Poor Darwin

Harriet Ritvo

  • Charles Darwin: A New Biography by John Bowlby
    Hutchinson, 511 pp, £19.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 09 174229 3

Few scientists have provided the occasion for such an expense of ink as Charles Darwin. Although for much of his career he was appreciated only by a relatively small circle of fellow specialists, the publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species brought him to the attention of a much larger public. And the labelling as ‘Darwinism’ (or Darwinisme or Darwinismus) of a variety of Late Victorian views on matters biological, anthropological and sociological ensured that at least his name, if not precisely his work, would continue to command a high level of recognition. The importance of Darwin’s own ideas and the influence and contentiousness of some of the views that have been associated with them are not, however, the only reasons he has attracted the attention of so many commentators, both among his contemporaries and in the century since his death. The testimony of colleagues, friends and family suggests that he had an attractive personality as well. But, perhaps best of all from the point of view of later generations of writers, he was an enthusiastic saver of documents and thus left ample testimony on both counts. In recent decades Darwin has been well served by archivists and editors; his papers are readily accessible to researchers, his notebooks are now available in print, and the fifth volume in the magisterial edition of his correspondence was published earlier this year.[*] So full has been the scholarly harvest of these rich primary materials that it is often referred to as ‘the Darwin industry’.

Although based on the same sources, John Bowlby’s ‘new biography’ of Darwin falls outside the industrial mainstream. For one thing, contemporary Darwin scholarship has not usually concerned itself with conventional biographical issues. (This is not to suggest that such attention to Darwin has been absent: a full-length biography, by Peter Brent, appeared in 1981, for example, although Bowlby nowhere refers to it.) By and large, the most interesting recent scholarly treatments of Darwin, like those of other 19th-century scientists, have embedded their personal experience in its social and cultural context: Bowlby’s life-and-works approach reflects a more traditional use of biographical material. More significantly, although Bowlby shares with other Darwin scholars a professional interest in his subject, it is not the same professional interest. He is neither a historian nor a philosopher of science, but a psychiatrist who has had a long and illustrious career as both practitioner and theoretician.

The real focus of Bowlby’s biography is less Darwin’s life than his illness. Despite his monumental scientific achievements, massive in terms of simple quantity as well as intellectual significance, and despite the vigorous physical activity of his youth, which was most strikingly manifest in the arduous expeditions which he undertook on the South American mainland when the Beagle was in port, Darwin spent more than half his life as a semi-invalid. He was sometimes too ill to do work of any kind, and often unable to attend the professional meetings or participate in the communal activities which constituted an important dimension of Victorian scientific life. Even ordinary social occasions, which Darwin seems to have enjoyed, were apt to bring on a variety of distressing symptoms, including vomiting and palpitations.

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[*] The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Vol. V, 1851-1855, edited by Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith. Cambridge, 705 pp., £32.50, 8 February, 0 521 25591 0.