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Hidden Facets of Darwin

February 23, 2009

Charles Darwin is an icon. With his Smith Brothers beard (which makes all 19th-century guys look alike) and his world-changing, God-slaying theory, he is, to many of us, more of a meme than a man; the thought of him is a mental macro, a quick secular genuflection, rather than an encounter. Darwin came to life for me for really the first time in the course of fact checking this month’s marvelous 200th-birthday tribute, Richard Milner’s “Seeing Corals with the Eye of Reason.” No accident: Milner, an NH contributing editor, has virtually dedicated his life to bringing the real Charles Darwin back alive, to the point of performing a one-man show about him—a one-man musical show. Gilbert and Sulivan meet Tom Lehrer! (G & S were an early influence on both Milner and his childhood friend [PDF] Stephen Jay Gould.) He also has an encyclopedic compendium on Darwin’s life, thought, and influence, Darwin’s Universe: Evolution from A to Z, coming out this May from the University of California Press. There could be no better deprogrammer for that glassy-eyed Great Man trance they induct in elementary school, or used to.

Richard Milner interviewed by National Publc Radio

The irony is, the great are the ones you can reach out and touch. That’s almost the definition. “Outliers” though they may be, it’s not because they are so different but because they are so human that they escape being entombed in their time or put up on a pedestal for the pigeons. Read Shakespeare, once you’ve learned his English, and he’s right there on the other side of the words, as alive as you. Read Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks, and along with the time-scorning prescience (“Men standing in opposite hemispheres will converse and deride each other and embrace each other, and understand each other’s language”), you’ll find him snapping with timeless exasperation, “It vexes me greatly that having to earn my living has forced me to interrupt the work and to attend to small matters.” I’m told that reading St. Augustine’s Confessions is like that, too. Well, Darwin is one of those.

Here are a few of the things I didn’t know about Charles Darwin that you may or may not. (I suspect that Natural History readers on average are far better acquainted with Darwin than I was before I became, by occupation, one of Natural History’s most obsessive readers.)

Darwin Was a Hell of a Writer. And just about everything he ever wrote—down to a bank cheque—is published online. A magisterial and exhaustive scholarly archive, including multiple editions of all his books, facsimiles and transcripts of many handwritten manuscripts and journals, images, and supplemental materials, is at The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online. A large selection of Darwin’s 15,000 known letters, cross-referenced by topic, is at The Darwin Correspondence Project. Jump in anywhere, but to meet the man, jump into a journal or letter where you can hear his unbuttoned personal voice—searching, anxious, cranky, affectionate, and vividly descriptive. For example, here are letters to his sister quoted in the introduction to his unedited Beagle diary:

I am looking forward with great interest for letters, but with very little pleasure to answering them.— It is very odd, what a difficult job I find this same writing letters to be.— I suppose it is partly owing to my writing everything in my journal: but chiefly to the number of subjects; which is so bewildering that I am generally at a loss either how to begin or end a sentence. And this all hands must allow to be an objection. . . .

And three weeks later:

I send in a packet, my commonplace Journal.— I have taken a fit of disgust with it & want to get it out of my sight, any of you that like may read it.—a great deal is absolutely childish: Remember however this, that it is written solely to make me remember this voyage, & that it is not a record of facts but of my thoughts.— & in excuse recollect how tired I generally am when writing it.— . . . Be sure you mention the receiving of my journal, as anyhow to me it will [be] of considerable future interest as it [is] an exact record of all my first impressions, & such a set of vivid ones they have been, must make this period of my life always one of interest to myself.— If you speak quite sincerely,—I should be glad to have your criticisms. Only recollect the above mentioned apologies.—

In the journal itself, before the voyage is very far along, Darwin has you under his spell and on the Beagle with him, sharing his wretched seasickness and dread (maybe the part he feared was “childish”), his sympathetic amusement at the Christmas drunkenness of the sailors and his unease at their draconian punishment, and his amazement at the sight of the open ocean:

30th At noon Lat. 43, South of Cape Finisterre & across the famous Bay of Biscay: wretchedly out of spirits & very sick.— I often said before starting, that I had no doubt I should frequently repent of the whole undertaking, little did I think with what fervour I should do so.— I can scarcely conceive any more miserable state, than when such dark & gloomy thoughts are haunting the mind as have to day pursued me.—

I staggered for a few minutes on deck & was much struck by the appearance of the sea.— The deep water differs as much from that near shore, as an inland lake does from a little pool.— It is not only the darkness of the blue, but the brilliancy of its tint when contrasted with the white curling tip that gives such a novel beauty to the scene.— I have seen paintings that give a faithful idea of it.— . . .

