The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 38 The Monkey, The Man, Then the Fun: Charles Darwin (Part II)

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The Monkey, The Man, Then the Fun: Charles Darwin Part II

It’s 1858 and Charles Darwin is facing the gravest professional crisis of his career. In his hand is an enthusiastic letter from Alfred Russell Wallace, a collector of natural curiosities and amateur scientist who sent to Darwin an essay that formulates the major components of evolutionary theory couched in easy and elegant prose. Darwin had taken twenty years to carefully and privately assemble his data on evolutionary theory, refusing to publish for fear that all of his points weren’t yet ironclad enough to sustain the inevitable scorn and scrutiny of the religious and scientific establishments, and now, somebody else had beaten him to the punch.

His choices were either to pretend he never received the letter and publish his own findings, or to take the gentlemanly road, forward the essay on to Charles Lyell, the geologist best in a position to publish and promote the work, and surrender forever his claim to primacy with evolution. In a move that was as fundamentally decent as it must have been personally agonizing, Darwin did the right thing. He forwarded the essay and resigned himself to dumping two decades of work and thought onto the heap of Ideas Expressed Too Late.

CharlesDarwin2Fortunately, Lyell would have none of it and arranged for one of Darwin’s unpublished manuscripts on evolution to be read out alongside Wallace’s essay at the next Linnean Society meeting. Theoretically, that should have made everybody happy. It gave Darwin priority while still affording Wallace’s essay a distinguished public reading that was beyond anything that he could have hoped for given his relative obscurity. There was no time to okay the plan with Wallace, who was halfway around the world at the time, so Lyell and Darwin’s botanical friend Joseph Dalton Hooker pushed the motion through without Wallace’s approval, and evolution was finally read into the record with astonishingly little fuss or reaction.

Wallace, it turned out, was just as much the gentleman as Darwin and took the co-presentation in stride. If he was devastated at losing priority over the discovery he independently arrived at, he never showed it, and was never anything but supportive and warm in his relations with Darwin. Meanwhile, the cat having been thrust from the bag, Darwin had no reason not to begin work on his grand evolutionary book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Published in 1859, the book was a hit from the first. It presented the grinding violence of nature in all its red majesty, mauling the unfit and elevating the temporarily well-adapted with statistical ferocity until new species emerged to fill their niche as long as geology and lack of competition would let them. For this process, God was unnecessary. He did not craft each species with loving attention and then gently place them in their own special spot, never to change. Death and scarcity ruled the world, and paradoxically created beauty and splendor in their wake.

Even though he went out of his way to not mention man’s place in this order, the religious establishment—sensing the danger—condemned the work, recognizing that the mutability of species, the grisliness of Darwin’s worldview, spoke out against any conception of God as loving and wise. Darwin left the defense of his theories largely to his “bulldog,” the almost distressingly handsome and mercurially brilliant Thomas Henry Huxley, while he retired to his study of orchids, focusing on the evolutionary underpinnings of their subtle variations and interpreting the development of their anti-self-pollination mechanisms as indicative of the importance of sexual reproduction.

Meanwhile, he was grappling with the sickness that would render him a virtual invalid by his mid-fifties. After returning to England, Darwin was never entirely well, but beginning in the 1850s and stretching through to his death, good health was the exception. We still don’t know exactly what Darwin suffered from, but the symptoms are ghastly enough: chronic vomiting, headaches, eczema, and weakness plagued him at the slightest exertion, exacerbated by the panoply of Victorian medicines and treatments to which he subjected himself. The years 1862 to 1864 were spent in deep isolation as Darwin was too ill to leave the house or even speak with friends for more than half an hour. His wife Emma attended him, read him the novels about beautiful heroines and mixed-up identities that he shamelessly adored, and helped him manage his massive correspondence, while his daughter Henrietta, also possessed of a chronically ill constitution, worked as the primary editor on many of his post-Origin works.

