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On the Perils of Publishing

Bettyann Kevles

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution. David Quammen. 304 pp. W. W. Norton, 2006. $22.95.

Since the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, interest in Darwin's life has waned and eventually waxed, especially after the publication in the last 20 years of his private notebooks and correspondence. Several excellent biographers have used these materials to inform us about the great scientist's thought processes and to examine details of his everyday life.

Yet even with this new information, Darwin's behavior is still puzzling. He ached for recognition from his scientific peers, but, as David Quammen suggests with his title—The Reluctant Mr. Darwin—Darwin postponed publishing the very theory he wanted recognition for discovering.

A prize-winning science journalist, Quammen credits the recent biographers, acknowledging that his concise book is not based on original research. He has written a kind of extended essay for those not familiar with Darwin's life after his famous journey on HMS Beagle or with the truly radical implications of natural selection—the mechanism of evolution Darwin wanted, but also feared, to reveal. To explain this reluctance to publish, Quammen concentrates on Darwin's intellectual and emotional life beginning in 1837, soon after he returned from five years at sea, setting Darwin in the context of the political, economic and scientific forces then shaping England. Quammen writes in a readable but often too folksy style, occasionally lapsing into verbal anachronisms that display a lack of understanding of the historical context. In one such instance he describes a physician from whom Darwin sought treatment that was common in Victorian medicine (though bizarre by modern standards) as "another flaky doctor."

As background Quammen reminds us of the young dilettante who left England at age 23 with a degree from Cambridge, good manners, enough money and a habit of intense concentration, but no specific ambition—and who returned at age 28 demonstrating such intellectual and, perhaps, spiritual growth that his physician father observed to Charles's sisters: "Why, the shape of his head is quite altered." Quammen continues through the immediate post-Beagle years, when Darwin pored over specimens sent back from the ship, decided to marry and in 1839 wed his cousin Emma Wedgwood. Two babies later, he moved his family from London to the village of Downe, 16 miles to the southeast. Quammen does not note the births of Darwin's other eight children but mentions the deaths of Annie, his 10-year-old daughter, and Charles, his infant son. He describes in detail Darwin's scientific thinking during these years, which we know from his notebooks and letters.

As early as 1837, Darwin had identified natural selection as the mechanism behind what was then called "transmutation"—a buzzword in Victorian biology and a quasi-synonym for evolution. Both terms were tantamount to blasphemy and guaranteed to raise hackles. Seven years later, in 1844, Darwin articulated this idea in a 189-page manuscript, which he asked the Downe schoolmaster to copy legibly. He did not submit this paper anywhere but left it in his study with a letter to Emma instructing her to publish it "in case of my sudden death." Then in 1857 he sent a six-paragraph summary of his theory to Asa Gray, a botanist at Harvard. He seems to have desperately wanted scientists he respected to know and approve of his discovery.

Yet he did not publish. Darwin occupied himself instead with a through study of barnacles and gathered more data from correspondence and from experiments in his own greenhouse and gardens. His reluctance to publish can be attributed to a host, or perhaps a combination, of causes, including concern for Emma's religious sensibility and anxiety over the potential fury he might unleash upon his whole family.

What is not at all mysterious is the incident that triggered Darwin's decision to publish his theory at last—and as rapidly as possible.

This was the receipt, in 1858, of a manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace, sent from the Malay Archipelago. This man, whom Darwin had never met, sent 20 pages "On the Tendency of Variations to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type." They drove Darwin into a tailspin. Wallace had deduced a large part—but not all—of Darwin's theory of natural selection. Quammen seems seriously to dislike Darwin at this time, writing that Darwin "whined" in a letter expressing his reasonable anguish. It was understandably a shock, but according to Quammen, Darwin was lucky "that Alfred Wallace barged in when he did." For without that gun at his head, Quammen suggests, Darwin might never have produced On the Origin of Species in the highly readable, eloquent tone that writing to a ticking clock inspired.

Quammen dwells on Wallace's manuscript at length and seems to resent Darwin's wealth and high status, of which his berth on the Beagle was a perk, as were his memberships in the Royal Society and the Linnean Society. Wallace, in contrast, had to support his journeys selling pelts and skeletons of the new species he discovered and did not belong to any august scientific club.

Wallace had innocently sent his fever-inspired answer to the enigma of how species originate because Darwin had a reputation for an open mind. Wallace could not have known that he was about to tread on the older man's toes.

What was Darwin to do? He received the paper in Downe, where he waited for illness to pass. He was exhausted from nursing his children through overlapping epidemics of scarlet fever and diphtheria. He turned to his confidants—Joseph Hooker, a biologist, and Charles Lyell, a geologist. He wrote to them that he feared that "all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed."

In response Lyell wrote back asking what he had on paper to establish priority. Darwin recalled the 1844 paper, which Hooker had read, as well as the paragraphs he had recently sent to Asa Gray. By this time, Quammen writes, Darwin was "fuddled with anguish," and he agreed to Lyell and Hooker's plan for a joint presentation of his paper and Wallace's at the next Linnean Society meeting.

Darwin's letters suggest he felt uneasy, sensing the solution was not honorable. But, according to Quammen, he "implicitly. . . begged Lyell and Hooker" to persuade him it was. No one asked Wallace, who was still in the East Indies and out of contact. Nor did anyone ask Darwin to wait until Wallace returned. As it happened, neither man was present for the public readings. Baby Charles had died, and Darwin was home grieving. Wallace was unaware that his manuscript was being presented. It may not have mattered. The immediate response to the two papers was a silent yawn. Neither used the terms "transmutation" or "evolution," so the revolution, for a while, went unnoticed.

In the wake of this threat to primacy, Darwin put pen to paper and inside of a year completed an abbreviated version of the book he had been planning since at least 1844. Origin's first edition went to his editor in November and was in bookshops by late December 1859. It was not ignored.

Quammen emphasizes that Darwin's theory did not win wide scientific acceptance for another 50 years. When it did, it troubled religious purists. But Quammen rightly points out that Darwin's reluctance to publish was not based on his worry that the implications of natural selection, taken to their logical extreme, would challenge the existence of God. Rather, Quammen asserts that Darwin's theory challenged "the supposed godliness of Man," the tenet that humans are elevated above and distinct from the rest of life. He concludes by returning to the elderly Darwin who had just euthanized what turned out to be his last beetle, finding him "a gentle man, quite aware" that the fallout from his discovery, as he had feared it would as a young man, had already "caused discomfort enough."

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