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Laying Bare Darwin's Secrets

Keith Thomson

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Janet Browne. viii + 591 pp. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. $37.50.

One of the last photographs of Darwin.Click to Enlarge Image

Only a handful of scientists can have been written about so much as Charles Darwin, and few so well. Two previous biographies stand out: Charles Darwin: A Portrait, by Geoffrey West (1938), and Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (1992). To these we must add the magical memoir Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, by Darwin's granddaughter Gwen Raverat (1952), and Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution, by Randal Keynes (2002; published in the United Kingdom in 2001 as Annie's Box), which deal more broadly with the family. Janet Browne's new book is the long-awaited second and final volume of her superb biography of Darwin. It is hard to imagine that anyone will attempt another biography in the near future, let alone be able to better this one.

Browne's first volume, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995), dealt with the years from Darwin's birth (on the same day as Lincoln) up to his marriage and his retreat from the hurly-burly of London to the Kent countryside. The young man, keen on sports and fresh from the adventures on HMS Beagle, steadily became a reclusive invalid while his great theory matured and his scientific reputation blossomed. This second volume opens in 1858, on the eve of Darwin's receipt of the packet containing Alfred Russel Wallace's famous manuscript describing evolution by natural selection.

Whereas Desmond and Moore uncompromisingly told their story in its social and political context, Browne's account is more personal: an intimate yet clinical study. As I read this volume, I constantly referred back to the first. All the extraordinary intensity, competitiveness, moodiness and creativity were there from the beginning. As a child, Darwin stammered badly, and as a young man he was alternately outgoing and shy, depending on the context. Throughout his life, the famous but mysterious afflictions—eczema, headaches, nausea, heart palpitations, bowel problems, exhaustion, depression—invariably flared up in times of stress. Only on the voyage itself had he been relatively healthy (except for chronic seasickness and a couple of infections). The burden of harboring the secrets of On the Origin of Species inside him (to speak of them felt to him "like confessing to a murder") may have driven him to seek a refuge in the country, but the pressures and agony inevitably followed him there.

He had extraordinary intellectual powers—powers of concentration, of analytical thought, of experimentation and of argumentation. And he had just as extraordinary personal qualities. People thrust themselves forward to help him: Scientists like Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Hooker smoothed the way for his theories (Browne amusedly notes the freedom with which Hooker supplied him with government-property plants from Kew, for example), and laymen provided data for his endless investigations. His sons became his scientific assistants. Through it all, a host of women—led by his wife, Emma, and his daughters, as well as many cousins—revised his manuscripts, edited his proofs, nursed him through his afflictions and generally supported the great nest that he created around himself at Down House. Typically for that age, very few women, if any, truly crossed the line between colleague and helpmeet. There was, however, a mutual fascination between him and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and Lady Dorothy Nevill was useful to him in the study of orchids (she was a major collector and propagator).

Darwin did not "retire" to the country; he had a deep, burning need to work. "Perseverance seems hardly to express his almost fierce desire to force the truth to reveal itself," wrote his son Francis. Darwin seems to have needed that addictive—if destructive—deep, inner satisfaction and the consequent agony of putting aspects of one's inner self out for all the world to criticize: "I am like a gambler, & love a wild experiment," he wrote. And all his life he said, "I cannot bear to be beaten." Not until the last few years of his life was he really free from the pressures of his theory and all its consequences. On the Origin of Species was not just a book—it became a force in its own right, devouring its author from the inside. Even so, over a period of 20 years Darwin averaged one or two books or editions per year, promoted dozens of foreign editions (while at the same time agonizing over unauthorized versions that bowdlerized or subverted his ideas), wrote more than 50 scholarly articles and maintained a huge correspondence (tens of thousands of letters, of which at least 14,000 survive) which almost overwhelmed the village post office.

Browne brings out the pattern in Darwin's work: Study, experimentation, collection of data, and analysis were at first a matter of intense pleasure, but writing progressively produced illness and collapse. The cure almost always involved rest (but never for long) and various quack treatments. Darwin's first recourse was usually to plants, whether in the field, under the microscope or in the greenhouse. Botany always revived him, and then the cycle would start again. Whereas his great works, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, are masterpieces of analysis, argument and synthesis, the ingenuity and inventiveness of his mind shine out in the "lesser" works, such as Climbing Plants (not a good seller), Orchids, Insectivorous Plants and the surprisingly popular earthworm book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits.

Darwin had a highly competitive side. As is confirmed in a recent biography of Wallace by Michael Shermer (In Darwin's Shadow, 2002), Darwin acted honorably toward Wallace when his manuscript arrived out of the blue with a version of Darwin's treasured theory. Although in a letter to Sir Charles Lyell he said, "[I] have resigned myself to my fate," he could never have actually done so, nor could he have given up all claim to priority. Over the following years, no detail of interpretation was too minor, no criticism too obscure, when it came to defending the centrality of his ideas on evolution. The Descent of Man (1871), in which he applied his theory to human origins and developed his ideas on sexual selection, arose in large part as an answer to a long essay by Wallace in which a leaning toward religious mysticism seemed to Darwin to represent a betrayal of their ideas: "I hope you have not murdered too completely your own & my child."

