The Ascent of a Man: How Robert Darwin’s Diffuse Son Became Charles Darwin
Nature is a meanness made tolerable by grandeur. The apparent tranquility of the garden I am looking out over is a gloss on constant, muted carnage. Plants engaged in vicious contests of root and leaf to steal nutrients and sunlight. Insects savaging those plants, and each other. Our sweet laying hens scratching the ground in search of bugs and worms to devour whole and that dear cat snoozing in a patch of light, purring away the hours, dreaming dreams of bird murder.
The fundamental violence of the natural order, the imperative to consume or perish, is second nature to us now, so much so that it’s difficult to even imagine nature as an early nineteenth-century European conceived of it. The watchword of the Georgian Brit was design, a world where everything delightfully fit its place and purpose thanks to the beneficent plan of the deity. Species are as they are because that’s precisely where they were meant to be. Looking out at a raptor tearing a mother bird away from her nest of doomed chicks, a pre-Victorian could muse, “Ah, ‘twas ever so. God be praised,” and affably go about his business trying to run the world.
And that’s where the trouble came. The expeditions sent out by the empire (to map new territories as a prelude to economically dominating them) kept turning up incongruous things about this planet. Crateloads of curiosities accumulated in British ports and museums, a festival of ill-fitting pieces that needed a master hand to reassemble into an integrated, paradigm-exploding whole. The man who managed that was a pleasant, directionless, well-situated, sporting son of an unorthodox but entirely respectable family of whom nothing terribly much was expected: Charles Darwin (1809-1882).
The first twenty-two years of his life were something of a muddle, highlighted here and there by tantalizing and short-lived hints of what might be. Young Charles Darwin had no idea what he wanted to do with himself and didn’t particularly care so long as he was free to shoot partridges, gorge himself, and collect beetles. He left the study of medicine, unable to stomach the blood and torment of the operating theater and decided he might as well study to become a preacher, not because of any deep and abiding love of God, but more because the lifestyle of a country parson seemed pleasant and not particularly demanding.
He went to Christ’s College in Cambridge and spent most of his time resolutely not studying theology. Instead, he rambled the countryside hunting for rare insects and lounged about his room reading about developments in hunting gun technology while waiting for the new season to commence. His easy manners and love of natural collection made him a favorite of the scientific faculty, including geologist Adam Sedgwick and, crucially, botanist John Henslow.
It was Henslow who changed Darwin’s life, and with it, the course of European thought, almost on a whim. In spite of his lack of strong religious feeling, Darwin was willing to carry on with his family’s plan of establishing him in the clergy when, from positively nowhere, Henslow forwarded to him an invitation to join the crew of the Beagle as they circumnavigated the globe on a grand three-year surveying expedition. The captain of the voyage, Robert FitzRoy, had read accounts of the madness that often descended upon those charged with long stretches of command at sea and wanted a gentlemanly friend who would keep him on an even mental keel, a person he could talk to as an equal at the end of the day.
FitzRoy wanted a buddy, somebody of good family who also had an interest in natural history. This request found its way to Henslow’s desk at Cambridge. Reflecting on Darwin’s affability, mania for natural collection, and handiness with firearms, he could think of no better match. Darwin’s father initially refused his permission, worried about the reliability of ocean travel in the early nineteenth century and about Darwin getting deflected yet again from a carefully chosen career path, but Charles wore him down in the end. From 1831 to 1836, unpromising and diffuse Charlie Darwin molded himself into a naturalist of world caliber and a theorist of unsurpassed insight. He suffered through five years of constant and paralyzing seasickness in order to tramp through untouched jungles, climb uncharted mountains, and collect the specimens that would explode polite society’s understanding of the natural world.
His first insights were geological and, in fact, Darwin would start by making his name as a geological observer, not a biological theorist. Inspired by the gradualist geology of Charles Lyell, he looked for signs of the earth’s crust pushing itself upward and received dramatic confirmation when an earthquake at Valdivia raised the coastline a full eight feet at one blow. Likewise, his investigation of coral reefs showed signs of the earth subsuming, and of the coral growing upwards to compensate. The ground itself could change, dramatically at times, and life seemed to respond.
At the Galapagos Islands, Darwin was presented with a startling puzzle whose full dimensions and repercussions he did not at first realize. Happily chowing down on the local tortoises, he collected samples of wildlife without fully documenting which island produced which species, an oversight he would come to regret later when he realized that the islands produced some of his strongest possible evidence for the adaptation of species to the exigencies of their particular environment.
