A Dialogue on Darwin

Essay Book Review

A Man of His Times - A Theory of Its Time?


History Department
Wheaton College
Wheaton, IL 60187

[From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 45 (September 1993): 191.]
©1993 by the American Scientific Affiliation

Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. New York: Warner Books, 1991.

The positivistic approach to science has had, as an underlying assumption, the total objectivity of the scientist. The truth about nature is thought to be "out there," waiting to be found, and any person  - no matter of what national, ethnic, gender, or class background - is capable of finding it. Thus, scientific research articles are written in the passive voice: "It was determined that..."; "it was discovered that..." Moreover, the time of discovery is thought to be limited by and dependent on the state of knowledge and technological inventions. Hence, for example, in the 19th century, "truths" discovered about physiology required preliminary advances in organic chemistry, and cells could not be discovered and described until microscopes had improved enough for scientists to be able to see "accurately" the structure of living organisms. Based on this positivistic philosophy, scientific biographies had a somewhat hagiographic purpose: the honoring of the scientist who "got there first."

Since Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions1 was published in 1962, however, the positivistic approach has been under attack. It is now generally acknowledged that no scientist can be totally objective, and that so-called "external" factors influence the way scientists view nature, the questions they ask about nature, the methods used to answer those questions, and the forms the answers take. While the exact meaning of "influence" is still at issue, biographies of scientists now have a different purpose. Instead of honoring the "winner" in the scientific race, biographies must now tell a much more complex story - one that describes the personal and private life of the scientist as well as its social and public context, and that then tries to relate both life and context to scientific practice.

Adrian Desmond and James Moore state in the prefatory chapter of their new biography Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist2 that it is this latter kind of biography that they purposed to write: Our Darwin sets out to be different - to pose the awkward questions, to probe interests and  motivations, to portray the scientific expert as a product of his time; to depict a man grappling with immensities in a society undergoing reform.3

The result of their efforts has been variously described as "a splendid book,4 "an extraordinary monument,5 and "a riveting tour de force."6 The extensive use of superlative phrases to characterize this book indicates the wide-spread recognition that the authors have indeed produced a new standard both for biographies about Darwin and for scientific biographies in general. The book reflects the "thick description" prescribed by Clifford Geertz7 and the "archeological digging" enjoined by Michel Foucault.8 Yet the authors maintain a narrative reminiscent of a good novel, and can carry the reader effortlessly along through the myriad details filling the 677 pages of text, in addition to 91 well selected photographs, which result from the authors' painstaking and exhaustive research, noted in 100 pages of references.

So what does the reader learn? First, the Charles Darwin portrayed by Desmond and Moore is in reality many Darwins: there are the scientific Darwin, the invalid Darwin, the son/brother/husband/father/family-man Darwin, the social and political manipulator Darwin, the "Devil's Chaplain" Darwin, the economic speculator Darwin, the "let's-keep-up-appearances-at-all-costs" Darwin, the insecure Darwin, the student Darwin, and innumerable other Darwins who surface in particular situations. The result is a composite picture of Darwin that is much more living and dynamic, much more nuanced and complex than previous biographies have produced. One begins to believe that one knows Darwin as a person: what he likes and dislikes, how he reacts in a given situation, why he thinks the way he does. In reading the book one begins to anticipate how he will behave. For example, having learned how Darwin's work and thought patterns affect his health, the reader begins to sense when tension and overwork are going to cause him to be sick again, and, sure enough, Darwin is soon back in bed. One starts to feel Darwin's discomfort and nausea on the Beagle, his excitement at exploring Copiapů and the Guasco Valley, his mental and spiritual unsettledness at seeing the people of Tierra del Fuego and trying to understand what it means to be "human."

