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Biography of Charles Darwin 1809 – 1882 pg2

The patriarch in his home laboratory:

Long periods of debilitating sickness in the 1860s left the craggy, bearded Darwin thin and ravaged. He once vomited for 27 consecutive days. Down House was an infirmary where illness was the norm and Emma the attendant nurse. She was a shield, protecting the patriarch, cosseting him. Darwin was a typical Victorian in his racial and sexual stereotyping—however dependent on his redoubtable wife, he still thought women inferior; and although a fervent abolitionist, he still considered blacks a lower race. But few outside of the egalitarian socialists challenged these prejudices—and Darwin, immersed in a competitive Whig culture, and enshrining its values in his science, had no time for socialism.

The house was also a laboratory, where Darwin continued experimenting and revamping the Origin through six editions. Although quietly swearing by “my deity ‘Natural Selection,’” he answered critics by reemphasizing other causes of change—for example, the effects of continued use of an organ—and he bolstered the Lamarckian belief that such alterations through excessive use might be passed on. In Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868) he marshaled the facts and explored the causes of variation in domestic breeds. The book answered critics such as George Douglas Campbell, the eighth duke of Argyll, who loathed Darwin’s blind, accidental process of variation and envisaged the appearance of “new births” as goal directed. By showing that fanciers picked from the gamut of naturally occurring variations to produce the tufts and topknots on their fancy pigeons, Darwin undermined this providential explanation.

In 1867 the engineer Fleeming Jenkin argued that any single favourable variation would be swamped and lost by back-breeding within the general population. No mechanism was known for inheritance, and so in the Variation Darwin devised his hypothesis of “pangenesis” to explain the discrete inheritance of traits. He imagined that each tissue of an organism threw out tiny “gemmules,” which passed to the sex organs and permitted copies of themselves to be made in the next generation. But Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton failed to find these gemmules in rabbit blood, and the theory was dismissed.

Darwin was adept at flanking movements in order to get around his critics. He would take seemingly intractable subjects—like orchid flowers—and make them test cases for “natural selection.” Hence the book that appeared after the Origin was, to everyone’s surprise, The Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects (1862). He showed that the orchid’s beauty was not a piece of floral whimsy “designed” by God to please humans but honed by selection to attract insect cross-pollinators. The petals guided the bees to the nectaries, and pollen sacs were deposited exactly where they could be removed by a stigma of another flower.

But why the importance of cross-pollination? Darwin’s botanical work was always subtly related to his evolutionary mechanism. He believed that cross-pollinated plants would produce fitter offspring than self-pollinators, and he used considerable ingenuity in conducting thousands of crossings to prove the point. The results appeared in The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876). His next book, The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (1877), was again the result of long-standing work into the way evolution in some species favoured different male and female forms of flowers to facilitate outbreeding. Darwin had long been sensitive to the effects of inbreeding because he was himself married to a Wedgwood cousin, as was his sister Caroline. He agonized over its debilitating consequence for his five sons. Not that he need have worried, for they fared well: William became a banker, Leonard an army major, George the Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge, Francis a reader in botany at Cambridge, and Horace a scientific instrument maker. Darwin also studied insectivorous plants, climbing plants, and the response of plants to gravity and light (sunlight, he thought, activated something in the shoot tip, an idea that guided future work on growth hormones in plants).

The private man and the public debate:

