A Dialogue on Darwin


A Commentary on Darwin

David N. Livingstone

The Queen's University of Belfast"
School of Geosciences
Belfast BT7 1NN Northern Ireland

[From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 46 (June1994): 123.]
©1994 by the American Scientific Affiliation

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Adrian Desmond and Jim Moore's Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (Warner Books, New York, 1991) is a monumental achievement. And reviewers have not been sparing in their praise. Variously described as "astounding" (by Anthony Burgess in the Observer), "exhilarating" (by Melvyn Bragg), "definitive" (by Ruth Rendell), "a riveting tour de force" (in the Sunday Times) "majestic" (in the Independent), "enthralling" (in the TLS), "powerfully evocative" (in the New Scientist), and "lavishly informative" (in the Financial Times), Darwin - I suspect - is forcing its current reviewers to resort to Roget's Thesaurus to find fresh phrases through which to express their admiration. In the face of such adjectival exuberance it is frankly hard to know what to say.

Conceived on a grand scale, the book's attention to detail is truly remarkable. Notwithstanding an awesome command of both the Darwin corpus and its secondary literature, it reaches beyond synthesis to persistently challenge standard interpretations. Painstaking interrogation of historical sources is concealed beneath the tangy richness of a style that carries the narrative along with seeming effortlessness.

Here is thick description of such an order that it seems to engage not only our visual and auditory senses, but our olfactory and tactile ones as well: in Darwin we enter a world not just of ideas, but of touch and taste and smell as we travel with the Beagle to the sticky tropics, sit with Darwin at the bedside of his dying daughter, peer over his shoulder as he experiments with seeds in salt water, gaze goggle-eyed at the fetid charnel-house Darwin's home becomes as he slaughters pigeons to measure their skeletons, and shiver with him as he takes the ice-cold water-cure douches prescribed by Dr. James Gully. Such details, moreover, are not incidental to the story that Desmond and Moore have to tell, not mere color added to spice up the science; they are intrinsic to the evocation of a flesh-and-blood Darwin finally rescued from the Platonic realm of a disengaged history of scientific ideas.

Both by virtue of their own hermeneutic skills, and by drawing on the efforts of numerous other recent surveyors, Desmond and Moore have succeeded in substantially redrafting Darwinian cartography. Allow me to mention a few of the newer landmarks that appear on the horizon, and a few older ones that are here brought more sharply into focus.

The originality of the significance they attach to Darwin's early exposure to the seditious science of the Edinburgh radicals at the Plinian society is attested to by the comparative absence of secondary sources for these years compared with the abundance of material for Darwin's later life. The panoramic configurations of the Beagle voyage have also been significantly altered by the relative repositioning of a variety of "key" episodes. The Galapagos Islands recede; Tierra del Fuego approaches closer to center stage. The contemporary import of the Galapagos finches is quietly demythologised to a couple of paragraphs, while the wretched Fuegians are shown to have aroused in Darwin heretical suspicions about the dignity of the human species. Such speculations on the links between savagery and civilization - between barbarians and Babbages - amply reveal how central the question of human origins was to Darwin's entire project, a view confirmed in Darwin's 1830s reflections on the parallels between racial rivalry and inter-specific struggle. The comfortable territorial boundary between Darwinism and social Darwinism has simply been erased.

Alongside these cognitive insights, Desmond and Moore's account of the Beagle voyage confirm that, at this stage, Darwin's forté was clearly geology. But in one respect at least he shared the tastes of the zoologists. I mean this quite literally, for zoologists have been known to indulge in some strange gastronomic pleasures. Members of the Zoological Society, for instance, have demolished such delicacies as zebra, yak and canned rattlesnake, and were in the habit of eating whatever had recently died in the Zoological Gardens. Maybe this is why Darwin literally got his teeth into the species question: on the Beagle voyage he variously consumed foetal puma, tortoises, and, embarrassingly, the very first "petise" rhea he encountered.

As for Darwin himself, what we are presented with is anything but the monochrome greybeard who is featured on the book's dustjacket. Instead we encounter a host of different Darwins: the heartbroken father in bereavement; the insecure, homely invalid unnerved outside his ecological niche at Downe, living the double life of an outwardly respectable "squarson" and an inwardly materialistic "devil's chaplain"; the political schemer egging on his X Club devotees to outmaneuver critics, to dispense judgement on traitors to his cause, and to ensure the survival of his survival theory; the tireless experimenter making every conceivable sexual combination to test cross-fertilization in plants or turning his house into a knacker's yard to fix skeletal dimensions; the shrewd speculator who pours tens of thousands of pounds into railway shares and land investments; the champion of hybrid vigor spooked by the close intermarriage and inbreeding in his own family.

