The Kentish Hog

Adrian Desmond

  • The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Vol. II: 1837-1843 edited by Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith
    Cambridge, 603 pp, £30.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 521 25588 0
  • The Works of Charles Darwin edited by Paul Barrett and R.B. Freeman
    Pickering & Chatto, 10 pp, £470.00, March 1987, ISBN 1 85196 002 3
  • The Darwinian Heritage edited by David Kohn
    Princeton, 1138 pp, £67.90, February 1986, ISBN 0 691 08356 8
  • Western Science in the Arab World: The Impact of Darwinism, 1860-1930 by Adel Ziadat
    Macmillan, 162 pp, £27.50, October 1986, ISBN 0 333 41856 5
  • Theories of Human Evolution: A Century of Debate 1844-1944 by Peter Bowler
    Blackwell, 318 pp, £25.00, February 1987, ISBN 0 631 15264 4
  • Controversy in Victorian Geology: The Cambrian-Silurian Dispute by James Secord
    Princeton, 363 pp, £33.10, October 1986, ISBN 0 691 08417 3
  • Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture by Robert Young
    Cambridge, 341 pp, £30.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 521 31742 8

David Kohn opens his monumental Darwinian Heritage with a deftly-delivered kick, observing that a study of the wider institutional culture of Darwin’s day seems to be ‘beyond the present ken of historians of 19th-century biology’. It’s a well-aimed blow. Little of the Darwin industry’s capital has been spent on exploring evolution in its social context. It isn’t that the subject is taboo (as it was a generation ago), just that the pioneering work of the textual analysts scrutinising Darwin’s notebooks has dominated the scene of late – and rightly so, given their immense contribution to our understanding of the route Darwin took to natural selection.

The situation is changing, however: a number of institutional studies have appeared since the 1982 centenary of Darwin’s death when Kohn’s book went to press – on the Botanical Society, on the Geological Survey and on the Zoological Society. In adjacent fields social history has achieved surprising levels of sophistication, capped by Roger Cooter’s provocative study of phrenology as an intellectual instrument of self-help liberalism and social control (The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science, 1984). But hardly any attempt has been made to apply this sort of approach to Darwinism – to explain the value of a Malthusian Origin of Species in legitimating the authority of an arriviste industrial-professional bourgeoisie. So the real problem is no longer lack of interest in institutional or social research, but a failure to integrate it with the latest microtextual work in order to draw wider conclusions concerning Darwin’s place in Victorian culture.

Kohn urges the Darwin scholars to become social historians: but surely the new Correspondence will in any case force this upon many. After all, in the two volumes published to date Darwin gives little inkling of his evolutionary leanings, even if we do find him persistently quizzing breeders over the effects of hybridisation. (On the other hand, far from keeping his speculations completely private, as historians had thought, Darwin mentioned his work on the ‘origin & variation of species’ to his Cambridge patron J.S.Henslow as early as November 1839.) The importance of the Correspondence clearly lies in a more broadly defined social area. The second volume (like the first) is meticulously edited; the notes themselves provide an embarras de richesses, with enough arcane detail to keep scholars busy for a decade. Over a quarter of the tome is taken up by appendices, biographies, bibliography, and Darwin’s questionnaires, fragments, manuscript alterations and so forth.

This series is already setting the pace in history-of-science publishing. Nor is this surprising, given the years of painstaking work by the Cambridge team, hacking through the intractable jungle of Darwin’s illegible script and cryptic marginalia. And it is precisely the degree of social detail which is crucial. It will finally enable historians to do what Kohn asks: to relocate Darwin in his social context.

This was a busy period in Darwin’s life. He moved to London, married Emma Wedgwood, and published his Journal of the Beagle voyage and his first geological papers. His gentlemanly independence, patronage by ‘the great Cambridge Dons’ and scientific dedication enabled him to slide straight into the upper echelons of the fashionable Geological Society. They also enabled him to negotiate a government grant to publish the Zoology of the Beagle voyage. A retrenching Whig ministry was persuaded to put up £1000, allowing the young Darwin to dispense his own patronage. He parcelled out his Beagle specimens to white-collar naturalists: to zoological craftsmen like John Gould (who reciprocated by christening a new rhea darwinii after him). Darwin modelled his Zoology on Humboldt’s Zoologie, acting as taskmaster and paymaster chivvying a Gradgrind work-force. Not that he was incapable of such work himself. Although in typical self-deprecatory manner he called himself ‘only a fossil Resurrectionist’, he had the patience, fortitude and finance to pore over barnacles for years like the best of them.

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