The Whole Orang

Paul Smith

How pleasant to be Mr Darwin, who wrote such volumes of stuff without the necessity of gainful employment or institutional backing, or the need to budge very often from the old parsonage at Downe to which he withdrew at the age of 33, confidently telling an old servant as he sent the address: ‘this will be my direction for the rest of my life.’ Not the least valuable part of this massive but racy biography (at eight hundred pages a bargain for the price) is its detailed portrait of the independent gentleman scientist in almost the last epoch in which any individual could singlehandedly precipitate a major shift in human thought. Adrian Desmond and James Moore place Darwin above Marx and Freud. It is hard to think of successors to that trinity of lone rangers in an age when research is financed by foundations and carried on by teams and generally mounted on the kind of scale where the capacity of execution seems in danger of outrunning the fertility of conception.

Still, Darwin would have used the big grant, the dedicated team and the computerised data base had they been available. The independence conferred when he was only 27 by £400 a year from his father (a sum later vastly increased by inheritance and careful investment) was in one sense illusory. His brilliant talent for intuitive speculation meant nothing unless honed against the views of his peers, and above all until supported by the infinitely painstaking empirical researches, ceaselessly extended to embrace new problems or to provide new angles of attack on old ones, which occupied his working days. He was a superb natural experimenter, having somehow escaped at Shrewsbury the dead hand which he found the grind of the Classics laying upon his son Willy at Rugby – ‘checking interest in anything in which reasoning and observation come into play’. But observation across the vast range of plant, animal and human life which he laid under contribution for his findings depended on help from a network of contacts which spread across the world. His initial stock-in-trade was the haul brought back from the voyage of the Beagle (on which his social acceptability had secured him the naturalist’s seat at the captain’s table): 1383 pages of notebooks on geology, 368 on zoology, ‘1529 species in spirits and 3907 labelled skins, bones and other dried specimens’, plus a live Galapagos tortoise. This, however, was only the beginning of a huge mobilisation and exploitation of specimens and observations which continued for over forty years.

Darwin emerges from these pages as a master organiser of the production of scientific knowledge, a co-ordinator of ‘big science’ long before the financial and institutional structures which now support it came into being. The £1000 of public money which his Cambridge mentor Henslow’s contacts with the Whig Chancellor of the Exchequer, Spring Rice, obtained for the publication cost of his Zoology was the only patronage he ever received (and perhaps moderated his distaste for the way ‘politicians waste their time squabbling and neglect doing any good’). The rest depended on private means. He guided the work of his scientific friends, drew on the scientific exchange of the London societies, held what amounted to seminars at Downe, employed modern technology where it helped, as in the use of photographs to analyse human facial expression, but above all drew in specimens by the hundred and observations by the thousand from correspondents everywhere. Wealthy amateurs like the ‘conchological privateer’ Cuming or the brewery-owning naturalist Bowerbank supplied him with barnacles for dissection. Pigeon-fanciers and poultry journalists, sometimes in the smoky atmosphere of their own clubs and pubs, furnished him – at a price – with the practical lore of breeding and crossing. Americans, Frenchmen, Germans and Danes sent specimens by crate. Every tentacle of British imperialism and British commerce was induced to wrap itself round the required data. For the study of sexual selection ‘botanists from Ceylon to Calcutta sent reports on monkey manes and bearded Indians; mining engineers from Malacca to Nicaragua told of indigenous customs; tile manufacturers in Gibraltar attended to marino lambs; wine exporters in Portugal followed the local tailless dogs; Laplanders measured reindeer horns; New Zealanders heroically tackled the Maori’s sense of beauty; and missionaries and magistrates from Queensland to Victoria ceased converting and incarcerating to observe aboriginal ways.’

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