Through the 1860s natural selection was already being applied to the growth of society. A.R. Wallace saw cooperation strengthening the moral bonds within primitive tribes. Advocates of social Darwinism, in contrast, complained that modern civilization was protecting the “unfit” from natural selection. Francis Galton argued that particular character traits—even drunkenness and genius—were inherited and that “eugenics,” as it would come to be called, would stop the genetic drain. The trend to explain the evolution of human races, morality, and civilization was capped by Darwin in his two-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). The book was authoritative, annotated, and heavily anecdotal in places. The two volumes were discrete, the first discussing the evolution of civilization and human origins among the Old World monkeys. (Darwin’s depiction of a hairy human ancestor with pointed ears led to a spate of caricatures; see theSatirical cartoon by Thomas Nast, from Harper’s Weekly, August 19, … [Credit: Bettmann/Corbis].) The second volume responded to critics like Argyll, who doubted that the iridescent hummingbird’s plumage had any function—or any Darwinian explanation. Darwin argued that female birds were choosing mates for their gaudy plumage. Darwin as usual tapped his huge correspondence network of breeders, naturalists, and travelers worldwide to produce evidence for this. Such “sexual selection” happened among humans too. With primitive societies accepting diverse notions of beauty, aesthetic preferences, he believed, could account for the origin of the human races.

Darwin’s explanation was also aimed partly at Wallace. Like so many disillusioned socialists, Wallace had become engaged in spiritualism. He argued that an overdeveloped human brain had been provided by the spirit forces to move humanity toward millennial perfection. Darwin had no time for this. Even though he eventually attended a séance with Galton and the novelist George Eliot (Marian Evans) at his brother’s house in 1874, he was appalled at “such rubbish,” and in 1876 he sent £10 toward the costs of the prosecution of the medium Henry Slade.

Darwin finished another long-standing line of work. Since studying the moody orangutans at London Zoo in 1838, through the births of his 10 children (whose facial contortions he duly noted), Darwin had been fascinated by expression. As a student he had heard the attacks on the idea that peoples’ facial muscles were designed by God to express their unique thoughts. Now his photographically illustrated The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) expanded the subject to include the rages and grimaces of asylum inmates, all to show the continuity of emotions and expressions between humans and animals.

The gentle Darwin elicited tremendous devotion. A protective circle formed around him, locked tight by Huxley and Hooker. It was they who ostracized detractors, particularly the Roman Catholic zoologist Saint George Jackson Mivart. Nor did Darwin forget it: he helped raise £2,100 to send a fatigued Huxley on holiday in 1873, and his pestering resulted in the impecunious Wallace being added to the Civil List in 1881. Darwin was held in awe by many, the more so because he was rarely seen. And when he was seen—for example, by the Harvard philosopher John Fiske, a privileged visitor to Down House in 1873—he was found to be “the dearest, sweetest, loveliest old grandpa that ever was.”

Darwin wrote his autobiography between 1876 and 1881. It was composed for his grandchildren, rather than for publication, and it was particularly candid on his dislike of Christian myths of eternal torment. To people who inquired about his religious beliefs, however, he would only say that he was an agnostic (a word coined by Huxley in 1869).

The treadmill of experiment and writing gave so much meaning to his life. But as he wrapped up his final, long-term interest, publishing The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms (1881), the future looked bleak. Such an earthy subject was typical Darwin: just as he had shown that today’s ecosystems were built by infinitesimal degrees and the mighty Andes by tiny uplifts, so he ended on the monumental transformation of landscapes by the Earth’s humblest denizens.

Charles Darwin in a photograph (c. 1874) published posthumously in The … [Credit: © Photos.com/Jupiterimages]Suffering from angina, he looked forward to joining the worms, contemplating “Down graveyard as the sweetest place on earth.” He had a seizure in March 1882 and died of a heart attack on April 19. Influential groups wanted a grander commemoration than a funeral in Downe, something better for the gentleman naturalist who had delivered the “new Nature” into the new professionals’ hands. Galton had the Royal Society request the family’s permission for a state burial. Huxley, who by taking over the public debate had preserved Darwin’s reputation of “sweet and gentle nature blossomed into perfection,” as a newspaper put it, convinced the canon of Westminster Abbey to bury the diffident agnostic there. And so Darwin was laid to rest with full ecclesiastical pomp on April 26, 1882, attended by the new nobility of science and the state.