Second, new interpretations and values are put on well-known events of Darwin's life, and less-well known incidents are given coverage and import. Three examples will illustrate this contribution of the book. First, in most biographies of Darwin, his time in Edinburgh studying medicine is depicted as a time in which young Darwin begins to emancipate himself from his family, rejects a medical career, and becomes interested in a quasi-professional approach to natural history. In this biography, however, the time in Edinburgh is portrayed as critical both intellectually and psychologically for Darwin, for he is introduced through the Plinian Society to radical views, including ideas about the materialistic basis of mind, and observes what happens to those who do not follow the "party line." The Plinian Society thus challenges and warns Darwin: it challenges him with non-orthodox views; it warns him that heterodoxy is dangerous. Desmond and Moore use these experiences in Edinburgh as the basis for explaining Darwin's later hesitancy to publish his new theory, and they interpret actions and comments of the older Darwin in light of these lessons supposedly learned as a young man. Edinburgh thus becomes much more important in explaining Darwin's later ideas and behavior than it has been in earlier biographies.

A second example of reinterpretation of events concerns Darwin's voyage on the Beagle. Most people who know anything about Darwin's trip know about the Galapogos Islands and his experiences with turtles and finches, and his exploration of this region is considered to be seminal for the development of his evolutionary views. Thus, Peter Brent's biography, Charles Darwin: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity,9 devotes the whole of chapter 7 to Darwin's findings on this archipelago. On the other hand, little is known or reported about Darwin's experience with the Fuegians of Tierra del Fuego. Brent's work describes the encounters with these people, but the thrust of his presentation is that these exchanges with "natives" were interesting "sightseeing" episodes, but of no real importance to his work in natural history. Desmond and Moore, however, depict these encounters as being critical to the development of Darwin's theories, for they caused him to see how narrow the gap was between pongids and humans - if there was a gap at all. They also argue that the visit to the Galapogos Islands was not important for Darwin at the time, but only in retrospect. Darwin is portrayed as not really appreciating what he saw, not really understanding what he was told about the animals on the islands, and not really taking much care in his collecting. Hence Desmond and Moore ask the reader to reevaluate these episodes and their importance to Darwin's theorizing.

A final example illustrating the revised interpretation of Darwinian ideas or activities concerns the stress Darwin placed on animal breeding and sexual selection. Far from being a pragmatic way of dealing with theoretical questions, this emphasis, according to Desmond and Moore, arose largely from his own worries regarding the intermarriages in his own family and the inferior health that he saw in his children. Charles Darwin married his cousin, Emma Wedgewood, and there had been earlier cases of "interbreeding" between the Darwin and Wedgewood families. As Darwin worked on his theory, he also struggled with the apparent lack of "selective fit" in his own children. Eugenics (a "science" first developed by his cousin Francis Galton) not only illustrated for him the truths of his theory, but explained the personal tragedies and adversities faced by the Darwin-Wedgewood clans, and it was this personal aspect that was predominate, according to these authors. Challenging the reader to comprehend that the scientist Darwin did not leave personal issues aside when doing his work, Desmond and Moore produce a very human scientist whose personal concerns and theoretical concerns were never that far apart.

Admirable, fascinating, and enlightening as this book is, the authors' reconstruction of the life of Darwin raises some interesting and profound questions, however. First, there is the question about the accuracy of the picture of Darwin we see. Do we know Charles Darwin as he actually lived and thought and felt, or do we know the Darwin that Desmond and Moore want us to know and therefore have constructed for us? If earlier biographies provided us with a 2-dimensional straw man Darwin, is it not possible that all Desmond and Moore have given us is a 3-dimensional straw man - but a straw man nevertheless? I raise the question of accuracy not to impute the authors' integrity, but to point out firstly the dilemma of selection facing Darwin scholars at present as they sift through the massive Darwinian corpus. For instance, it is a great advantage that Darwin's correspondence is currently being published; the problem is that there are already seven volumes and yet the correspondence only goes up to 1859,10 i.e., just prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species. His notebooks, journals, and diaries are likewise detailed and lengthy. How does one decide which comments to privilege, which events to emphasize, which relationships to prioritize? Scholars/biographers must have some filter, some a priori set of beliefs that allow them to organize the data in a particular way. In this case, it means that we have one picture of Darwin, but it is an interpretative portrait, not a dispassionate or objective photograph. In spite of the superlatives used to describe this biography, it is not the definitive biography (and the authors would be the first to agree that it is not), for selection and presentation require the perspective of an artist, and different artists see - and help us to see - situations differently. Therefore a "definitive" biography will not be forthcoming.

