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.

Although Darwin was the object of a great deal of medical attention, beginning with that of his father Robert Darwin, a successful Shropshire physician, and ultimately including London specialists as well as proponents of long-term cures based on such palliatives as water and diet, his complaint was never satisfactorily diagnosed or treated. (Fortunately for the sufferer, his symptoms diminished of their own accord during the last decade of his life.) And subsequent commentators, still tantalised by the medical puzzle long after its practical solution had become moot, have offered a wide range of possible explanations. Darwin himself connected his symptoms with severe gastric illness (retrospectively diagnosed as stomach cancer by Bowlby) which had claimed his mother’s life when he was a child, and some historians have similarly sought an organic ailment. Of the many such possibilities that have been proposed, only Chagas’s disease, an unpredictable long-term infection transmitted by the bite of a South American bug, has received much serious recent attention. Most contemporary analysts, like Bowlby, have preferred to follow the lead of those members of Darwin’s family who noted the connection between his frame of mind and his physical symptoms.

Any biographer of Darwin must take serious account of his severe and protracted suffering, especially since it was most pronounced during his most productive decades. What Bowlby does, however, is to present Darwin’s life in terms of his own influential work on the importance of early experiences of attachment and loss. His decision to make Darwin’s illness the central feature of his life determines the structure of his book. For example, although the arrangement of the biography is more or less straightforwardly chronological, and although Darwin’s life was not full of confusing event, Bowlby reiterates the basic structure of his plot with a persistence which, at first glance, suggests an unsettling lack of confidence in the acumen of his readers. He begins with a two-page chronological table, which is followed by a prologue summarising the table, which is followed by the biography proper, in which the same story is presented at length. Finally, there is an appendix entitled ‘Darwin’s III-Health in the Light of Current Research’. The purpose of this repetition is of course to stress the significance of illness in Darwin’s experience: indeed, about a quarter of the life-events that merit inclusion in the initial chronological table refer to Darwin’s own health or to the illnesses and deaths of his close relatives.

Bowlby’s approach to his subject – or rather, his patient – often seems more like that of a doctor than a biographer. This relationship is established early in the book. The prologue concludes with Bowlby’s diagnosis of Darwin’s illness as Da Costa’s syndrome, or hyperventilation syndrome, a condition which is associated with anxiety attacks, results from both ‘physiological and psychological factors’, and still lacks a ‘satisfactory or widely-agreed definition’. This diagnosis, according to Bowlby, is consistent with both the nature and the varying intensity of Darwin’s physical symptoms. Having made this diagnosis, Bowlby proceeds immediately to the cure. Armed with the insights of 20th-century medicine, he believes that Darwin ‘could have been given a great deal of help for both his psychosomatic symptoms and for his emotional troubles, even though he might well have continued to be over-sensitive to situations of certain kinds’: indeed, he further asserts that with a combination of psychotherapy and instruction in techniques to counteract overbreathing, he can ‘see no reason why Darwin would have been an especially difficult patient’.

The biography’s main argument is implicit in its account of how Darwin became such ‘a vulnerable personality’ (to quote one of the chapter titles): prone to depression and anxiety, as well as distressing physical symptoms, easily upset by hostility and criticism, and therefore inordinately eager to please and deferential to the views of others. Drawing on his own psychiatric research (as well as that of other contemporary practitioners), Bowlby identifies the primary cause of Darwin’s physical and emotional troubles as the death of his mother, after a painful illness, when he was eight years old. The inevitable deprivation entailed by this loss was exacerbated by Darwin’s family environment, which, in Bowlby’s view, prevented the child from adequately mourning his mother. Certainly, there are hints from Darwin’s adulthood that the pain of this death had been vigorously repressed; perhaps the most startling is a sentence contained in a note of condolence he wrote a cousin who had lost his young wife: ‘never in my life having lost one near relation, I daresay I cannot imagine how severe grief such as yours must be.’ Darwin noted in his Autobiography, written when he was an old man, that he could remember very little about his mother, and partly attributed this to the fact that his older sisters’ grief prevented them from ever mentioning her.

These two sisters, according to Bowlby, contributed to the oppressive atmosphere which intensified the effect on Darwin of his mother’s death. Forced to assume some of their mother’s child-rearing responsibilities before they were twenty, they fell into governess-like habits of correction and improvement, of which distant echoes reverberated even in their letters to the Beagle naturalist two decades later. But the major cause of the gloom that descended on the Darwin family after Susannah Wedgwood Darwin died was the paterfamilias, Robert Darwin, whom Bowlby portrays as a distant and forbidding man, a compulsive carer and a compulsive eater. By the time he lost his wife, he had already endured not only the early death of his mother, but also the deaths of two brothers (one a suicide) and his father. He could be moody as well as generous, and as Bowlby sees it, inspired adoration and fear in Charles, his younger son, who continued to cherish both feelings into adulthood, when they also became the source of his intense sensitivity to the opinion of his senior scientific colleagues – most significantly, Charles Lyell.

