Reaktion Books, London, 2021
224 pp., illus. 60 b/w. Paper, £12.99
The idea of evolution through descent with modification by means of natural selection was monumental in science and how it challenged the status quo of mid nineteenth century Europeans. With the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin confronted the supposed exceptionalism of modern humans and their fabricated hierarchy in a universe supposedly designed by God. This is how biologist J. David Archibald begins his study of Darwin, which ably focuses on the build-up, publication, reception, and aftermath of On the Origin of Species. That will be the center of this review, though Archibald knowledgeably handles many personal and professional aspects of Darwin’s life. One might ask why, after impressive work of biographers like Janet Browne or Adrian Desmond and James Moore, we need another biography of Darwin. Historical figures deserve new interpretations, and Archibald’s coverage of Darwin is intelligent, competent, and engaging. This book would be useful for any student or instructor in biology, the history of science, or nineteenth-century cultural studies.
Darwin’s boyhood home, The Mount (in Shrewsbury), hosted a flourishing greenhouse and fancier pigeons that, along with its library of books on natural subjects, captivated youthful curiosity. From an early age Darwin spent most of his time outdoors, collecting items from nature. Darwin’s father, Robert W. Darwin, was a prominent medical doctor and a savvy investor during England’s industrial expansion; Charles would marry into the Wedgwood family, successful pottery manufacturers. As Unitarians, the Wedgwoods and Darwins were liberal thinkers who did not see the Bible as infallible, Archibald notes. By 1825, Darwin was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to pursue a medical degree like his father and paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who propounded early evolutionary ideas. While Darwin learned much natural science from his peers and instructors, he was turned off by dull lectures and the horrors of surgery before anesthesia. One skill the young Darwin acquired in Edinburgh was taxidermy from John Edmonstone, a former slave in South America. Likewise, Darwin developed an interest in geology, mollusks, and marine life.
Darwin was still religiously orthodox, and since there was no medical future, he entered Cambridge with the aim of becoming a country clergyman. At Cambridge, Darwin would meet and work under John Stevens Henslow, a mineralogist and botanist who had studied with Adam Sedgwick, a geology professor and teacher of Darwin. This formal training helped shape Darwin from an amateur collector to a true naturalist, says Archibald. In 1831, through Henslow, Darwin completed a short geological field trip in Wales with Sedgwick. He learned from his professor how to gather facts and complete a total picture before jumping to conclusions. In the summer of 1831 a letter from Henslow included an invitation to participate in the voyage of HMS Beagle as a gentleman companion to Commander Robert FitzRoy. The purpose of the journey was to survey the southern coasts of South America. During the voyage, Darwin would take on the role of naturalist when the ship’s surgeon left after a few months.
On this sailing, Archibald relates, Darwin read the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830) and work by explorer Alexander von Humboldt, important influences on the scientific mindset. The Beagle trip would last nearly five years and touch continents and islands in the southern hemisphere, providing Darwin with extensive notes, ample fossils and specimens, and experiences fueling his latent ideas about evolution. During his journey, Darwin actually spent a good amount of time on land collecting samples of flora, fauna, and rocks. Not only did Darwin have to deal with harsh terrain and weather, especially in the Andes Mountains, but there was also the danger of social or political unrest in some places. Still rather religiously inclined by late 1833, Darwin was finding different but related living and extinct species forms on islands, and he began wondering how this transformation could have occurred. He pondered the impermanence of species but yet their continuation in other forms. He experienced a powerful earthquake, seeing first-hand how the earth’s surface shifts. He found marine fossils in the mountains and realized that shifts in the earth’s crust had lifted what was previously a sea.
During March-April 1835, Darwin contracted Chagas disease from a bug bite. It’s conjectured that this illness, probably in combination with psychosomatic sickness about the conflict between religion and his evolutionary theory, Archibald remarks, contributed to Darwin’s lifelong gastrointestinal problems. Around September-October 1835, Darwin was investigating the Galapagos Islands, and along with other data he’d gathered, this episode would stand out in and niggle at his imagination for years until he formulated his theory. For example, there were many non-distinctive small birds and similar species on the islands, but their beaks differed. Why, Darwin asked. A similar question arose, later, about the tortoises he saw across the islands. Species were unique to each island and not, per any plan by God, spread evenly. Darwin would eventually come to realize that species are not fixed, diverged from a common ancestor, and change over time because of the environs and its food sources and supply. Around 1837, after less than one year after the voyage, Darwin began to puzzle out nascent thoughts about what was called “the species question” in his private notebooks, sketching what would become his theory of natural selection.
