower, pointy beaks, while those from a third island were different yet again—much more so than ‘strongly marked varieties’, different species one might say (as such things were then judged).
Actually, Darwin didn’t notice it, it was pointed out to him by the taxonomist John Gould, the man asked to classify and describe the Beagle bird specimens, but with the way Darwin’s mind was running he was alive to the significance of it: the forms of the birds, which had migrated to the recently-formed volcanic islands as a unified species, were on each of the islands diverging, forming distinct subspecies.
Free Market Love
1842 Emma and Charles Darwin and their young family moved from Gower Street in central London to Down House, an old Rectory near Bromley in Kent. Isolated. Respectable. Safe. (In today’s money Emma and Charles were multi-millionaires, both of them having had the equivalent of millions settled upon them.)
The grotesque inequalities and social injustices of early industrial Britain were clearly unsustainable. People had been driven off the land into unplanned cities, and, with the population doubling every few years, it was chaos—ugly chaos, like Bombay\Mumbai today, say, sometimes terrifying, often turbulent, and always chronically unhealthy.
These were the years of famine and poorhouse scandals and Chartist agitation for radical reform—agitation that was becoming increasingly urgent and intimidating—campaigners had been cut down in the streets (in Manchester) and others transported in chains for their part in seditious activities much less heterodox than that which Darwin’s secret creed represented. (As much as anything the making of modern Britain was a civil war of words and publishing was critical for radicals and reformers just as it was for proper-order conservatives—more so.)
Shortly after the Darwins moved out to the country, the Scottish writer and publisher Robert Chambers (one of the of the Chambers’ dictionary people in Edinburgh) published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which argued that all life was governed by a principle of Progressive Development, everything evolving from simple to more complex forms of life. The book, which was cleverly presented (with many striking arguments and analogies), caused a sensation—a best-selling sensation. At the time, evolutionary ideas were closely associated with revolutionary politics—both seen as proposing that the only fixed truth is radical and revolutionary change. Thus Chambers, for example, took care to publish Vestiges anonymously and much of the Vestiges sensation consisted in rumour-mongering about who the real ‘Mr Vestiges’ might be—speculation ranging from the story that it was Prince Albert, to the rumour that it may have been the reclusive Mr Charles Darwin, to the amusing notion that it might be a woman (Victorians, at any rate, found such a notion amusing)!
The scientific elite dismissed Vestiges as hopeless, vulgar rubbish, but to Darwin it was a wake-up call—or ought to have been. At this time Darwin was still tied up with Beagle-related material after which he hoped to be able get on to working on the subject of species. He had, however, in 1842, as soon as they got themselves moved into Down House, written a first draft of his species theory. Several of the notebooks he’d filled during his ‘mental rioting’ period were notebooks filled with notes on the subject of what was then called ‘transmutation’, the crystallizing moment represented in Darwin’s ‘Tree of life’ illustration—all forms originating from one source (of which we can really know little or nothing) diverging into the myriad of forms we see around us.
When Vestiges appeared in 1844, Darwin, concerned that he might have been trumped (and greatly relieved to discover that he wasn’t—Vestiges simply made the ‘principle of Progressive Development’ play God’s role, it didn’t explain anything), again took out his species material, this time writing up a very much expanded version of his ideas, a full-scale, carefully-written essay presentation, which afterwards he had copied out in a fair hand (by the school teacher in the village), ready for the printers if necessary. Additionally (in case anything happened to him), Darwin drafted an amendment to his will which set aside £500 (in those days a considerable sum of money) to pay for the publication and promotion of this essay.
Darwin then began showing this fair copy to a few carefully vetted individuals, asking for comments, the first of whom was Joseph Dalton Hooker, an up-and-coming botanist at Kew Gardens (a son-in-law of Henslow). It gives a sense of the social and scientific circumstances to know that, in cautiously admitting to Hooker that he had ‘transmutationist’ leanings, Darwin said that it was like ‘confessing to a murder’.
Hooker’s reaction set him back: the Kew man was not at all convinced; a taxonomic specialist, Hooker’s main reaction was to say that no one can talk authoritatively about species unless he has really worked at them, actually classifying and systematically describing a great many. Which is why Darwin started in on the whole barnacle group, all of which he described and classified—every species (living and fossil)—a work of breathtaking ambition and precision—nine years’ worth of microscopic hard labour (the four resulting volumes still the baseline reference work in the subject-area today).
