In my strictly rationed free time, I liked to visit Natural History Museums, and it being Darwin Year and all, I have in the last month or so visited two Darwin-themed exhibits. [I do realise that the preceding statement may be one of the least surprising revelations that has ever been divulged in the long history of this blog.] I feel that I am starting to get a general feeling for the man, and what drove him. One thing that I find interesting is how he never intended to revolutionize biology, and paradoxically why that made him the perfect man to do so.
The Unwilling Revolutionary
Darwin was very much an unwilling revolutionary. His family, the Darwin-Wedgewood lineage, were established, but not aristocratic; they were generally relatively traditional, but also generally Liberal, and had a history of being religiously non-conformist and strongly anti-slavery. Darwin was cut from exactly the same mould; a mainstream, respectable, moderate, left wing 19th Century man.
After spending his formative years meandering around somewhat, Darwin decided on becoming a Naturalist, which was fixed when he took the position on the Beagle. From his time at Cambridge Darwin had already got to know many respected professors and collectors, such as John Stevens Henslow (who founded the University Botanic Gardens) and big-name geologist Adam Sedgwick; it was via the former that he was offered the position on the Beagle. From reading his correspondence, you can see a life plan forming in his head: put together a collection, keep up a correspondence with various learned men, publish some papers, join various Scientific Societies, live in a nice house, get old and hang around with academics drinking whiskey and smoking a pipe.
Darwin was, in other words, very much Mr Establishment. He was always polite and friendly, and (with the exception of on the subject of slavery) would rarely argue in a confrontational way (in later years he very much relied on people such as Thomas Huxley to make forcefully arguments in person). He was, in short, exactly the wrong person to come up with a controversial theory that would overturn his subject and shock polite society.
Of course, this is exactly what happened. On his voyage Darwin experienced first hand many facts that clearly indicated to him that species evolve over time: he noticed that the line between Species and Varieties was blurred, and that species on islands tended to be subtly different from species on the mainland. Critically, he noticed that the further the island was from the mainland, and the less susceptible to being blown across sea the species was, the greater the divergence. Clearly, the best explanation here was that populations that were separated diverged through time, creating new species (as opposed to the species being created separately). When Darwin got back, he looked more carefully into this hypothesis, studying animal breeding, and looking at comparative anatomy, embryology, and it all said the same thing: species evolve over time.
Now if Darwin had been the first person to suggest this at all, it wouldn’t really have been a massive problem. Yes, it would have contradicted traditional religious teaching, which Darwin was always hesitant about, but he had already published work about how mountains and sea-beds rise and fall on time-scales far longer than the age of the earth. A bigger problem was that there WERE people who suggested species change over time: Transmutationists.
Many works had origin in the first half of that 19th Century that hypothesised fanciful accounts of species changing from one to the other. Principal among these was the works of Robert Chambers, which had been dismissed as worthless speculation by many of the Natural Histories of the day. These people were outsiders, controversial, the idle thoughts of mavericks. To be one of those was very much not in Darwin’s life plan.
As we all know, Darwin sat on his ideas. He showed them to his wife, and then to a few close friends, some of whom were disappointed in him, but most of whom came around eventually. For over 20 years he worked away, examining specimens, writing letters and reading papers, listening to every objection his friends could put forward, and wherever he could collecting hard data to answer them. His work was to be published on the event of his death.
Publish And Be Damned
We also all know that Darwin was forced to publish his work when another naturalism, Alfred Wallace, independently developed a the theory of evolution very similar to his own, while collecting samples in South East Asia. Darwin’s first response was to let the newcomer claim the theory, but his friends convinced him that he had to publish now. The work was ready, as ready as it would ever be.
Darwin put together the best evidence he could, and his and Wallace published back-to-back; On The Origin of Species followed shortly after. The surprising thing was that Darwin’s expected response never came: The Origin was not called a ‘idle speculation’. It was recognised as what it was, a well written and very carefully put together argument that ensured it backed up every statement it made, and made no more statements than what were justified by the evidence. It sold out nearly instantly, and has never been out of print since.
I do not doubt that largest reason for this positive response to Darwin’s theory was that it WAS a meticulously empirical and restrained piece of work. Darwin was not one prone to idle speculation; the fact that he was the not kind of person who would like to be a transmutationist proved to make him the perfect transmutationist, keeping him strongly grounded to evidence-based thinking.
However, another reason was that, by 1859, Darwin had achieved his life plan. In the previous 20 years he had become a Fellow of the Royal Society, a famous fossil collector, a highly respected geologist, a knowledgeable biologist, a widely read travel writer and an acclaimed pigeon breeder. He had been the first person to show how extensively mountains rise and fall, discovered how coral atolls form and described an impressive number of new species. He had become Mr Establishment, exactly the man he wanted to be. And when he said “we evolved from apes”, everyone knew that this wasn’t the ramblings of a maverick, it was the carefully considered opinion of a very knowledgeable man.
The Right Person for the Job
It is something I often observe that we got very lucky with Darwin. Evolution was going to be discovered at some point, and there was always the risk of it could have been discovered by someone more speculative, more maverick, less Establishment than Darwin. Obviously, chances are that eventually it would be accepted by scientists either way, but Darwin’s theory could well have been written off for a long time as the fanciful twitterings of a romantic, like those of Robert Chambers, if Darwin had not been the one to propose it.
Finally, while I was in the Oxford University Museum’s exhibition ‘In His Own Words’, I read an extract from a small book that Darwin wrote for his family. It isn’t hugely relevant to the subject of this blog, but it sums up Darwin’s continual surprise at the success of his work:
With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that thus I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.