Darwin among the Gentry

Adrian Desmond

  • The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Vol. I: 1821-1836 edited by Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith
    Cambridge, 702 pp, £30.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 521 25587 2
  • The Survival of Charles Darwin: A Biography of a Man and an Idea by Ronald Clark
    Weidenfeld, 449 pp, £14.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 297 78377 7

In a world where dockers vote Tory and Cambridge graduates become KGB colonels, predicting class behaviour is a chancy business. Let me conjure up a still more incongruous example. Conceive a manor-born gentleman, with a private fortune exceeding £30,000 in the 1840s, respectably Whig and with a family dislike of fierce radicalism. He is Cambridge-educated and until recently a prospective parson. Now consider the times. The pauper presses are screaming for democratic concessions. Owenite unions are threatening the Church Establishment and gentrified privileges, using a levelling Lamarckism to make their point. In 1839 the century’s most serious working-class insurrection breaks out. On any social-interest theory, how could the gentleman, recently returned from a privately-financed circumnavigation, as companion to Castlereagh’s nephew, sit down in 1837-9 and devise a mechanistic theory of organic transmutation?

The gentleman of course was Charles Darwin. And the magnitude of the problem is highlighted by the publication of the first volume of his meticulously-edited Correspondence. This eagerly-awaited collection of letters, copiously annotated and with a plethora of social detail, promises to transform the Darwin industry. Not that the industry needs a cash injection. The publication of Darwin’s Transmutation Notebooks in the 1960s, Notebooks on Metaphysics and Morals in 1974 and Red Notebook in 1979, means that students already routinely tackle Darwin’s day-to-day theorising through the crucial 1837-9 period. No Victorian’s daily thoughts have been picked over so precisely by a squad of scholars. So much is published that a managerial meta-industry is already springing up to collate and correlate. Yet the more esoteric these studies become, the easier it is to lose sight of the other Darwin: the member of the minor Shropshire gentry, stock-investor and sportsman-naturalist.

The Correspondence promises to rectify this. Here Darwin emerges cossetted in a world of wealthy Whiggism. The new letters reveal profuse details on the social mores of the ‘noble Houses of the Forest, Bliss Castle & Darwin Hall’ (nicknames for the Owen, Wedgwood and Darwin estates), allowing precise assessments of his attitude towards the Church, politics and nature. From such material must come new social reconstructions of Darwinism. The want of a definitive correspondence has been much felt. The Victorian Life and Letters is covered in historiographical cobwebs. Like Huxley’s, it served its ideological purpose a century ago in securing the bourgeois Darwinian hegemony. Today the demand is for exact details of Darwin’s political, social and class attitudes: we need to understand the precise way his evolutionary strategies locked into a Whig Malthu-sian world-view.

The letters cover Darwin’s Shrewsbury boyhood, Edinburgh and Cambridge student days, and Beagle voyage. It was a world of abundance; only the wealthy, with the workhouses about to go up, could write (as his sweetheart Fanny Owen did): ‘what a horrid disgusting thing money is – I hate the name of it – dont you – it is for vulgar souls – not Beetle Hunters.’ We get a glimpse of Cambridge high life: the gluttony and gambling – swans for the eating, Van John all night, with ‘the Dr’ picking up the tabs. Darwin laughed modestly at the paralysis of his faculties through inertia, but the image of enforced idleness at Christ’s is misleading. There was riding (his horse came up too), but more important he was addicted to the gentrified craze of the age – beetle mania. A fanatical attention to the minutiae of beetle classification was to serve many a curate well in his comforting affirmation of Paley’s ‘happy nature’. Darwin was to employ it differently. Still, taxonomic precision was an unlikely legacy of gentrified indolence.

