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.’

At the Empire’s heart, officialdom conceded extraordinary favours. The British Museum sent its barnacles for Darwin to work on at home (try citing this precedent on your next visit), and Captain Beaufort offered the services of Her Majesty’s surveying ships to check his facts in any quarter of the globe. In the tranquil Kentish eye of this whirlwind of activity, Darwin sat, exercising his gigantic appetite for collecting and collating – how he needed the computer that his friend Babbage had not quite invented – and what his disciple Hooker rightly called his ‘power of turning to account the waste observations of his predecessors’.

For an impresario of Imperial science, however, Darwin was a stubbornly reclusive and unflamboyant figure. The Beagle voyage over, he never stirred from Britain and not very often from Downe, where he ‘preferred dealing with the world by post’. He would go to the British Association at Oxford in 1847 only when assured that ‘I can have my meals to myself & a room to be by myself in.’ A devoted husband and father, country gentleman and magistrate, he led a life of such relentless respectability that his biographers’ quest for a little colour reduces them to a curious fascination with proctor Sedgwick’s pursuit, in the Cambridge of the 1820s, of the ladies of the town whom there is no reason to suppose that young Charles frequented. ‘Simple, childlike, painstaking, effective’ – Harriet Martineau’s judgment was precise. This is not obviously the stuff of high drama and seething passions: but high drama and seething passions for Desmond and Moore are what science is made of. There is a faint touch of Jekyll and Hyde about their book. While the doctor labours prodigiously at his scholarship, buttressed with fifty pages of references, his alter ego is capering about to shatter the mirror image of the scientist as beaming boffin or serene sage and to turn him instead into, on the one hand, a figure of Faustian torment and, on the other, the embodiment of the turmoil of his age. A psycho-drama is intercut with a social and intellectual upheaval, both at times so luridly splashed onto the canvas as to suggest that the work has been designed with half an eye to the survival of the fittest on the airport bookstall (recommended flight time at least twelve hours) or even as a trailer for ‘Darwin: The Movie’.

This treatment gives us first of all a mind-ripper to compete with the bodice-rippers. Darwin emerges as a man condemned to forty years of ‘schizoid existence’ by a searing conflict between his painful anxiety to retain the esteem of the entrenched Anglican and gentry establishment into which Cambridge above all had introduced him, and his need to pursue truths which could be employed by the enemies of the established order to dissolve the moral assumptions on which its authority rested. Before he was thirty, he had opened a ‘clandestine’ notebook on transmutation and begun to develop a theory of evolution which, by finding in nature a self-acting and self-generating power to explain the emergence of species without need of special or continuous creation, effectively turned God into what the authors neatly call the ‘absentee landlord’ of the universe, and, in making it possible to infer the descent of man from the lower animals, abolished the notion of his singular status and unique moral capacity and accountability. Man’s very conception of the divine could be derived, like all beliefs, from animal instinct and psychological formation: ‘love of deity’, Darwin noted, is ‘effect of organisation: oh you Materialist!’

Afraid of persecution and loss of reputation, and of the exploitation of his views by atheists and firebrands, Darwin shrank from publishing these heresies for twenty years, one-third of which he spent, not surprisingly, ‘doubled up, trembling, vomiting, and dowsing himself in icy water’. The appearance of Origin of Species is a coming-out drama, precipitated by the need to pre-empt Alfred Russell Wallace: but even in 1859 the Kentish mole lacked the nerve to ‘go the whole orang’, to use the phrase he himself applied to Charles Lyell. Though the death of his daughter Annie in 1851 had left him an agnostic, he never ceased to temporise, at least in public, on the implications of his theory for God and man, defensively placing the question of God’s existence ‘beyond the scope of man’s intellect’, and politely fending off horrifying tributes like Edward Aveling’s attempt to dedicate to him a collection of evolution articles from the National Reformer, destined to appear in the ‘International Library of Science and Free-thought’ under the lively editorship of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh.

The stomach-churnings of a gentleman naturalist with a guilty secret and ten children to support are, however, only the epiphenomena of the greater upheavals which supply this big book with the required size of dramatic engine. Darwin’s ‘double life’ is the microcosm of a clerisy in travail and a society on the brink of explosion. ‘The pandemonium in his mind made a subtle and complex counterpoint to the public turmoil in urban Britain.’ Desmond’s and Moore’s purpose is to interpret Darwin’s evolution in the only way in which they believe scientific development can be interpreted, by understanding its social context and its social function. The mission statements rain down in the opening pages of the book, prefaced by a dismissal of previous biographies of Darwin as ‘curiously bloodless affairs’, which have failed to make contact with ‘the inflammatory issues and events of his day’. ‘Our Darwin,’ Desmond and Moore announce, ‘sets out to be different.’ It is conceived as a ‘defiantly social portrait’, surfing on the new wave in the history of science which stresses the ‘cultural conditioning of knowledge’, elbowing aside the mere ‘textual analysts and historians of disembodied ideas – of intellectual ghosts’ to show how Darwin’s ‘theories and strategies were embedded in a reforming Whig society’, and how appreciating his attitude to the ‘workhouse culture’ invests his science with a ‘deeper political meaning’. This is no gentle hagiography but a combative manifesto for genius as genesis, and social genesis at that.

The book stands or falls by its authors’ ability to make their case for ‘the scientific expert as a product of his time’. Desmond and Moore have distinguished credentials in the history of Victorian science. Their portrait of Darwin is rooted in impressive familiarity with the sources and tireless pursuit of everything that can give him context. In their minute reconstruction of the development of his life and thought, they have achieved both a work of collation and synthesis worthy of the master himself and a vivid and absorbing panorama not simply of his but of the Victorian intellectual world. There is an odd paradox, however. Though Darwin’s science dictates the structure of the book, the book does not altogether reveal the structure of the science. This is neither an exposition nor an analysis of his contribution to scientific thought, and few lay readers at the end of it will be ready to sit a paper on Darwinian biology. It is a sustained essay in the sociology of knowledge production, and one which seems sometimes to employ a dangerously reductionist, even a wilfully contrived model.