In Bowlby’s view, these intertwined vulnerabilities account for the series of physical and emotional breakdowns that plagued Darwin throughout his adult life. He seems to have been untroubled by symptoms when he was a student at Edinburgh and then at Cambridge, although he worried about palpitations in the days just before the Beagle sailed. After nearly five years at sea, he spent several years in London before marrying his cousin Emma Wedgwood. His first major breakdown occurred at the end of his first year of marriage and coincided with the birth of his first child; it extended through Emma’s second pregnancy a year later. Bowlby speculates that this illness was triggered by the abdominal symptoms associated with Emma Darwin’s condition, which recalled his mother’s fatal illness. Darwin’s health next broke down seriously at the time of his father’s death, in 1848. The symptoms, in their most severe form, returned for the last time in 1863 and 1864: Bowlby associates this with Darwin’s realisation that Lyell was not going to give his wholehearted public endorsement to the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Bowlby’s analysis of these breakdowns reads plausibly enough. It is buttressed by generous references to current psychiatric research and to earlier attempts to address the same question, of which the most notable is Ralph Colp’s To be an invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin (1977), where professional rather than personal stresses are emphasised. But psychobiography is inevitably problematic, even with a life as well-documented as Darwin’s, and Bowlby is not uniformly successful in bridging the gaps in evidence that his argument repeatedly produces. These gaps are most apparent and most troublesome in the passages that relate to Darwin’s mother, where Bowlby’s claims necessarily rely on negative evidence. At a remove of nearly two centuries, absence of mourning, and forgetfulness, are difficult to pin down. It may be true, as Bowlby proposes in the epilogue, comparing Darwin’s case with that of a 20th-century woman who had lost her mother as a young child, that ‘had he embarked on psychotherapy, Darwin ... might also have recalled some of the items he was preoccupied with after his mother’s death – in particular ideas about what might have caused her fatal illness,’ but this is a shaky basis for an important argument.

Other arguments depend on interpretations that seem open to question. The assertion of the continued overbearingness of Darwin’s older sisters, for example, depends in part on a rather literal reading of their polished and affectionate letters, which can also be seen as teasing and gently ironic. Even Dr Robert Darwin, dour and domineering though he may have been, had an indulgent side which Bowlby tends to document without comment. For example, when Darwin approached him about sailing on the Beagle, his father not unreasonably refused. It was, after all, a long and dangerous voyage, and he viewed it, not as the essential foundation for a unique scientific career, but as yet another obstacle to his son’s establishment in a profession (the plan at the time of the Beagle voyage was that Darwin would become a clergyman). But when Robert Darwin’s brother-in-law, Josiah Wedgwood, proved to be strongly in favour of the voyage, the doctor immediately changed his mind, and, moreover, bankrolled his son generously for the next five years. I am not a psychiatrist, or indeed an expert of any kind on human behaviour, but I have seen parents whom no one would call dour or domineering put up more stubborn resistance to much less problematic proposals on the part of their post-adolescent offspring.

Although the analysis of Darwin’s illness takes up the bulk of Bowlby’s argument (and of his contribution to Darwin studies), it does not account for the bulk of his text – a fairly unsurprising account of Darwin’s personal and professional life. The connections between foreground and background are often loose, occasioning repeated ‘meanwhile back at the ranch’ style transitions, such as: ‘While tracing the fortunes of Dr Erasmus and the Darwin family ... we have almost lost sight of Josiah Wedgwood,’ or ‘In recounting the story of the voyage I have omitted several salient aspects of Darwin’s life.’ Some problems are more serious. Bowlby consistently takes unfair advantage of his superior knowledge. He is inclined to praise those ways of thinking which have been endorsed by subsequent scientific practice, whether or not they were the most sensible ones to adopt in the light of 19th-century knowledge. And, invulnerably armed with hindsight, he often condescends to his predecessors. Thus he pokes fun at Captain Fitzroy because he nearly rejected Darwin as his naturalist-companion on the Beagle on phrenological grounds, without acknowledging that phrenology was taken seriously in many respectable intellectual circles in 1831. Similarly, he regrets that ‘the pitifully limited knowledge of the day’ prevented Victorian doctors from giving Darwin and his friend Joseph Hooker, who also suffered from palpitations, ‘unequivocal reassurance ... that nothing whatever was wrong.’ Finally, there is something odd about Bowlby’s discussion of women. A genealogical chart of Darwin’s grandchildren gives the names of all the grandsons, but only those granddaughters who have achieved something in Bowlby’s estimation – the others get only numbers. When he discusses the burdens that might have led to depression and ill-health among the wives of successful men in the late 18th century, he mentions the frequency of child death, but not the much greater frequency of child-bearing. Reporting the birth of Darwin’s first grandchild, to his son Francis and his daughter-in-law Amy, he writes: ‘This happy event was marred by tragedy, however: Amy died.’

Bowlby’s account of Darwin’s life from the perspective of current psychiatry is interesting, but what he has written is not a ‘new biography’: he has appropriated Darwin’s life to his own professional agenda.

[*] 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.