It was the Cambridge patronage network that got Darwin a unique seat at the Captain’s table on the Beagle. FitzRoy had wanted a companion more ‘than a mere collector & would not take any one however good a Naturalist who was not recommended to him likewise as a gentleman’. Fearing he had inherited Castlereagh’s suicidal melancholy (and worried about the isolation of command –the former captain had shot himself), FitzRoy sought a gentleman dining-companion. Darwin’s not being ‘a finished Naturalist’, as Henslow tactfully put it, was less important. More worrying were his Whig beliefs. In the event, manners and breeding transcended party differences, and the Tory Captain acted with such civility that he became Darwin’s ‘beau ideal’ before they left port. Robert McCormick, the ship’s surgeon and ipso facto naturalist, was so put out by the social preference and hindrance to his own efforts to collect that he quit in Rio and shipped home. (The tradesman-status of naval surgeons in the 1830s was notorious.) It was not only the Captain’s table that Darwin shared: his gentleman’s standing guaranteed him an entrée into the cream of colonial society – ‘I am the only one in the ship who is regularly asked to the Admirals, Chargé d’affairs & other great men.’ This too had important ramifications in an age when ambassadors actually took an interest in colonial geology.

Darwin was away from 1831 to 1836, but his sisters sent a stream of Shrewsbury gossip. He missed the final Reform crisis, cholera ravaging the poor, and a leap year, with the ‘ladies exercising their Privilege without mercy’. Balls, gaiety and social chitchat were the fare, onto which crowded earnest political reports. Uncle Josiah Wedgwood entered Parliament on an anti-slaving ticket, but ran scared of the radicals. Fanny Owen, ‘prettiest, plumpest’ of the Owen girls, married a Whig MP and was saddled with a despised mother-in-law. The ‘cold-hearted Tories’ ratting on Reform looked like a dying breed. ‘You I think are amongst a Tory Crew,’ a college friend wrote: ‘just put one of them in Pickle as by the time you return home, he will be more valuable as a specimen for the Cabinet of the Antiquarian, than your Fungi & Coleoptera ... if you can get hold of one with Monboddo’s Tail, or with ears prolongated, it will be a doubly-interesting specimen.’ Engagements competed with prophecies of the pending ‘revolution’ as bishop-baiting radicals demanded disestablishment. This was not something to be taken lightly with the sons of the gentry settled into comfortable curacies. Throughout the trip Darwin was bombarded with sisterly hints of his own vicarage and ‘little wife’ (the adjective was wedded to the noun). The fear was always that his ‘roving turn’ would ruin his resolve. Only brother Erasmus was appalled by the prospect of a ‘horrid little parsonage in the desert’. Writing to his curate cousin W.D. Fox, Darwin still professed hopes; privately he doubted that he was moved by the Holy Spirit. The letters bring out nothing so clearly as the social nature of his ‘vocation’. The Church was a safety net for second sons, preventing them turning into wastrels on father’s fortune. This understanding will be crucial in re-evaluations of Darwin’s religious attitudes.

The voyage had its highlights: the mutineering black troops in Monte Video, the ‘awful spectacle’ of the Concepcion earthquake, ‘bona fide savages’ (women-eating Fuegians), the trek across the Andes, Rosas’s ruthless extermination of the pampas Indians. There were comic touches too: he flabbergasted natives by striking matches with his teeth. The Brazilian forests left him in a ‘delirium of delight and a Beetle hunter is not likely soon to awaken from it.’ The Falklands were ‘odious’; he was cold and seasick, grew a great beard like ‘some worthy Solomon’, and yearned again for the ‘blue skys & the Bananas of the Tropics’. No one but Humboldt had done the lush forests justice. But others too were wandering, Humboldt in hand, in this age of colonial expropriation. In Chile he stumbled on more collectors than carpenters in ‘honest trade’, and he was distressed to find d’Orbigny taking the plum specimens in the Rio Negro for the Paris Muséum. Still, his haul was tremendous: rock samples, bird skins, pickled flatworms, ground sloth fossils (bought from a gaucho for two shillings). ‘His companions on the Beagle,’ writes Ronald Clark, ‘soon ceased to wonder at the young man who caught 68 species of beetle in a single day and shot 80 species of birds in a morning’s walk.’ It was the daily drudgery – the describing, packing, numbering and shipping of skins, bottles and bones to Cambridge – that shows the real extent of his industry. And Clark exactly captures Darwin’s determination, as evident here as in his 189,000-word journal, which was dispatched home in instalments to be read aloud by the family.