It is vital, though, that the reader understand, first, that choices were made and, second, that they were made for some reason. If the scholar has a Herculean task to sort through the massive piles of documents, the consumer of the resulting scholarship has an impossible one to know if a proper selection has been made. Therefore the reader must take a certain amount on faith. But if s/he is to do that, it would be wise to know the reasons for the scholar's choices, and in this case the choice is determined by the authors' historiography. That historiographical perspective may be evident to trained historians of science, but it probably is not to the general, educated readers. As a result, the latter may find themselves accepting the implied conclusions derived from the authors' implicit interpretative stance, but had the perspective been made explicit, the readers would have been more critical and skeptical of the inferences.

Desmond and Moore operate within the historiographical tradition called sociology of knowledge. In its most basic form, this position simply claims that scientific "facts" and theories are not hermetically sealed from social, cultural, political, economic, philosophical, and/or religious events and theories. In its most extreme form, it asserts that external factors, not the reality of nature, determine the content and expression of science. In other words, scientific theories are dependent on, and the result of, the social, cultural, political, etc. context. Desmond's earlier works11 have placed him very close to this latter form, whereas Moore's work12 has been a little more centrist, but still more toward this latter position.

Locating Desmond and Moore in terms of their historiography helps to explain why at times their biography of Darwin seems to tell two stories: one about Darwin and one about England. The two story lines are juxtaposed, sometimes side by side, sometimes interwoven, but always near to each other. The activities of the atheists Richard Carlile and Robert Taylor (whose sobriquet "The Devil's Chaplain" made a lasting impression on Darwin) during Darwin's Cambridge years are laid alongside his study of Paley's Natural Theology; the battles of the Crimean War are described just as Darwin is portrayed as wrestling with the idea of plant seeds trying to establish "beachheads" on islands they are "invading;" debate over the Whig-sponsored Poor Laws coincides with Darwin's theorizing over competition and natural selection. The reader is meant to deduce that the social events in some way influenced Darwin's thinking - if not consciously, at least subconsciously; if not immediately, at least ultimately.

The issue is what the nature of that influence is exactly. Do events determine the theory? Do they determine the expression of the theory? Or is determine too strong a word to employ? Do they merely suggest ways in which nature may be seen to operate and explained? Desmond and Moore do not tell us here what they believe to be the nature of that influence, but their earlier works indicate that they would most likely advocate either the first or second position, and more probably the former. However, there are major philosophical and theological differences between these two answers.

In terms of the philosophy of science, the important issue of realism is raised by these views. Realism holds that nature and objects and phenomena of nature exist and act independently of our knowledge of them. Moreover, realists would argue that the reality of the natural world somehow limits what can and must be explained. Scientists seek to describe actual occurrences in nature, and so, for instance, they would not seek to develop theories about bodies falling upwards or butterflies swimming. This is not to say that they would insist that every theory really describes reality, but it is to argue that every theory is an attempt to really describe real nature.

The more extreme position in the sociology of knowledge - the one that would say that events determine the theory - leads to an anti-realist position, for scientists see only what social events program them to see. While nature may be real, theories describing it can not be said to be real explanations since they are determined by historical contingencies and not by natural phenomena. Moreover, the evaluation of theories ultimately boils down to judgments about social, political, economic, and/or religious philosophies, not to verdicts based on how closely a theory describes or predicts natural phenomena. If this is the position of Desmond and Moore, then are they not forced, along with Karl Marx, to conclude that evolution by natural selection is just a bourgeois, Whig, capitalistic, Victorian theory of nature? And how is that conclusion ultimately different from the position of creation scientists who claim that Darwin's theory is just an outgrowth of a secular, materialistic world view? In both cases, nature does not do the informing; society does.

