Blame it on Darwin

Jonathan Rée

  • Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker by A.N. Wilson
    John Murray, 438 pp, £25.00, September 2017, ISBN 978 1 4447 9488 5

When the 22-year-old Charles Darwin joined HMS Beagle in 1831 he took a copy of Paradise Lost with him, and over the next five years he read it many times, in Brazil, Patagonia, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Mauritius. As the ship’s naturalist he sent commentaries and specimens back to colleagues in London, who soon came to see him not as a dilettante but an extremely acute observer. On his return he published an extensive Journal of Researches which showed that reading Milton by the light of a campfire had taught him how to write.

One evening, when we were about ten miles from the Bay of San Blas, vast numbers of butterflies, in bands or flocks of countless myriads, extended as far as the eye could range. Even by the aid of a telescope it was not possible to see a space free from butterflies. The seamen cried out ‘it was snowing butterflies,’ and such in fact was the appearance.

In 1845 the publisher John Murray reissued the book for a large public. Darwin became a literary celebrity.

Voyage of the Beagle (to use the title Murray gave it) is a vivid travelogue, but it also carries heavy theoretical freight. Darwin was struck by ‘how exactly the animals and plants in each region are adapted to each other’ and concluded that diverse life-forms should be understood not in isolation but on the basis of their reciprocal relations within what he called ‘the economy of nature’. He also noted that the world of living things is constantly changing, and suggested that specimens then assigned to separate species might belong to different branches of the same family, adapted over time to different ‘places’ in the natural economy. Having observed the damage visited on South America by ‘European animals run wild’ he knew that stable networks of mutual dependence are easily disrupted; but he also believed that new equilibria would establish themselves in due course. Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (first published in 1798) had argued that human populations carry on growing until their needs exceed the supply of sustenance; and when Darwin read it in 1838 he extended the principle to all forms of life, suggesting that ‘the supply of food’ provides an automatic ‘check’ on population growth, ‘constantly preventing the too rapid increase of every organised being’.

Shortly afterwards Darwin settled to an unusually happy family life in Down House in Kent, with ‘a nice soft wife on a sofa’ and eventually seven surviving children, all of them eager, curious and rewarding. He was contemplating a ‘big book’ which would describe how the natural economies of the world have changed since the moment – perhaps hundreds of millions of years ago – when life emerged. His starting point was that progeny are not always exact replicas of their parents: they can differ from them, if only slightly, and pass the difference on to their offspring. He then suggested that when the difference happens to be advantageous, it will proliferate in succeeding generations. If you were religiously inclined you might attribute this built-in bias towards improvement to a benevolent providence, but Darwin had an alternative explanation: organisms that have an advantageous variation will be better at generating offspring, and will steadily out-breed their less fortunate cousins, driving them to extinction when the means of life become scarce.

Darwin struggled with headaches, eczema and indigestion. He spent hours botanising with his children or teaching them to do experiments, such as finding out how worms respond to a serenade on the bassoon. After several years sitting in his work-room at Down House and walking every day on his ‘thinking path’, he settled on three crucial ideas: fortuitous ‘variations’, which are subject to ‘natural selection’, which leads to ‘mutability of species’ (later known as ‘evolution’). But he made no great claims to originality. In a letter of 1860 he said that ‘no educated person, not even the most ignorant, could suppose that I meant to arrogate to myself the origination of the doctrine that species had not been independently created,’ adding that ‘the only novelty in my work is the attempt to explain how species became modified.’ In a ‘Historical Sketch’ published the same year he pointed out that the idea that ‘species undergo modification’ had been advocated by ‘some few naturalists’ before him, principally Buffon and Lamarck, and paid tribute to the bestselling Vestiges of Creation, published in 1844, whose anonymous author ‘argues with much force on general grounds that species are not immutable’. As for the ‘principle of natural selection’, it had been applied to the human race by W.C. Wells in 1813, and extended to other species by Patrick Matthew in 1831. Darwin hoped, however, to do some service to science by bringing these elements together in a single arc of argument, supported by masses of detailed observations.