31st In the morning very uncomfortable; got up about noon & enjoyed some few moments of comparative ease.— A shoal of porpoises dashing round the vessel & a stormy petrel skimming over the waves were the first objects of interest I have seen.— I spent a very pleasant afternoon lying on the sofa, either talking to the Captain or reading Humboldts glowing accounts of tropical scenery.— Nothing could be better adapted for cheering the heart of a sea-sick man.

That’s just a taste of the man’s beguiling humanity, and as the Buddha said, the taste of the ocean is everywhere the same. In this 200th year of his birth and profound, pervasive influence on our world, there’s no more fitting celebration than to get to know him, or to know him better.

Darwin Was an Abolitionist. That’s the startling claim made by his biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore in their new book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause. If so, Darwin came by it honestly; ending slavery was a multigenerational preoccupation of his mother’s and wife’s family (he married his first cousin), the Wedgwoods, of china fame. (And, of course, he was born on the very same day as Abraham Lincoln, 200 years ago last week.) What’s startling is the authors’ claim (overstated?) that revulsion at slavery was, not just a driving force, but the driving force behind Darwin’s belief in common descent. From their first chapter:

Human evolution wasn’t his last piece in the evolution jigsaw; it was the first. From the very outset Darwin concerned himself with the unity of humankind. This notion of ’brotherhood’ grounded his evolutionary enterprise. It was there in his first musings on evolution in 1837. . . .

Rather than seeing ‘the facts’ force evolution on Darwin (other circumnavigating naturalists had seen similar phenomena all over the globe), we find a moral passion firing his evolutionary work. He was quite unlike the modern ’disinterested’ scientist who is supposed (supposed, mark you) to derive theories from ’the facts’ and only then allow the moral consequences to be drawn. Equally, he was the reverse of the fundamentalists’ parody, which makes his enterprise anti-God, inhuman and immoral. We show the humanitarian roots that nourished Darwin’s most controversial and contested work on human ancestry. The ensuing picture is, as a result, dramatically different from previous ones, revealing a man more sympathetic than creationists find acceptable, more morally committed than scientists would allow.

From the publisher’s description on Amazon:

Leading apologists for slavery in Darwin’s time argued that blacks and whites had originated as separate species, with whites created superior. Darwin abhorred such "arrogance." He believed that, far from being separate species, the races belonged to the same human family. Slavery was therefore a "sin," and abolishing it became Darwin’s "sacred cause." His theory of evolution gave all the races—blacks and whites, animals and plants—an ancient common ancestor and freed them from creationist shackles. Evolution meant emancipation.

“Sin”? “Sacred”? Darwin used these religious terms, drawn from his maternal family’s liberal Christian, Unitarian tradition, to refer to slavery and its abolition, while slavery’s apologists used both (pseudo)science and religion to justify it. Plainly, the relationship between science and religion, and between moral and naturalistic truth, was not so, well, black-and-white in Darwin’s time, or in his mind and heart. To paint him as either the great emancipator from or the great destroyer of faith flattens the man, who struggled with these questions (not least because his beloved wife Emma was religious), into a two-dimensional stencil on a T-shirt. The discussion of evolution, religion, and morality is in full force at a blog called Darwinian Conservatism, and in this special section of the Darwin Correspondence project. And by the way:

Darwin Was Not an Atheist. He is more accurately described [PDF] as a deist for much of his life and a declared agnostic toward its end. He had certainly lost his faith in the literal truth of the Bible and its creation and redemption stories, but a full-throated “God is dead” would have to await a guy with a moustache. In his own words:

“In my most extreme fluctuations” [Darwin wrote to John Fordyce in 1879], “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.” Darwin died three years later, without changing his mind. “You have expressed my inward conviction,” he told the author William Graham in one of his last letters, “that the Universe is not the result of chance.” . . .

“The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.” . . .

"My theology is a simple muddle,” he told Joseph Hooker in 1870. “I cannot look at the Universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent Design."