No one thinks in vacuo, and Desmond and Moore have every reason to suture Darwinian biology to social history. But such joins belong to a much more highly speculative area of intellectual history than they are always ready to acknowledge. They stitch Darwin up in two ways, first, by attuning his bio-rhythms to the pulse of national life, and second, by giving him the job of bringing biology into line with ‘advanced Whig social thinking’. History is made to give the tempo to the palpitations of Darwin’s mind and stomach in a fashion more dramatically convenient than intellectually convincing. The opening crescendo, to accompany Darwin’s first essay in suggesting that ‘headless hermaphrodite molluscs were the ancestors of mankind,’ is this:

It is 1839. England is tumbling towards anarchy, with countrywide unrest and riots. The gutter presses are fizzing, fire-bombs flying. The shout on the streets is for revolution. Red evolutionists – visionaries who see life marching inexorably upward, powered from below – denounce the props of an old static society: priestly privilege, wage exploitation and the workhouses. A million socialists are castigating marriage, capitalism, and the fat, corrupt Established Church. Radical Christians join them, hymn-singing Dissenters who condemn the ‘fornicating’ Church as a ‘harlot’, in bed with the State.

And so on. It is true that the style subsequently sobers up a little from this hyperactive beginning, but there is a good deal more in the ‘As his sickness grew worse and the country careered towards ruin’ vein, sometimes supported by the patient (Darwin did helpfully describe the headlong rush of his thoughts as ‘mental rioting’), but often sounding forced. Darwin accepts that ‘Nature’s struggle, like the nation’s in the Crimea, took a terrible toll’ – but the simile is the authors’, not his. He investigates the capacity of seeds to establish themselves in a new environment. ‘When the seed reaches its “new home then”, he said, “comes the ordeal”. Will it be able to establish a beach-head? Will “the old occupants in the great struggle for life allow the new and solitary immigrant room and sustenance?” ’ The purpose of interpolating the beachhead metaphor between Darwin’s own phrases seems to be to set up another Crimean counterpoint: ‘With the British fleet still battling at Sebastopol it must have seemed curiously topical.’ It is the Crimea, too, superadded to a change in the intellectual and social climate here somehow symbolised by the Great Exhibition, which is called in to help account for Darwin’s renewed advance in 1856 towards the revelation of his evolutionary views, as the conclusion of peace heralds a brighter British future, ‘the age of sterling imperialism and Pax Britannica’.

More fundamental is the representation of Darwin’s science as a social product, powerfully moulded in the 1830s by the same Malthusian concepts of ‘warring of the species’, competition and selection in the struggle for life, that infused free-trade economics and imparted to social evils and social inequalities the sanction of natural necessity. Indeed, it is virtually an industrial product: for Desmond and Moore, it is the metaphor of the division of labour drawn from his Wedgwood relatives’ organisation of factory production that gives Darwin the means to explain how diversification of species occurs, as nature maximises the efficiency of the natural economy by selecting variants that can flourish in specialised niches. They see this conceptual adaptation as a social as well as an intellectual choice, as evidence of the shaping of Darwin’s science by a conscious commitment to the capitalist ethos. ‘With progress guaranteed in Nature’s workshop, as much as it was in Uncle Jos’s [Wedgwood’s], Darwin’s self-evolving Nature was like the expanding, diversifying empires of the Dissenting cotton kings and pottery patriarchs ... Darwin was siding with the factory bosses and his fellow investors ... He was placing Nature on industry’s side.’ Science in this perspective becomes not only the handmaiden of business but itself the analogue of business, obeying market forces. The young Darwin is seen as ‘taking a partnership in Lyell’s geological business ... a growth industry.’

Desmond and Moore are in no doubt that Darwin was a ‘social darwinist’: ‘his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start.’ Other models of natural process were available – for example, in Sismondi: he chose to reject them. His career is turned in this reading from the mode of disinterested scientific curiosity into a deliberate ideological commitment. The case is forcefully made, with a wealth of suggestive illustration, yet it remains possible to doubt that Darwin’s system is entirely reducible to a piece of intellectual superstructure, in the closest analysis not so much devised to validate, as, by the very circumstances of its development, predestined to replicate among molluscs and mammals the relations of production which ordered and underpinned the world of its progenitor. Darwin’s search was not just the rewriting of creation as a textbook of bourgeois liberal economics. That all came of struggle was not an idea peculiar to the British 19th century, as that ferocious social darwinist General Bernhardi was to point out, citing the priority of Heraclitus of Ephesus. Nor is it clear that Darwin’s use of the principle necessarily implied unquestioning endorsement of any and every extreme of cut-throat competition and social atomism. If he could not follow Wallace in seeing the strife of individuals as naturally mitigated for the good of the group by the selecting out of the capacity for ‘mutual association’ as an advantageous quality, he believed at the end of his life that ‘with highly civilised nations continued progress depends in a subordinate degree on natural selection, for such nations do not supplant and exterminate one another as do savage tribes.’ The milieu which influenced his perceptions was not a Hobbesian free-for-all, the metaphors it offered him were not those of war. The market required for the operation of market forces and the division of labour were highly sophisticated examples of human co-operation. Darwin did not set out to challenge the social order which endowed his life of science, but the case is not proven that he could see through his microscope no more than its mirror image.