Moreover, if this historiographical method is valid in the history of science, it is also valid in the history of theology. Just as society determines the form and content of science, so it determines the form and content of theology. God may exist, but truth claims about his nature and activity are as invalid as truth claims in science about natural objects and events. Theology becomes nothing more than a socially-shaped statement of what we believe about God; it is not limited or shaped by what God says about himself.

And if we can use this historiographical approach in history of science and history of theology, can we not also use it when examining a historical biography? What social factors determined what Desmond and Moore could see? What political events influenced which data they selected from the notebooks, journals, and diaries? What economic debates affected the way in which they contextualized the events of Darwin's work? What philosophic and religious commitments biased their reconstruction of Darwin's life? Would an economically conservative, socially moderate, evangelical Christian or a nationalistic, militant, fundamentalist Irani Shi'ite select the same data, see the same relationships, draw the same conclusions? If the answer to this last question is "No, they would not," then what is the purpose of scholarship, and what are the criteria for judging historical or scientific opinions? Ultimately, it seems to me, this extreme sociology of knowledge position leads to an intellectual and religious skepticism and angst, which makes the life of the mind and the life of faith futile.

However, if what Desmond and Moore are trying to do is to demonstrate how the form of scientific theories (or historical explanations) may be inspired by externalities, then their method is much more fruitful and illuminating for Christian scholars. Such an approach requires that we acknowledge the tension between our apprehension of reality and our attempts to define, describe, and explain it. That is true whether the reality be nature or God, natural or spiritual. This historiographical method claims that scientific positivism is dead, and Christians can be heartened by its demise. The framing of scientific explanations, while originating with our experience of nature, nevertheless is always partial, always biased, always influenced by a particular historical context, and constantly requiring reformulation.

But we also need to see that theological positivism must also be put aside. Our theological creeds, themselves originating with our experiences of God and his revelations of himself, are likewise incomplete, prejudiced, historically contingent, and ever in need of reexamination. In this respect, Desmond and Moore's book reminds us that if we are to understand either a scientific theory or a creedal statement, we must understand the historical context in which it was articulated. It calls us to examine carefully traditional ideas about the importance of particular events or the nature of specific influences in the development of a scientific concept or the exposition of a theological doctrine. Finally, it admonishes us to remember that the scientist and the theologian are not immune to the biases, presuppositions, and events of the societies in which they live. Neither scientific theory nor theological pronouncement should be accepted or rejected without carefully examining the social and historical context in which it was first articulated. Only then will we understand the meaning behind the form.

Thus Darwin serves us as a source book for better understanding the life of Charles Darwin, as a model of how the history of science - and the history of theology - should be done, as a warning against naive social determinism, and as a reminder that our knowledge of both nature and God will always be limited and shaped by personal and historical forces. For these reasons, it is a remarkable book and one that merits close and continued study.



1 Thomas S. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962.

2 Adrian Desmond and James Moore. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. New York: Warner Books, 1991.

3 Desmond and Moore. Darwin. p. xviii.

4 Mark Noll. "Science, Religion, and a New Biography of Charles Darwin," The Christian Century 109 (August 26, 1992): 776.

5 John Hedley Brooke, "Book Review," British Journal for the History of Science 25 (December 1992): 480-482.

6 London Sunday Times, September 29, 1991:7.

7 Clifford Geertz. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1973.

8 Michel Foucault. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

9 Peter Brent. Charles Darwin: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.

10 The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vols. 1-7, ed. Frederick Burkhardt et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985-1991.

11 Cf. Adrian J. Desmond, "Designing the Dinosaur: Richard Owen's Response to Robert Edmond Grant," Isis 70 (1979):224-234; The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs (London: Blond and Briggs, 1975); The Ape's Reflexion (London: Blond and Briggs, 1979); Archetypes and Ancestors (London: Blond and Briggs, 1982); The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

12 Cf. James Moore, Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); History, Humanity, and Evolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).