Perhaps in that statement he better represents the true tenor of our age—knowing more and more about how much we don’t know, staggered by new revelations of what DNA and the cosmos are really up to—than either devout traditionalists or strident atheists.

Annie Darwin
Annie Darwin, 1849

Wikimedia Commons

Darwin Was a Tenderhearted Father. And it’s becoming better known that his loss of faith in a benevolent personal God had less to do with reason than with heartbreak. Although he certainly had a skeptical, evidence-based cast of mind, his reflections on the struggle for survival in nature were significantly darkened by the death of his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie, while under treatment at a therapeutic spa on April 24, 1851. “He is able to find relief in crying much,” his sister-in-law Fanny Wedgwood wrote to Emma that day, but a quarter century later, Darwin would write in a memoir composed for his children, “Tears still sometimes come into my eyes, when I think of her sweet ways.” It’s hard for us to imagine, but the loss of one or more children (and young adults too) to such illnesses as TB, scarlet fever, and typhoid was an almost universal experience up through the 19th century, before there were antibiotics and vaccines. Abraham Lincoln lost a not-quite-four-year-old son, Eddie, and an 11-year-old, Willie (both were reburied with him in his permanent tomb), and nearly everyone in his inner circle suffered similar tragedies. We might imagine that parents under such circumstances somehow found a way to harden their hearts and invest less emotion in their children; how far that is from the truth is demonstrated by Darwin’s awful grief. Yet when Darwinís friend Joseph Hooker was in mortal fear of losing his own sick child in 1863, Darwin wrote to him, “Much love, much trial, but what an utter desert is life without love.” Does that sound like the Darwin you thought you knew?

The story of Annie, of the impact of her death on Darwin’s thinking, and of happier times in the Darwin household [PDF] is told in perhaps the most intimate and revelatory book you could read to celebrate his birthday: Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution (originally titled, in England, Annie’s Box). It’s written by his great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes (yep, he’s also economist John Maynard Keynes’s great-nephew), who had unparalleled access to family papers.

Given the high drama of Darwin’s life, I was wondering why there wasn’t a Major Motion Picture about him. Googling, I found out that two are in the works: one based on Annie’s Box and the other on Evolution’s Captain, by Peter Nichols, a biography of Beagle captain Robert Fitzroy, whose friendship with Darwin foundered after the publication of the Origin of Species. In a heated public debate of a kind we’re still having a century and a half later, the devout captain “expressed his sorrows for having given [Darwin] the opportunities of collecting facts for such a shocking theory.” So whom would you cast as Darwin? Anthony Hopkins as old Darwin, no contest; but whom would you match up with him as younger Darwin? I suggest Aidan Quinn.

More Facets. We haven’t exhausted Darwin’s infinite variety yet. Richard Milner polishes still more of his hidden facets in an article for the 200th-birthday edition of the Linnean Society’s journal, Darwin as Ghostbuster, Muse, and Magistrate [PDF]. Here we learn something essential about the honesty of the scientific mind: Darwin’s fatherly sorrow burdened and spurred his reason, but never overcame it. As much as you can imagine he might have longed for a sign from Annie, “he became an implacable foe of heartless Spiritualistic swindlers who preyed on the bereaved.” He also served as a local Justice of the Peace. Milner himself unearthed these obscure facts about Darwin in the course of his Sherlock Holmes-like quest to know the man better, recounted in this article and in ours. Thanks to him, Desmond and Moore, Ralph Colp Jr. (“Darwin’s shrink”), and a host of others, our admiration for Darwin only grows, along with the wish that we could buy him a beer and give him a hug.

Annie Gottlieb
See the first post: “Little Worms-In-The-Pocket”
(Annie Gottlieb)

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Charles Darwin in his later years. Photo by J. Cameron, 1869.

Wikimedia Commons

Richard Milnerís Darwinís Universe, to be released in the spring


Song lyrics by Richard Milner
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great man . . . *yawn* . . .

From Larry Moran's blog Sandwalk

Leonardo Da Vinci, self-portrait in red chalk (1512–1515). Royal Library of Turin.

Wikimedia Commons

Medallion of the British Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, made by Darwin’s grandfather-in-law Josiah Wedgwood in the late 18th century.

The L’Ouverture Project

God: “Nietzsche is dead.” Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882

Wikimedia Commons

Happier times: Charles Darwin with his son William, 1842

Wikimedia Commons

Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy

Source: George Weber's Lonely Islands