Darwin's revisions to the Origin eventually compromised it, so keen was he to respond to critics. Not only did he defend, he attacked. It is hard to know which to admire more, the skill with which he and his band of disciples went about preparing the ground for the Origin (shrewdly distributing advance copies to potential opponents, for example) or the zeal with which they all, after publication, set about savaging (not always fairly) the critics. Although we are familiar with Huxley's role as Darwin's bulldog, Darwin was quite capable of being his own rottweiler. When a paper by his son Francis was rejected by the Royal Society, Darwin ruthlessly counterattacked in Nature. In 1873, St. George Mivart got into a spat with Darwin's son George over a sort of proto-eugenics. Darwin nearly went to court on behalf of George (who was in the wrong) and later blackballed Mivart for membership in the Athenaeum.

Darwin lived in extraordinary times, and 1859 saw the publication of such works as A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens; Adam Bede, by George Eliot; Edward FitzGerald's translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám; The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith; On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill; Idylls of the King, by Alfred Tennyson; and The Bertrams, by Anthony Trollope. Exile to the country, away from the center of all this intellectual stirring, came with costs as well as benefits. For example, Browne argues that if Darwin had lived in London in 1858, he would have been more aware of intellectual currents favoring speculative developmental ideas and would have spotted the significance of Wallace's earlier published papers long before Wallace's manuscript arrived.

Could anyone again attempt to be so independent and so productive? Certainly not as a scientist and probably not even as an artist (one thinks of Gauguin in Tahiti and his desperate dependence on friends in the outside world) or as a writer.

The dominant themes of Browne's wonderful book are Darwin's work, his illness, his family and Down (the house itself and its setting in the village and the green abundance of the Kent countryside). I do not suppose that this could ever have been one of those happy stories, a narrative of domestic contentment and intellectual accomplishment. His family members were not just a solace and support; as a part of his creation they were something to be worried about incessantly. The reader is gripped by the unfolding drama in 1858 and 1859 as first the Wallace letter appeared, then the campaigns began—to make a joint announcement with Wallace and to write the "abstract" of the "larger work" that he had originally intended. That sort of trial might have felled most of us, but at the same time, Darwin's 10th child and namesake was dying. They buried him on the very day of the Linnean Society meeting. The death of his beloved daughter Annie in 1851 had already almost destroyed him, and certainly removed any lingering belief in the Christian God of love. Several of the other children were sickly or odd, or perhaps he and Emma made them so. Henrietta, for example, was a perpetual invalid like her father (yet she lived to be 84). He became sure that they were all tainted by the propensity of the Darwins to marry their Wedgwood cousins, and he made inbreeding, along with his own illness, one of his scientific preoccupations.

Browne does not attempt to diagnose Darwin's illness, which has been well discussed in books such as Creative Malady: Illness in the Lives and Minds of Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Mary Baker Eddy, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by George Pickering (1974), and To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin, by Ralph Colp, Jr. (1977). His sickness appears to have had both physical and psychosomatic components. The symptoms, which she describes in great detail, often cropped up at a convenient time. Darwin's reluctance to appear in public or to expose himself to any stressful situation unforgivably extended to a refusal to attend the funeral of Charles Lyell. As Browne writes:

But there is no denying the severity of his affliction, particularly between 1862 and 1865. In 1866, at one of his exceptionally rare public appearances at the Royal Society (to be presented to the Prince of Wales), no one recognized him. With the full beard that he had grown during this period, he had become the venerable Saint Charles, now familiar to us all.

Ironically, photography having just come into vogue along with mass marketing of books and popular periodicals, the reclusive Darwin became one of the most recognizable of Victorian characters, eventually becoming a sort of icon of science itself—although, to his wry amusement, he was also often cartooned as a kind of morphed ape. Equally ironically, his isolation required the mass of correspondence through which we now try to lay all his secrets bare. He tried to cover his tracks by means of an Autobiography (completed 1881) that was nominally intended for the family but, in my opinion, shows every sign of having been written for a wider audience. Following the sheer pleasure of completing the book on earthworms (which, like so many of his works, brought together trains of thought that reached back to the 1840s or earlier), he seems to have achieved a kind of peace. Worried only that he might lose his mind, he spent his last years surrounded by an ever-attentive family and, to his faint surprise as well as great satisfaction, fast in the mind of a respectfully adoring public. After this brilliant new study, how many of his secrets yet remain?

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