Fri Nov 4, 2005

Darwin at Home

On a couple of long plane flights this week, I read Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, the second volume of her biography of Darwin. (I haven’t read Volume One.) I strongly recommend it. Three things stood out for me.

First, in an unobtrusive but compelling way, Browne brings insights from the sociology and social history of science to bear on her narrative. She discusses how Darwin was at the center of a vast and remarkable network of written correspondence: he wrote thousands of letters to all kinds of people, in the effort to gather information and clarify points of interpretation about everything from rare Malaysian birds to common English flowers. He built up and exploited this network for data over the course of many years, and then—when he was finally compelled to write the Origin (itself an interesting story)—he drew on it to quietly but efficiently promote and defend his ideas.

Second, while being directly plugged in to this global web of science, he was also remarkably well-insulated from any other distractions. Within his home, at Down House, his wife and daughters made sure that he didn’t have anything much to worry about, and so his amazing capacity for driving, constant work could be brought to bear on the problem of evolution. This insulation was aided by the fact that he was comfortably well-off, of course, and further abetted by the physical illnesses—marked mainly by long periods of retching and vomiting—that afflicted him. Darwin suffered a great deal from these health problems, but it’s also clear that they buffered him against unwanted obligations of all sorts. Part of this was just a consequence of being sick, but often his (quite real) attacks came on him at just the right times. The Victorian tendency to build personal and even marital relationships out of chronic invalidism was well-represented within Down House. His home life was striking in another way, too: Darwin seems the last and greatest of the gentleman amateurs of biology, doing virtually all his experiments (plant and animal breeding, etc) in his own garden and greenhouse, helped by his gardeners and relying on mostly ad-hoc instruments and equipment. His late work on plants came was treated derisively by a newer generation of scientists working much more systematically in research institutes and university departments. He laid the theoretical groundwork for modern biology and anticipated the cosmopolitan world of scientific communication. But while his experimental methods were painstaking, they were not rigorous in the modern sense.

Finally, Browne does a very good job of conveying the awful crisis of faith that Darwin helped bring upon Victorian England. The big debates between the likes of T.H. Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce are entertaining, but the overwhelming mood is a kind of desperate hope shading into melancholy. Those involved in the debates repeatedly try to reconcile the implications of the theory of natural selection with their belief in God—a personal God, at that, who created Adam and Eve and flooded the world in the relatively recent past, and who promised everlasting happiness after death. The saddest cases are those who are too honest to dismiss the theory and its evidence, and yet unwilling to give up on the hope of an afterlife. “What I want” says Alfred Tennyson bluntly, “is an assurance of immortality.” Current debates about Intelligent Design are thrown into sharp relief by the book. The content of the arguments, the substance of the disagreements, even the name-calling are almost perfectly parallel: the continuing aftershocks of the earthquake Darwin unleashed under the feet of England’s respectable classes in the 1860s.