The trip was exhausting, with the ‘blue sea devils’ chasing him home. From Tahiti, ‘that fallen paradise’, he travelled to Sydney and platypi-shoots, on to the Cape, where he met Sir John Herschel (‘awful’ manners). Even then, FitzRoy – a stickler for precision – re-crossed the Atlantic to South America for more measurements before heading for Falmouth. Darwin arrived in Shrewsbury in October 1836, a stone underweight, cursing the sea. FitzRoy promptly got married. Darwin got himself elected to the two most useful clubs in town: Windham’s and the Geological Society.

The Correspondence ends with Darwin beginning the social rounds in ‘odious dirty smokey London’. He took tea with the Lyells (good science guaranteed no entrée here: George Busk was excluded on account of his wife’s rank). With characteristic diffidence Darwin saw himself as ‘only a sort of Jackall, a lions provider’: but lions like Sedgwick and Lyell were roaring approval at the Cambridge Philosophical and gentlemanly Geological Society. The respectable savants with their Oxford connections embraced him as one. Darwin’s status counted in more pecuniary ways. He secured a £1000 government grant to publish his Beagle researches (even though he had travelled in a private capacity). His resulting Journal – ‘interesting as a Persian tale’, as one sailor put it – opened more doors. The contrast with Huxley’s predicament a generation later is striking: as a naval surgeon, he had such difficulty prising money out of the Admiralty to organise his Rattlesnake material that he resigned the service. Darwin’s later urban, salaried admirers were to struggle in a way he could never have imagined.

In the first Transmutation Notebook (1837) we already find Darwin searching for a successful evolutionary strategy; by 1838 he was planning his public presentation. Clark’s account brings home how essential Darwin’s wealth was in buying him time. He jotted in 1838: ‘Frittered these foregoing days... away in working on Transmutation theories & correcting Glen Roy [paper]... All September read a good deal on many subjects; thought much upon religion.’ Only when Howard Gruber published Darwin on Man (1974) were Darwin’s deeper fears on the social effects fully appreciated. He explored strategies to disguise his materialism, and planned moves to disarm critics (‘Mention persecution of early Astronomers’). With working-class radicals underwriting their insurrectionary programmes with a materialistic d’Holbachian science, one appreciates Darwin’s fears of social betrayal. For two decades he kept his secret from kindly Cambridge patrons like Henslow and Sedgwick.

The origin and fate of Darwin’s theory provides the theme of Clark’s Survival of Charles Darwin. More than a biography, this is a synoptic sweep of evolutionary developments from the 1830s to today’s debates over cladism and ‘punctuated equilibrium’. The rich texture of Clark’s biography stems from his judicious use of manuscript material: letters, referees’ reports, publishers’ accounts. A biographical approach has its advantages: Clark is able to point up the idiosyncrasies of Darwin’s character. How odd, for example, that although a sporting gent, whose ‘holy cause’ was to shoot, skin or stuff everything that moved, he should have found human dissection in Edinburgh so stomach-churning. In some ways it was a portent. His ethical appreciation changed over the years, perhaps in response to the implications of evolution, or just as a result of growing older. He put down the gun (the Church forced Fox to do the same) and told Ray Lankester that vivisection was criminal if carried out ‘for mere damnable and detestable curiosity’. He indicted himself as he continued working on fancy pigeons: ‘I have done the black deed & murdered an angelic little Fan-tail,’ he confessed to Fox. Clark’s peppering of new quotes is itself a delight, and often revealing – as in the case of Darwin’s gastronomic standards: ‘Don’t forget,’ he reminded Fox, ‘if your half-bred African cat should die, that I should be very much obliged for its carcase sent up in [a] little hamper for skeleton – it or any cross-bred pigeons, fowl, duck, &c, &c, will be more acceptable than the finest haunch of Venison, or the finest turtle.’ Huxley’s barbed wit, too, is a biographer’s godsend, and Clark captures its stiletto action perfectly. Did Huxley really, on hearing of Bishop Wilberforce’s death from concussion after falling from his horse, tell the physicist John Tyndall: ‘For once reality and his brains came into contact and the result was fatal’?