In the event he never completed the ‘big book’, but in 1859 he published an ‘abstract’ called On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. It was immediately recognised as a work of great importance: John Stuart Mill, for example, called it a ‘wonderful feat of scientific knowledge and ingenuity’ and ‘an unimpeachable example of a legitimate hypothesis’. It was also – like Voyage of the Beagle, only more so – an artful work of literature: perhaps the only scientific classic that amateurs like me can read with pleasure from cover to cover. Darwin begins very gently, saluting the unremembered farmers who have created new varieties of plants and animals by grafting, crossing and selecting over the past four thousand years. He then turns to the art of breeding pigeons, to which he had been introduced by some neighbours in Kent. ‘Few would readily believe in the natural capacity and years of practice requisite to become … a skilful pigeon-fancier,’ he wrote. An innocent ornithologist observing the different varieties of domesticated pigeon in the south of England, from the long-necked carrier to the cuddly short-faced tumbler, might assign them to as many as twenty separate species; but in fact all of them could be traced back to the common rock-pigeon, modified by selective breeding over the previous century. ‘The key,’ Darwin wrote, lies in ‘man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him.’ Having established the principles of ‘variation under domestication’, Darwin was ready to state his main theme: that organisms in the wild are subject to similar processes of ‘accumulative selection’, but without a human selector. He explained the idea in detail over more than four hundred pages, pausing from time to time to acknowledge various ‘difficulties’, some of them ‘so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered’. But he kept his nerve and pressed on till he reached his destination.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

One of the first extended reviews of The Origin of Species was by Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, who commended Darwin’s ‘really charming writing’, his powerful demonstration of ‘the law of natural selection’, and his ‘excellent’ insight into ‘the wonderful interdependence of nature’. Wilberforce admitted to feeling uneasy with the implication that ‘man, beast, creeping thing and plant of the earth are all the lineal and direct descendants of some one individual ens,’ but he was an amateur scientist as well as a bishop, and he would never attempt to ‘test the truth of natural science by the Word of Revelation’. Darwin had assembled his evidence with ‘care and cleverness’, and Wilberforce tried to assess it with an open mind. He praised Darwin for showing that natural selection sustains and improves the health and vigour of every species, including the human race; but he did not think Darwin had established that it could cause one species to morph into another. Darwin’s discussion of pigeons was ‘delightful’, but it exposed a fatal flaw in his case for transmutation: when a domesticated pigeon escapes and mingles with its wild cousins, its offspring will ‘revert to the common type’, without initiating a new species. On top of that, the ‘geological record’ had yielded no evidence of ‘missing links’, or transitional forms to bridge the gap between species as we know them and their hypothetical common ancestors. As a man of science, therefore, Wilberforce found Darwin’s argument unconvincing; and as a human being he was glad to be spared the embarrassment of an ‘unsuspected cousinship with the mushrooms’.

Wilberforce’s review did little more than spell out some of the ‘difficulties’ discussed in The Origin of Species, but Darwin found it ‘uncommonly clever’, and admitted that it ‘makes a very telling case against me’. He was aware that Wilberforce had presented a version of his arguments at a meeting in the brand-new Museum of Natural History in Oxford, and there were reports of an altercation with T.H. Huxley, who was a friend of Darwin’s and a zealous convert to the doctrine of mutability. There is considerable doubt as to what actually happened that day in Oxford, and the classic version didn’t surface till nearly forty years later, in a memoir by Isabella Sidgwick called ‘A Grandmother’s Tales’. Sidgwick claimed to remember that Wilberforce had turned to Huxley and ‘begged to know, was it through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?’ to which Huxley retorted, with brilliant effect, that ‘he was not ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.’

Huxley may never have uttered these words, but they have become legendary, and they rankle with A.N. Wilson, whose new book is designed to cut Darwin down to size and discredit ‘Darwin-worshippers’ and their ‘new religion’. Wilson is impressed by Wilberforce’s arguments about ‘missing links’ and ‘reversion to type’, and vexed by the way Huxley’s quip has given comfort to the ‘vociferous atheists of recent decades’. He is appalled in particular by something Christopher Hitchens wrote: that Huxley ‘cleaned Wilberforce’s clock, ate his lunch, used him as a mop for the floor, and all that’. He points out (‘pace Hitchens’) that contemporary reports suggest Wilberforce wasn’t at all put out.

The passage is typical of the many triumphs Wilson chalks up for himself in this jaunty, opinionated book: that is to say, he has lifted Hitchens’s remark from a secondary source, his quotation isn’t word-perfect, and he has misconstrued it completely. Hitchens’s arch words about the clock, the lunch and the mop weren’t his take on the Oxford debate, but his recollection of school history lessons about ‘the good ship Beagle’ and the magnificent ‘set-piece’ in which Huxley gave the bishop his comeuppance and turned creationism into ‘a spent force’. ‘And all that’ is surely an echo of Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That, which anticipated Hitchens’s teacher by celebrating Darwin’s ‘memorable works’ (Tails of a Grandfather, for instance) and famous victory, won despite his being ‘denounced in every pulpit’.

