The Evolution of Darwin

The Young Charles Darwin by Keith Thomson
Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins by Adrian Desmond and James Moore
Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves by James Le Fanu

It is a happy accident that this year marks not only the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth (12 February 1809), but also the 150th anniversary of his most famous work, The Origin of Species (1859). The celebrations look set to be spectacular. There will be a week-long festival at Cambridge in July, not to mention a commemorative cover for the Penguin Classics edition of Origins designed by Damien Hirst. Down House, the Kent retreat where Darwin mulled, dithered and doodled for 40 years, is all set to go multi-media.

The half-century lag between Darwin’s birth and the publication of his mould-cracking book has always been explained by his reluctance to unleash Evolution on the world. Instead of following up the wildly popular travelogue The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) with a sustained account of how all earthly life was descended from a common ancestor, Darwin took refuge in nausea, trips to the spa, and the endless collection of additional empirical data. Whenever anyone pressed him on whether he believed Man to be descended from the same bacterial soup as Galapagos tortoises, polar bears or, indeed, monkeys, he immediately retreated into a panicky fog. It was only when Alfred Russel Wallace, a Johnny-come-lately to the field, looked set to scoop him, that Darwin was finally persuaded into print on the subject. Even then, mindful of the incendiary implications of his theory, he was careful to leave out any reference to Man, and stuck to finches instead.

That it was the possibility of having to share the intellectual credit for his Big Idea that finally jerked Darwin out of his inertia is entirely apt. For what was once said of Herbert Spencer, the slightly younger man who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, was also true of Darwin: he believed in the evolution of everything except his own ideas. Darwin’s latest biographer Keith Thomson, however, refuses to take the naturalist’s account of himself as sui generis on trust, and instead sets about fleshing out the young man’s intellectual debts as he read, listened and argued his way to maturity. First there was Edinburgh University in the mid 1820s, where the 16-year-old Charles was sent to join his elder brother to prepare for a career as a doctor. According to Darwin’s posthumously-published Autobiography (1887), Edinburgh was an intellectual wasteland, populated by dull geology professors whose dry-as-dust approach to the subject would turn anyone off the topic. Thomson, however, makes a convincing case for it as a key centre of European thought, fizzing with the latest controversies about earth formation and, indeed, species evolution. Likewise, while Darwin dismissed his next intellectual berth, Christ’s College, Cambridge, as a place of listless dissipation, Thomson identifies it as the place where the young man encountered some of the country’s leading naturalists, absorbing from them the careful habits of observation and notation which would stand him in such good stead aboard the Beagle.

Adrian Desmond and James Moore are also concerned with restoring Darwin to his intellectual context. In this case, however, they have one particular aim in view. Their mission is to rescue Darwin from the misapprehension that he bequeathed “scientific racism” to the 20th century by fashioning a hierarchy in which Anglo-Saxons “naturally” outranked, in descending order, Celts, Jews, Asians and Africans. The fact that it was Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton who subsequently invented the science of “eugenics”, with its proposals for forced sterilisation and euthanasia for “undesirables”, only added to Darwin’s guilt by association. Indeed, even now it is not uncommon for people to imply that, were it not for Darwin, ethnic cleansing, segregation and apartheid would all have been, quite literally, inconceivable.

Moore and Desmond, who published a magnificent biography of Darwin 17 years ago, maintain that, far from being a white supremacist, it was the young man’s profound belief in the literal brotherhood of man that drove him to research the origin of species in the first place. To this end they remind us of his cultural connections to the abolitionist Clapham Sect, and detail the many ways in which members of his own extended clan led the battle against slavery on British soil in the first third of the 19th century.

His formidable sisters, cousins and aunts routinely boycotted West Indian sugar, presented petitions to parliament, and continued to campaign for racial equality even when, by 1833, it looked as if the main struggle was over. Moore and Desmond also point to an early friendship between the teenage Darwin and a highly skilled African taxidermist, whom the naturalist recalled towards the end of his life as “a very pleasant and intelligent man”. This, they suggest, is hardly the language of an instinctive bigot.

Central to their argument is a re-reading of Darwin’s over-looked and misunderstood The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Buoyed by the success of the Northern States in the recent Civil War, it was only now that Darwin finally felt able to publish compelling evidence that the “separate races” theory, which had under-written African slavery on American soil, was bunkum. Far from being a distinct, and potentially inferior, species, the black man (and, indeed, the brown, yellow and red one too) was the literal brother of the top-hatted Anglo-Saxon.

Ironically, the Anglican clergy who had been so appalled by the way that Origin of Species had dismantled Genesis over a decade earlier had been closer to the evolutionary truth than they might have liked to believe. We were all, it turned out, descended from a metaphorical Adam and Eve.

Desmond and Moore have written a stunning book, deftly incorporating new sources without becoming clunky. Just as importantly, they demonstrate biography’s usefulness as a way of understanding the history of ideas as an embodied phenomenon. For all that “Darwinism” had become an over-arching system by the 1930s, it was still the product of one man’s mind, a man with a bad stomach, a cultural aversion to slavery, and a lapsed Anglican’s belief in the spiritual equality of all men. It was out of this particular nexus that Darwin pursued his investigations into the origins of life, and it is only by paying proper attention to it, suggest the authors, that we can avoid the kind of ahistorical fallacy in which a man born 200 years ago somehow becomes a cheerleader for Hitler’s Final Solution.

James Le Fanu, meanwhile, wants to put Darwin back in the dock and get him to account for all the damage that has been done in his name down the years. In this bold, synthesising polemic, Le Fanu marshals the evidence to show that, while the theory of Evolution might be good at explaining slight variations in related species (a larger crest here, a shorter tail there), it simply cannot account for man’s development. Take, for instance, the well-known fact that we share 98 per cent of our DNA with chimpanzees and mice. What on earth, asks Le Fanu, does that mean the remaining 2 per cent of our unique genetic material is up to? Several decades of genetics and brain science have got nowhere near an answer and, indeed, seem to be taking us into deeper levels of mystery. Moreover, suggests Le Fanu, by reducing life to the level of the strictly material, Darwin has deprived us of any way of thinking about the self or, indeed, the soul. You may look for as long as you like at the way the brain lights up like Blackpool when asked to perform a particular linguistic or cognitive task. But, concludes the good doctor (Le Fanu is a doctor as well as a medical journalist), you will be no closer to knowing what makes you, you.

The extent of James Le Fanu’s ambition for this book becomes clear only in the closing paragraphs. Just as the theories of Marx and Freud have been revealed as “self-evidently erroneous”, he now intends to bring about the same outcome for the third founding thinker of the 20th century. But this, surely, is a misreading of where we are now. Communism may have collapsed, but anyone who wants to understand how we live now still needs to read their Marx for a full briefing on where we have been. Likewise while some of Freud’s odder ideas have been set aside as unworkable, every psycho-therapist working in the 21st century does so within an intellectual framework which has been permanently shaped by his thought.

And so it is with Darwin. His theory of evolution may not be the reason for absolutely everything that it once appeared to be. But every scientist, even Le Fanu’s favourite geneticists and neurologists, works in a landscape which still bears the imprint of his remarkable mind. Darwin’s ideas may have been nipped and tucked over the decades, some of them may even have been jettisoned completely, but they remain recognisably part of the warp and weft of our intellectual world. No matter how much James Le Fanu might try to deny it, Charles Darwin, like everything else on this planet, has evolved.

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