On his return, Darwin established himself in London aided by funds from his father along with scientific publicity from Henslow and Sedgwick. Those scholars had paved the way for the young naturalist before his return by circulating parts of his letters, so he was easily accepted into institutions like the Geological Society of London. Darwin met with Charles Lyell to discuss his vast collection of specimens to be sorted and catalogued. Lyell introduced Darwin to Richard Owen, an anatomist and paleontologist, who’d examine some fossils. Owen helped Darwin prove that the extinct fossils resembled their extant living descendants, bolstering claims of evolution. However, years later Owen would not support Darwin’s evolutionary claims, especially the connections between great apes and humans, already evident to Darwin as he observed the female orangutan Jenny in the London Zoo, circa 1838. Along with John Gould, an ornithologist, Darwin identified those finches (actually tanagers, notes Archibald) from the Galapagos and began presenting papers to the Zoological Society of London in 1837. Publications and illustrated books were in the pipeline. Darwin was becoming aware from fossil evidence that mammal species over time and across places diverged and succeeded preceding ones. To help with the cataloging and description of plants, Joseph Dalton Hooker entered the picture and would become a close friend and ally to Darwin. By January 1839, not yet 30 years old, Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood.
By 1842 Darwin, who had begun questioning breeders about artificial selection, bought Down House and moved his family there, about sixteen miles outside of London. There would be 10 Darwin children, but not all survived. Down House would not only be home for the Darwins but was also the seat of his experiments and writing for the next 40 years until his demise in 1882. At Down, Darwin received assistance, as translator and secretary, from Emma and, later, as editor and collaborator from his daughter Henrietta and son Francis. Down House was a hub for Darwin to receive visitors but yet close enough to London that he could meet with his expanding circle. By 1842 Darwin drafted a long essay on his percolating idea about evolution. A much longer version was finished in 1844. Hooker, the most receptive confidant, read this longer version but was not wholly convinced. Darwin’s idea was socially, culturally, and religiously dangerous since it revealed instability and fluctuations in nature. Radicals in an aristocratic, class-conscious society, Archibald points out, could use these concepts to their advantage. The period was ripening for Darwin to publish, but he demurred, reluctant to offend the strict religious beliefs of people like his wife. As further justification for his theory, and on the advice of Hooker, Darwin took up a series of experiments on barnacles covering about eight years and resulting in four more books.
At around 1851, Darwin turned more attention to the question of species mutability. He realized, when considering extinction, that it was more about a species biology in competition with descendant others and less about, as Lyell might argue, the physicality of place. Archibald notes that both perspectives play into species adaptations. Darwin wanted to know how new species came into being through natural occurrences and not intervention, the prevailing religious thought. Eventually, Lyell grasped evolution by natural selection though without full support. Some, like Harvard botanist Asa Gray, supported Darwin’s theory but believed a divine creator engineered evolution, not what Darwin says. Hooker, though still skeptical, accepted Darwin’s ideas. At any rate, these scientists were crucial in prompting Darwin to finish and publish his so-called “big book.” Later, Darwin would gain full backing from the young anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley, appropriately dubbed, “Darwin’s bulldog.” The movement was on, and Darwin worked diligently, using the hothouse and pigeon aviary at Down House for further experiments. As fate ruled, by June 1858, Darwin received an essay from naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace on natural selection. Darwin was stunned to read his own ideas in another man’s handwriting. He rallied his friends to seek advice. This was not the first communication between Wallace and Darwin. A few years earlier Wallace had published a paper on species succession, recommended to Darwin by Lyell. In fact, Wallace asked Darwin to forward this latest essay to Lyell for publication. In turn, Lyell contacted Hooker, and the solution was to publish Darwin and Wallace jointly after a presentation in absentia at the Linnean Society. The papers garnered little reaction.
This twist of fortune prompted Darwin to abandon plans for a big book and publish a single volume sooner. As Archibald declares, publication of On the Origin of Species rendered the famous Darwin “infamous.” Until his last days, Darwin found himself constantly defending his theory, with the help of a few supporters, in correspondence and his later books, notably Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). In the months following publication of On the Origins of Species, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Robert Owen penned scathing reviews. Critiques like theirs were often more religiously inspired than scientifically grounded. Still, Darwin knew there were questions concerning: 1. the age of earth, 2. how natural selection worked, and 3. the evolution of complex organs. While Darwin dealt with number 3, numbers 1 and 2 were not solved until later, vindicating Darwin’s ideas. He rightly posited human origins in Africa from an ancestor shared with our cousin great apes. Continuing a theme from early on, Darwin spent more time researching, experimenting on, and writing about plants to support his evolutionary concepts. While Darwin’s religious beliefs eroded over the years, there’s no truth, says Archibald, that he ever retracted his theory of natural selection.
Archibald’s book on Darwin, skillfully narrated and full of useful information, is a worthy addition to student courses and research or personal libraries. Though the book lacks a timeline and index, it’s easy to navigate, divided into 11 manageable chapters.