On the Perils of Publishing
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
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