In his travels, he also experienced a wide spectrum of human behavior, observing the habits of native tribes as of yet not entirely ruined by missionary activity, riding through the wilderness with gun-slinging gauchos, meeting South American dictators, and recoiling in horror at the pervasiveness of slavery. Civilization, he came to realize, was a slim thing.
Finally arriving back at home two years after his expected return date, he was faced with the agonizing question of what to do with himself. Every instinct honed over the last half decade told him that science, the close observation of the vagaries of nature, was his destiny, but at the time natural science was a primarily gentlemanly occupation with no expectation of a livable salary. His father came to the rescue, relieving him of his promise to become a clergyman and settling on him a steady income that would allow him to naturalize without the need to find an actual paying position. For the rest of his life, Darwin had sufficient resources to do more or less whatever he wanted to do, and what he wanted to do was nothing less than solve nature.
Rummaging through his specimens and notes, the confluence of geological change and localized species variation suggested to him a deeper principle. Studying more deeply the insights of embryology, he found structural commonalities that were preserved, vestigial organs that served seemingly no purpose, and a startling array of minute variations, all of which pointed to something far messier than the design fantasies of Georgian and regency belief. What was lacking, though, was a mechanism. What drove the transmutation of species, pushing development along until eventually two creatures were so dissimilar they could no longer reproduce?
The works of Thomas Malthus provided the answer. His speculations about human societies in competition for resources, their populations kept in check by disease and war, carried an obvious parallel with the realities uncovered by Darwin aboard the Beagle. When local geology changes, it brings with it a new distribution of resources, a new clamber to determine which, in this changed environment, are best able to harvest those resources. Much as a pigeon breeder selects specimens for traits that he likes, so will the rule of limited resources select the species which are most efficient at collecting and utilizing those resources, while the rest hurtle deathwards to extinction.
Darwin’s first book, an account of his travels on the Beagle, was a bestseller of 1839, but just as he was working up the nerve to publish his thoughts on evolution, out came Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, an evolutionary account of the world tailored to a popular audience that sold massively well but also brought down on its author Robert Chambers a cacophony of criticism so ugly that Darwin resolved to keep his much more data-based theories well under his hat for the foreseeable future. He needed to establish himself as a serious scientist of impeccable rigor if he was ever going to have a thought of publishing his cherished hypothesis.
He did what anybody would do in the circumstances. He studied barnacles for eight years. It established a pattern that Darwin would return to time and again—a flurry of theoretical work giving way to intense concentration on a particular species (the more seemingly unremarkable the better) that interested him and that he thought would shed detailed light on some particular aspect of the evolutionary process. The same thing occurred with his study of orchids after the publication of Origin of Species and his studies of insectivorous and climbing plants and earthworms after Descent of Man. In studying barnacles, Darwin established a massive and detailed case study of how sexual reproduction evolved from a baseline hermaphroditic state, allowing for greater variability which could then become the stuff of natural selection. Far from being the obtuse punchline that many consider it today, Darwin’s barnacle studies gave him a solid reputation for detailed observation and crucial insights into the adaptive importance of sex that would massively inform his later work.
Barnacles behind him, it was time to get down to the matter of evolution. He used his far-flung network of correspondence to gather information about artificial selection and natural variation. Like Albertus Magnus, he sought the opinions not only of scientific experts, but of gardeners and pigeon fanciers and generally anybody whose work brought them up against the daily facts of nature’s extensive malleability. He had mountains of data and was slowly probing his scientific friends for their thoughts on his theory, resolving to write up his results at last, perhaps, some day, when his hand was forced in 1858 by a bombshell from the Dutch East Indies.
It was an article by a relative newcomer named Alfred Russell Wallace, spelling out his new theory about how species arise from favorable variations selected under the intense pressure of natural competition. It was evolution, discovered independently and written up beautifully by somebody else. Darwin could not, in good conscience, publish his theories now without looking like a Johnny-come-lately. He forwarded the article to Lyell and resigned himself to give up evolution entirely to Wallace.
Darwinism was seemingly over before it began.
OH NO! What WILL our plucky middle-aged naturalist do? Will ambition trump honor?! Find out here as The Cartoon History of Humanism presents the life and work of Charles Darwin, Part II!!