No less variegated are the multitude of uses to which Darwin's theories could be put by partisan enthusiasts. Some, like Harriet Martineau, found them subversive of both revealed and natural religion; others, like Charles Kingsley, caught glimpses of a noble conception of divinity lurking beneath the surface; still others, like Marx and Engels, saw English social conditions embedded in the very fabric of his boldest theories. Evolution, it seems, could service everything from democratic radicalism to middle-class capitalism. In all these, and indeed in many other, respects, Desmond and Moore's Darwin transcends in scope and scale previous attempts to get the measure of the man and his work.

And yet for all the superlatives that have been harnessed to describe this biography - entirely justified though they are - Darwin the book is no more flawless than Darwin the man. Not only are there occasions when we might have wished for more from the authors' collective pen; there are times when it is hard to know precisely what kind of biographical account we are being offered. Allow me to reflect on what to me are three troubling facets of this history: the political reading of Darwin's science, the biographical genre which is deployed to carry the narrative of Darwin's self, and the nature of the relationships between Darwin, Darwin's science, and Darwinism.

As yet I have deliberately said nothing about the constitutive connections Desmond and Moore draw between Darwin's theorizing and his political life. The early story of evolution - very generally speaking  - is located in the maelstrom of the ideological struggles to secure hegemony in British cultural life. The transformist, law-bound, deterministic science of evolution that was imported into Britain from Paris in the 1830s spread like wildfire among those who found themselves marginalized within the scientific establishment and outcasts from the gentlemanly science of the day, and they thus mobilized it in the cause of radical assaults on professional injustice, political expediency, and a hierarchical social order bolstered by priestcraft, providence, and Paleyan natural theology. As a means of challenging the Anglican Tory stranglehold on scientific culture, evolutionary theses, serviced by secular anatomy schools and radical nonconformist colleges, easily gained a foothold in this underworld of scientific "low-life" (to use one of Desmond's expressions).

Seen in these terms, evolution theory became a strategic resource among those striving to wrest power from a traditional Anglican oligarchy whose conceptions of both natural and social hierarchies were bolstered by the doctrine of special creation. But liberal dissenters - Whigs - could countenance certain forms of evolution too. As advocates of social change, industrialization and meritocracy, they too sought liberation from the Anglican ascendancy and could find in a suitably honed evolution theory a sense of inevitable progress that could bolster evolutionary rather than revolutionary social change.

It is into this ideological imbroglio that Desmond and Moore launch Darwin's theorizing. It is, of course, a subtle portrait, and one that indeed becomes increasingly nuanced as Darwin perceives how the incorporation of Malthusian principles could facilitate his reaching an emerging middle class public already receptive to a competitive liberalism. All this delicacy of touch is important, for Desmond and Moore are simply too talented as historians to lapse into some crude sociological reductionism. Theirs is no simple determinism which casts Darwin's theory as a mere projection or epiphenomenon of laissez-faire economics. Yet, by the same token, it is not always easy to fathom precisely how the political and the scientific, the cultural and the natural, are meant to snap together. Winsome writing and clever correlations can, at once, enlighten ...and obscure.

Let me try to illustrate this by one or two examples. Consider the book's wonderful account of Darwin's fascination over how long seeds could survive in sea water in order to solve the problem of oceanic migration. Having satisfied himself on the issue of germination, Darwin realized that the real problem was not dispersal, but how the immigrant seed could establish itself in the new environment with its own biotic community. So far, so good.

Now, the biographers tell us, the question about the migrant seed is this: "Will it be able to establish a beachhead?" (p. 424). It's that word beachhead I want to stop at. Why was this metaphor chosen? Now maybe Darwin used it himself. If so - fine. But here is a case where I would have liked to hear the word from his own lips. Is Darwin speaking, or is his speech being stage-managed? This is not a trivial point, moreover. For Desmond and Moore immediately go on to tell us that "With the British fleet still battling at Sebastopol it must have seemed curiously topical: as though warfare ran through nature and society, and colonialism was all of a kind." What is going on here? Do we have a telling exposé of a militaristic basis for the migration theory, or is it merely an extremely arresting mode of writing that is used to carry the narrative? After all, the following paragraph proceeds with an update of the Crimean war. Do we find here constitutive links between cultural conditions and scientific theory, or just dexterous textual juxtapositioning?