Wilson’s otherwise conventional biography is littered with botched gotchas. He overlooks the ‘Historical Sketch’ and accuses Darwin of ‘failing to acknowledge intellectual debts’ and refusing to accept that ‘anyone beside himself had ever believed in evolution’. He also revives the hoary allegation that Darwin stole the idea of transmutation through natural selection from the Calcutta naturalist Edward Blyth, and then tried to cover his tracks. Wilson quotes Blyth selectively from a tendentious source, but if he had consulted the original he would have seen that far from anticipating Darwin, Blyth maintained that ‘Providence’ works to preserve the ‘original form of a species’ and to perpetuate its ‘typical qualities’. He might also have discovered that Darwin conducted an amiable correspondence with Blyth, and acknowledged him in The Origin of Species as a colleague ‘whose opinion, from his large and varied stores of knowledge, I should value more than that of almost any one’.

Wilson berates Darwin not only for trying to conceal his ‘intellectual debts’, but also for being indebted – ‘by his own confession’ – to Thomas Malthus, who as far as Wilson is concerned was no more than an advocate of ‘selfish capitalist economics’, lampooned by Dickens in the person of Scrooge, rubbing his hands in glee at the thought that starvation will help to ‘decrease the surplus population’. But Malthus was not what Wilson supposes: he criticised utopians like William Godwin for ignoring the risks of untrammelled population growth, but rather than advocating acquiescence in death by famine, he insisted that ‘sufficient yet remains to be done … to animate us to the most unremitted exertion.’ Wilson is irrepressible however: he ignores Darwin’s well-known hatred of slavery, his opposition to racism and his admiration for the freed black slave John Edmonstone, who taught him taxidermy, and claims that he spent his life beating the drum for the ‘survival of the richest’ and the supremacy of ‘white middle-class people’.

Wilson isn’t much of a scientist: at one point he muses that the invention of the steam engine depended on the discovery that water is H2O, which is bizarre both conceptually and chronologically. But as far as he is concerned Darwin wasn’t a scientist either. When he committed himself to natural selection, it seems, he ‘abandoned science’ and became a peddler of ‘ersatz religions’ and ‘theories of everything’. Darwin, in Wilson’s version, maintained that ‘aggressive competition is the guiding principle behind the universe,’ and promoted an ‘ugly’ version of human motivation which denies any possibility of ‘kindness and mutual dependency’. That is some stretch. The Origin of Species as a whole is nothing if not a hymn to the interdependence of life-forms, and it presents struggles for limited resources as a fact of untamed nature rather than any kind of moral norm.

When Wilson declares that Darwin ‘abandoned scientific theory in favour of propaganda’ it isn’t hard to guess where he is heading: Darwin’s ‘noxious ideas’ about ruthless self-interest had, we are told, ‘a direct and disastrous influence … on Hitler’ and on ‘the social programmes of the Third Reich, culminating in the Holocaust’. You do not have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Darwinist to think that natural selection will always favour populations that take care of their young, but Wilson believes that Darwin’s ‘ideology’ of egotism implies that parents will never nurture their infants; he therefore regards the possibility of love and compassion, and the existence of hospitals and social security, as proof that ‘the picture of humanity presented by Darwin was an ugly and unrealistic one.’

Wilson is more interested in human character than natural science, and his real animus against Darwin is personal. He relies extensively on a rudimentary Autobiography Darwin wrote for the entertainment of his children and grandchildren, a book which opens, Wilson says, with the claim that ‘all my recollections seem to be connected most with self’ – further evidence of ‘self-absorption’ on a preternatural scale. As a matter of fact, that remark does not occur in the Autobiography – it is from a letter to his future wife, written forty years before. In any case it sounds more like self-deprecation than proof of what Wilson calls a ‘need to prove himself, to win, and to be seen as the only player in the field’. He perseveres nevertheless in setting Darwin up as an incorrigible ‘self-mythologiser’ who couldn’t accept that he was a ‘mere mortal’, and a blatant ‘egotist’ obsessed with promoting ‘the Darwin brand’, which, we are told, cannot have been easy given ‘the basic unoriginality of his own mind’. To clinch his case, Wilson tells us that Darwin was ‘passive aggressive’, ‘not a good loser’, and suffered from ‘very low libido’.

The jacket blurb describes this as the first one-volume biography of Darwin in 25 years – a claim which overlooks quite a few brilliant and imaginative works: Annie’s Box (2001), for example, in which Randal Keynes focused on Darwin’s grief over the death of his first daughter at ten years old, and Darwin’s Island (2009) in which Steve Jones connected Darwin’s curiosity about the natural world to his delight in his family. Worst of all, it passes over Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life in Poems (2009), which is everything that Wilson’s book is not: deft, reticent, witty, scrupulous and wise.