Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist – Adrian Desmond & James Moore ****

“The full enigma of Darwin’s life has never been grasped.” In their biography of Darwin, this observation leads Desmond and Moore in two directions. One is to show that Darwin’s life really was enigmatic, that is was filled with confusion, conflict, and inconsistencies. The other is to make those enigmas less mysterious by relating them to his social and political environment. Their method fits their goal: they want to open up Darwin’s inner life by sorting through his voluminous personal writings, making use of recent volumes of his letters, manuscripts, commentaries, and memoranda. On the whole the book is a marvellous success, though its richness causes it to raise new enigmas as well as settling old ones.
What is the main enigma? It is Darwin’s ambiguous attitude towards evolution, especially his long delay in publicizing his ideas on the topic. And what is the main explanation, offered by this book? Darwin’s science drove him towards a radical and godless doctrine; but his upbringing, his wife’s faith, his Cambridge connections, and many of his scientific acquaintances, coupled with his “instinctive reverence for rank”, all forced him into secrecy.
The book uses Darwin’s “social context” as a framing device rather than a set of theories about Darwin’s life and work. It contains remarkably little analysis of its subject matter. Except for the introduction, authorial comments are thin on the ground, either in the form of moral or intellectual judgments, generalizations, or scrutiny of secondary sources. Insofar as the authors draw parallels between Darwin’s thought and political events (French uprisings, the Reform Bill, Chartism, the Vivisection Bill, the Crimean War…) they do so implicitly, by showing not by telling. Sometimes this lack of analysis is the opposite of enlightening. For example, we never get a clear explanation of why Darwin, the gentle white-supremist, could upbraid his own son about the evils of slavery. And we do not find out whether Darwin’s ill-health was primarily physical or psychological in origin.
The upside of the book’s narrative form is that it licenses the authors to explore every aspect of Darwin’s life in great detail, and to recall them in a fresh and vivid way. In this sense the book resembles Darwin himself, that “billionaire of bizarre facts.” We already know that Darwin dropped out of medical school: what this book tells us is what Darwin and his brother ate when they arrived in Edinburgh, and the stench and horror of Darwin’s first dissection. We know that Darwin disagreed with Owen: in this book we see Owen drilling with the Honourable Artillery Company, and Darwin, the closet transmutationist, breakfasting with the Owens in London. The writing helps a lot here. In this story, events move swiftly on the back of snappy prose.
Desmond and Moore reveal Darwin’s inner life indirectly, through his responses to outside events, so it is no surprise that the authors offer no summary assessment of Darwin’s character. Instead of a portrait we get a gallery of sketches: Darwin the heartbroken father, the calculating suitor; the grumpy recluse, the jolly companion; the impressionable youth, the grand old genius; the hater of Owen, the magnanimous rival of Wallace; the brave man of science, going forward alone; the timid Darwin, hanging on the approval of friends. Here are more enigmas. Desmond and Moore let them hang.
What of Darwin’s science? It is true that Desmond and Moore show (for example) Darwin developing the principle of “division of labour” by analogy with industrial workshops, and the bloody Crimean war informing his chapter on the Struggle for Existence. But the “enigma” that this book helps us to grasp is emotional and social, not intellectual. What “tortured” Darwin were not the implications of believing his theory of evolution (Lyell suffered the most from this kind of torture), but the implications of publicizing it. If this is what the authors want us to grasp then the book is an outstanding success, even if it leaves some of the interpretative work in the hands of the reader.
Review by Michael Bycroft

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