Nor is this an isolated case: we could raise similar questions about the interpolation of periodic political commentary, the connections between cross pollination and Darwin's concerns about his own family inbreeding, or about the links between the division of labor and the economy of life. None of this, to be sure, is intended to deny constitutive connections or replace them with mere constant conjunctions. But it is to argue that what we need here is a sophisticated theory of mediation in which priority is accorded to neither side of the text-context equation. In the absence of some such we are left - perhaps too often - with what seems like an arresting sequence of correlations. Certainly that is preferable to a crass social necessitarianism, but it is surely reasonable to ask for more in a biography that is self-consciously presented as a "defiantly social portrait" that illustrates the "cultural conditioning of knowledge" (p. xx), and that finds intimate connections between theories of matter and political reform much like the seventeenth century feuds between the followers of Newton and Leibniz.

There are other questions about this political reading that might also be asked. Let me mention one. Darwin's early exposure to the freethinking Plinians in Edinburgh is described in some detail. The experience, we are told, "must have" affected the impressionable seventeen year old. The narrative compulsion of this seemingly innocent phraseology invites us to consider the difference between a life as it is lived, and a life as it is told. Just how politically conscious was Darwin during his Edinburgh years? If he was attuned to the radical challenge of these dissidents, why do we get so little sense of disquiet when he comes within Henslow's orbit in Cambridge? Indeed, in Cambridge and on the Beagle, Darwin seems hardly interested in political concerns at all. So what is the significance of the Edinburgh experience? Is it intended to tell us anything about Darwin at the time, or is it rather to account for his later hesitancy to publish his evolutionary views? At what stage of Darwin's life does the Edinburgh political exposure carry weight?

All of this is a roundabout way of asking what sort of political sociology of scientific knowledge we are confronted with in this biography. Is it a sociology of scientific communication? Surely, yes. The political ethos that Desmond and Moore portray, it seems to me, goes a long way to explaining Darwin's publishing strategy. Fearful for his reputation as a stalwart in the world of wealthy Whiggism, it seems entirely plausible that Darwin withheld advertising his commitment to a doctrine spreading like wildfire among the rabble-rousing, loudmouthed radicals. Is it a sociology of scientific language? Again, surely yes. We see again and again the imperial, militaristic metaphors in which Darwin's theories were cast. Yet are these metaphors decorative or intrinsic? Do they constitute the cognitive claims of the theories, or are they simply rhetorical devices of persuasion - strategies of heuristic communication? We need help, I suggest, to ascertain precisely what explanatory power this sociology of scientific vocabulary possesses. Is it at the same time a sociology of scientific creativity? Here I am less sure. Certainly there are points where Darwin's insights are culturally impregnated - as with his use of Malthusian principles, for example. But whether this is universally the case is more doubtful. There are simply too many occasions when Darwin seems interested - dare I say it - in pure scientific investigation and experimentation. We even encounter him on page 231 suddenly seeing "the light." If this is so, then there is clearly enough slack in the system to allow for the old distinction between the context of scientific discovery, and the context of theory justification. The question I want to ask, then, is, at base, what kind of sociology of scientific knowledge are we confronted with in Darwin?

Let me turn, rather more briefly, to my second concern: the biographical genre. In an interesting investigation of Darwin's reading habits, Gillian Beer noted that during October 1838, the month in which he read Malthus, Darwin also devoured some sixteen other works. "Reading has related these random texts so that they are interactive" she writes. "No one of them is quite the same as if it had been read without the others." She calls this the miscegenation of texts. Now what is true of Darwin is also true of book reviewers. I have, of late, been reading Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self and pondering a little on the recent debates about the "construction" of the self. Now biography - like autobiography - is a means of structuring or imposing coherence on the story of a self, and as a literary species it has a history. What it is to write a biography is different from time to time, and perhaps from place to place. For biography comes in a variety of styles. A Freudian, for example, would have written Darwin's biography rather differently. The first eighteen years, that Desmond and Moore dispose of in around twenty pages, would have been far more intensively interrogated. And the years on the Beagle voyage would doubtless have centered on his psychological transformation from filial-type dependence on Henslow to mature, self-confident theorist.

Desmond and Moore's is, by contrast, a political biography and thus constructs a different Darwinian self than a Freudian might have done. Moreover their strategy is, as John Brooke has put it, "remorselessly sequential." The temporal ordering of the narrative imposes a certain kind of teleology on the subject - to be sure, not a teleology that leads inexorably towards either 1859 or 1871, but a teleology all the same. The question is, just how valuable is this strategy for elucidating Darwin's persona, or better, personae? For as I have said, we encounter here a myriad Darwins - Darwin the invalid, Darwin the experimenter, Darwin the investor, Darwin the dupe of quack medicine, and so on. And, perhaps most significantly of all, a private Darwin and a public Darwin. In different spaces, different Darwins surface. Which should have priority?