In the mid-1850s (free at last of barnacles) Darwin turned again to his origin of species theory, this time determined to power all the way through to public presentation. He had several chapters of his ‘Big book on species’ written (and had wholly convinced Hooker and partially convinced half a dozen others) when Alfred Russell Wallace, a freelance specimen-collector working out in the Malay Archipelago (present-day Indonesia), started corresponding with him. Geography aside, there was a vast gulf between Darwin and Wallace, socially, physically, characteristically, but most emphatically in terms of scientific status. Whatever else happened in the controversies to come, no one suggested that Charles Darwin had failed to make his bones (so to speak) in science. No serious person could say that the man who’d been awarded the Royal Society’s Royal Medal for his Beagle and barnacle work had not established for himself the authority and latitude to speculate on the nature of species. But Wallace was a complete nobody, a fact that did not in the slightest discourage the young man (a former land surveyor) in his willingness to speculate freely on the very biggest questions in science.
I had a dream
Wallace sent Darwin a short sketch outlining how he thought species were formed (based on a vision he’d had in a fevered dream when recovering from a bout of Malaria). He suggested that they were brought into being by a combination of, one the one hand, the preservation and accumulation of small variations (which occur naturally in all living forms) favourable to creatures in their struggle for life—any tiny thing that gave them even the slightest advantage—and, on the other hand, the Malthusian eradication* of all other (less favourable) varieties and variations.
To his utter dismay, Darwin found it was all there, all his essential ideas—Wallace wrote so clearly that his meaning could not possibly be mistaken—the struggle for survival, Malthusian extinction*, the improvement of domestic races by selection, the divergence of species into different forms … ‘I never saw a more striking coincidence’, he wrote to Hooker. ‘If Wallace had my MS sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract!’
In London, a small group of Darwin’s friends (Hooker at the centre of them), gentlemen of science all, decided to present Darwin and Wallace together on the subject at the Linnean Society of London (the scientific society named after Sweden’s Carl Linnaeus, the ‘father’ of modern taxonomy and systematic classification). It seemed the fairest course of action to take. A paper combining Wallace’s letter to Darwin along with a selection of material from Darwin’s writings on the subject over the preceding 20 years, was spliced together and presented at the last meeting of the Linnean Society before the summer holiday break in 1858. It caused no great stir (nor, buried in the society’s proceedings was it meant to) but it was enough to formally establish their scientific priority, jointly sharing ‘first with’ credit for the ‘Natural Selection’ concept (a Darwin coinage).
And it was fair enough—certainly Wallace always thought so: he was only too honoured to be associated with the name of Charles Darwin, his great hero, the man whose Beagle journal had inspired him to commit himself to science in the first place and to travel. Wallace, on his own, would not have been listened to by any significant audience; and even if he had been, like ‘Mr Vestiges’, he would have been mercilessly and publicly ridiculed.
After that Darwin set aside his ‘Big book on species’ (which had been growing into a multi-volume monster) and began writing as brief and as clear an account of his species materials as he could manage, an account without footnotes, technical references, and other scholarly apparatus, but one which did reasonable justice to the mass of evidence he’d accumulated in support of his ideas and to the subtle depths of his thinking on the subject (anticipating objections and so forth)—in fact, no less than a complete re-writing of the overall argument in the light of all the work he’d done since he was Wallace’s age. Short and to the point as he tried to keep it, still it ended up as a book-length presentation (just under 500 printed pages). And it is this that was published by John Murray’s publishing house in November 1859, as (to give the title in full) On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.
* Malthusian eradication: Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was a political philosopher and social theorist specialising in population studies and political arithmetic who argued that animal (including human) populations will always reproduce to the point where their numbers exceed the available food supply, therefore competition—vicious, bloody struggles, red in tooth and claw—destruction, and death, were all perfectly natural, healthy even (‘Creative Destruction’ as it would later come to be re-presented). It was the unforgiving utilitarian philosophy underpinning early industrialisation in Britain (and still does duty in service of untrammelled capitalism wherever it is to be found).
Perry O’Donovan was formerly an assistant editor and research associate with the Darwin Letters Project at Cambridge University. (Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Cambridge University Press, 1986 – [ongoing (a 33-volume series)]; Burkhardt, et al, eds.)