The absolute concentration he gave to his work made him miserable physically, but not working made him more wretched still, so he ploughed on, in spite of illness and the advice of all his doctors, carrying out massive experiments in plant hybridization and animal breeding to try and get at the stuff of variation. His eventual theory, pangenesis, was a generally maligned and instantly forgotten hereditary theory that nonetheless struck amazingly close to the truth in hypothesizing that each individual is comprised of a mixture of traits from the father and mother carried by tiny particles created by different parts of the body (“gemmules” in Darwin’s terminology) that are capable of being subsumed in one generation, only to return in subsequent ones. The physical mechanism was a shot in the dark that subsequent experiments showed to be roundly incorrect, but the basic idea, of a physical substance that carries traits of the two parents, whose mixing involves a subsuming of certain traits that can reappear in later generations, has a palpable flavor of dominant and recessive allele heredity that had to wait until the rediscovery of Mendel for its proper due.

The book that announced pangenesis, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), was a subtle flop quickly overshadowed by The Descent of Man (1871), the volume in which Darwin finally drew out the implications of evolutionary theory for humanity’s development. The way had been prepared by Huxley and several Victorian archaeologists whose findings pushed back the origins of man into a brutish era of savagery that handily predated the Biblical chronology. This book saw Darwin tracing mankind’s most cherished attributes back into the animal kingdom, including our predilection for creating religions from our own fear and awe. He even delved into the mysteries of sexual selection and how those might shape the early development of man, in terms of frank honesty that shocked and disturbed his usually agreeable publisher. The book easily outsold Origin of the Species, and his next volume, a now largely forgotten work about the commonalities in facial expression and body language between animals and humans, with its telling illustrations of extreme grimaces, the glares of the insane, and wailing infants, sold better still.

With that, Darwin had said what he meant to say. Long tired of the recurring process of editing Origin for new editions, and having spoken his full mind about the animal origins and propensities of humanity, he plunged back into the type of work he loved most, puttering around with botanical investigations from the warm comfort of his backyard hothouse, and a final look at the life and development of earthworms that had intrigued him his whole life. This is my favorite aspect of Darwin, his capacity to lose himself in the minute and ordinary, devoting himself to sussing out the minutiae of a genus’s development. He did this partly out of the desire to contribute more substantive examples to the theory of evolution, but mainly out of personal delight about how, even in the tiniest forms of life, change and struggle and triumph can be found written in each new adaptation.

It’s a story of Darwin versus the Machine, with Charles and his family carrying out experiments with thread and tin in their makeshift greenhouse that competed against the increasingly organized and professional lab work of the continent. Gentleman scholar ingenuity versus modern instrumentation. Against long odds, Darwin carried off a number of victories, including experiments that established a substance at the tip of roots that promotes directional root growth, what we now know to be the plant hormone auxin, but which was fiercely attacked by the laboratory scientists as the false discovery of a hopeless amateur.

The public, though not markedly interested in his technical volumes on orchids or insectivorous plants, followed him in the end. His last book, on earthworms, sold in higher quantities than Origin, Descent, or Expressions. His enthusiasm for the heroism of the simplest organisms spoke to all the things the British public liked best about itself: curiosity tempered by humility, domesticity stiffened by rigor, and comfort entwined with constant striving. Darwin was the nation’s eternally fascinated child, tugging at its hems and demanding with hushed awe that they look, really look, at the magnificence of the things all around them, and there was something enchanting about following him through his enthusiasms even if the cost was the loving God and placid Earth they once knew.

Charles Darwin died on April 19, 1882, his wishes to be simply buried instantly overcome by a scientific community that wanted to see him placed in a spot of eternal veneration, buried in Westminster Abbey, near the hallowed remains of Isaac Newton.


Further Reading

Darwin’s Autobiography, written for his family but published five years after his death, is a fascinating document in the history of science and needs to be read by basically everybody. For an outside biography, Janet Browne’s two-volume work, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995) and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (2002) is a beautifully written and exhaustively researched account of the man and evolutionary theory generally. The first volume has a curious habit of throwing editorial shade via snarky adverbs that gets to be wearying, but it’s still massively worth it, especially considering the rash of Darwin biographies, like Desmond and Moore’s Darwin: The Life of a Tortured Evolutionist (1994) which try to drain Darwin of scientific agency in step with the academic fad of the day.


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