Now this is not to parade, still less to adopt, some faddish, deconstructionist trope. Instead I raise the matter because of the significance that Desmond and Moore attach to a series of jottings in the Darwin notebooks and private letters, soliloquies that give a good deal of explanatory bite to their narrative strategy. "Oh, you materialist!"; "It is like confessing a murder"; "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!" These throw-away phrases are seized upon as crucially diagnostic of Darwin's entire project. How much hermeneutic weight should they be permitted to bear? I don't know. But sequential biography implicitly connects these private musings with his public façades into unitary coherence, and raises the question of whether this biographical genre provides the best format for grasping the Darwin phenomenon. Might not a more web-like structure, elucidating the different spaces of Darwin's identities, provide a more useful strategy? Certainly it would subvert the apparently unproblematic priviliging of the private Darwin over against what is called on at least one occasion his public "mask" (p. 415). Human beings, it might be suggested, have the capacity to rig up diverse models of themselves to suit their politics, their religion, their family, their employers. Asking which is the real human self is clearly not the only question we can pose. To prioritize Darwin in one mode is arguably to adopt a particular kind of psychological ontology.

Having reflected on Desmond and Moore's political handling of Darwin's science and their reading of Darwin's identities, it remains for me to ask what bearing these have on Darwinism as an historical entity. Darwin the book tells us an awful lot about Darwin the man. How important is this story for understanding the public reception of Darwinism at the time, and indeed since? Suppose, for example, we concede that in Darwin's mind the theory of evolution was inherently materialistic, the work of a Devil's Chaplain, and intimately bound up with Comtean positivism. What are the implications of this for how his text was read? Does it mean that somehow Darwinism or evolution theory is essentially materialistic? Surely not. We have already noted how versatile evolution was (and is) as a cultural resource - politically, scientifically, religiously and so on - thereby serving a wide variety of interests.

In the light of these considerations, it might be advisable to give up the idea that Darwinism has any "essential" nature. After all, each and every "definitive" candidate is sure to be contested. Take, for example, Lewontin's claim that the essence of Darwinism lies in its "replacement of a metaphysical view of variations among organisms by a materialistic view." The trouble with this judgment is that it does little historical work for us. For on this reading true Darwinians are as rare as gold dust in the nineteenth century. Certainly it would rule out such key figures as Gray, Lyell, and Wallace, all of whom thought of themselves as Darwinians. Moreover, according to Robert Richards, virtually the entire tradition of evolutionary psychology in the nineteenth century was constructed by researchers with evident anti-materialist metaphysical commitments. To outlaw them on simple definitional grounds would surely be misguided.

Other candidates have fared little better. The suggestion that the essence of Darwinism lies in his idea of gradual species transformation rules out key Darwinians such as T.H. Huxley, who favored a saltationist interpretation. Moreover, contemporary advocates of punctuated equilibria - a conception of evolutionary change that sees organic transformation going in fits and starts - such as Gould and Eldredge, would not pass muster as good Darwinians. Again, restricting Darwinism to a parsimonious interpretation of evolution solely by natural selection faces the embarrassing obstacle that it would rule out Darwin himself, since he also allowed for family selection, use inheritance, sexual selection, correlative variation and so on. Accordingly it is not surprising to find David Hull arguing that there just is no "essence" to Darwinism at all, and that in writing the history of Darwinian theory we would be better off simply looking at those individuals who considered themselves Darwinians. This methodology, of course, moves the locus of debate away from narrowly cognitive or conceptual claims towards broader social factors. Besides, it suggests that the very notion "Darwinism" is a historical entity that is constituted and transformed by the members of the Darwinian circle(s) themselves. All this implies that, however illuminating this biography is of Charles Darwin, Squarson-naturalist, it cannot by its very nature be the last word on what Darwinism was or is.

That science is a social practice, Desmond and Moore's splendid biography has amply confirmed. It would seem to follow that writing the history of science is likewise a social practice. For if there is no neutral science, neither is there history on a mortuary table. History, like science, becomes destablized - a resource that can be plundered to serve apologetic interests. Precisely what such a claim commits us to is far from clear. But if it means that all knowledge claims are socially reducible, then the whole project seems caught in a hopeless self- referential dilemma - the old tu quoque gambit. Surely this is not the case. To me, the power of Desmond and Moore's sociological reading lies precisely in the better handle that it gets on Darwin's life and times than previous sketches, the truer story that it has to tell about the scientific past. At least I hope so. For otherwise history becomes our story, biography becomes autobiography - a mirror, neither of the subject nor the setting, but of ourselves.