On specific points, Clark is sensitive to the revisionist trends: on Darwin’s use of the Galapagos finches, his debt to Malthus, and the massive exegesis of the Transmutation Notebooks. Yet the biographical approach has its limitations. Odd optical effects lead to subtle distortions: Darwin’s stature is too often enlarged at the expense of his contemporaries. Worse, condoning Huxley’s episco-phagal excesses, Clark is pushed perilously close to substituting propaganda for history. Few historians today would be happy with his century-old Huxleyan historiography – with its straw men and confrontationist tactics. The 1970s and 1980s have been remarkable for overturning the warfare images of de Beer and the older Darwinians. Younger scholars, taking Walter Cannon’s lead, are reconstructing the Christian framework of Darwinism. Marxist commentators like R.M. Young have raised the question of the constitutive economic and political components of Darwinism. And the new disciplines of anthropology and sociology of knowledge have taught sensitivity to social uses as a way of discerning contemporary meaning. At this deeper level, Darwinism legitimised a network of professional and social changes in an urban, industrialising society – changes which the Church, with its landed connections, resisted. How else are we to understand Huxley’s famous claim that the Origin was a ‘veritable Whit worth gun in the armoury of liberalism’? Huxley welcomed the book, like many disaffected and Dissenting professionals attacking the clerisy’s monopoly on moral authority, because it fulfilled newer bourgeois needs.

Clark rightly senses that after 1859 it was not a case of ‘devout Christians’ v. ‘the rest’. Had he read James Moore’s The Post-Darwinian Controversies he could have followed this insight up: Moore points to the impoverishing effect of the ritualistic intoning of Huxley’s militaristic epigrams. Yet Clark’s theme remains a Darwinian struggle against religious obscurantism. Wilberforce’s come-uppance and the Monkey Trials are potent symbols. Yet if used to the exclusion of a more subtle analysis of cultural attitudes towards Darwin they degenerate into caricatures. Huxley is hurrahed for his hatred of ‘Parsondom’, while a sensitive Catholic critic like St George Mivart is seen by Clark only ‘to put the boot in’. Partisan militarism can be crude in more ways than one. It becomes history in the campaign style of old generals. If the modern Amalekites are the American Creationists (and Clark’s eye is clearly on them), then smiting Victorian bishops might seem like fighting the good fight. But at what cost? Forcing modern categories on Victorian events for propagandist purposes is a shortsighted strategy.

Greater sympathy is needed in tackling the Early Victorian period. It might have been, in the literal sense, a ‘string-and-sealing-wax age of biology’, but this image belies the complexity of contemporary science. In its own way, it was as diverse, sophisticated and satisfying as anything today – more diversified and embrouillé if anything, with the classes so much more divided. Thus the 1830s and 1840s saw socialists promoting a self-developing Lamarckian biology as an anti-Church-and-State device. Bourgeois Benthamites exploited Geoffroy’s philosophical anatomy, while Dissenting mercantilists sported a progressive naturalistic cosmogony. Oxbridge divines and ‘Old Corruptionists’ might have clung to Paley and static Creation. Even so, natural theology’s power to mediate between the sects had weakened long before 1859, and newer naturalistic ideologies were already supplanting older notions. The 1830s never were an age of rampant Biblicism, nor did Paley predominate until Darwin’s ‘presumptuous’ arrival in 1859.

What Clark’s biography does provide is an intimate glimpse of Darwin, his gentleness, perception and foibles; and of the extraordinary convalescent atmosphere of Down House, where, a granddaughter recalled, ‘it was a distinctive and a mournful pleasure to be ill.’ But the kindly patriarch of Down remains an enigma. The enduring image is of him taking the water cure at fashionable Moor Park in April 1858. The affable naturalist, about to unleash images of Malthusian ruthlessness and rustic savagery on a Dickensian generation, strolled in a birch wood after the cure: ‘At last I fell asleep on the grass and awoke with a chorus of birds singing around me, & squirrels running up the trees, and some woodpeckers laughing, and it was as pleasant & rural a scene as ever I saw, & I did not care one penny how any of the beasts or birds had been formed.’ Perhaps he was a country curate at heart.