Major Works:

Book-length works by Charles Darwin (presented in chronological order of publication) include: Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle (1839); The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842); Geological Observations on the Volcanic Islands, Visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1844); Geological Observations on South America (1846); A Monograph on the Fossil Lepadidae, or, Pedunculated Cirripedes of Great Britain (1851); A Monograph on the Sub-Class Cirripedia, 2 vol. (1851–54); A Monograph on the Fossil Balanidae and Verrucidae of Great Britain (1854); On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859); On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects (1862); The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, 2 vol. (1868); The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vol. (1871); The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872); Insectivorous Plants (1875); The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (1875); The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876); The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (1877); The Power of Movement in Plants (1880); The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits (1881).

Darwin’s first sketches on natural selection were published by Francis Darwin (ed.), The Foundations of the Origin of Species: Two Essays Written in 1842 and 1844 (1909). His journal articles and printed letters have been published by Paul H. Barrett (ed.), The Collected Papers of Charles Darwin, 2 vol. (1977, reissued 2 vol. in 1, 1980). Part of Darwin’s “big book” that he never published, Natural Selection, appeared as R.C. Stauffer (ed.), Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection: Being the Second Part of His Big Species Book Written from 1856 to 1858 (1975, reissued 1987).

Additional Reading:

For a contextual study of Darwin’s life, see Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (1991), and a detailed two-volume biography by Janet Browne, Charles Darwin (1996–2002). An overview of the latest thinking on Darwin’s century is contained in Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence (1990). For an account of older biographical works, consult Ralph Colp, Jr., “Charles Darwin’s Past and Future Biographies,” in History of Science, 27(2):167–197 (June 1989).

Darwin’s Kent home is described in Hedley Atkins, Down, the Home of the Darwins: The Story of a House and the People who Lived There (1974). His affection for his daughter Annie as a background to his scientific work is described in Randal Keynes, Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution (2002; originally published in Britain as Annie’s Box, 2001). Darwin’s own illness and treatments are considered in Ralph Colp, Jr., To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin (1977). Darwin’s unexpurgated autobiography was published by Nora Barlow (ed.), The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–1882, with Original Omissions Restored (1958, reissued 1993).

Frederick Burkhardt et al. (eds.), The Correspondence of Charles Darwin (1985– ), is the definitive transcription and annotation of letters to and from Darwin; 12 volumes, covering the years 1821–64, had appeared by 2001. It is accompanied by Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith (eds.), A Calendar of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821–1882 (1985, reissued with supplement, 1994), which lists all 15,000 letters. See also Henrietta Litchfield (ed.), Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters, 1792–1896, 2 vol. (1915).

Darwin’s evolution notebooks are transcribed and edited by Paul H. Barrett et al. (eds.), Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836–1844 (1987); while his marginalia are transcribed in Mario A. Di Gregorio and N.W. Gill (eds.), Charles Darwin’s Marginalia, vol. 1 (1990– ). During the 1970s and ’80s, textual scholars analyzed Darwin’s notebooks in order to trace his development of the theory of natural selection. See particularly David Kohn, “Theories to Work by: Rejected Theories, Reproduction, and Darwin’s Path to Natural Selection,” in Studies in History of Biology, 4:67–170 (1980); and the articles in David Kohn (ed.), The Darwinian Heritage (1985). An incisive revisionist account of Darwin’s finch collecting on the Galapagos Islands and the development of his transmutationist views in London occurs in Frank J. Sulloway, “Darwin and His Finches: The Evolution of a Legend,” in Journal of the History of Biology, 15(1):1–53 (Spring 1982), and “Darwin’s Conversion: The Beagle Voyage and Its Aftermath,” in Journal of the History of Biology, 15(3):325–396 (Fall 1982).

The effect of Darwin’s evolutionary insights on his metaphysical views is considered in Howard E. Gruber, Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativity, 2nd ed. (1981). Darwin’s changing conceptualization of evolution in the two decades leading up to the Origin of Species is the subject of Dov Ospovat, The Development of Darwin’s Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 1838–1859 (1981, reprinted 1995).

Good summaries of the wealth of Darwin studies are Timothy Lenoir, “Essay Review: The Darwin Industry,” in Journal of the History of Biology, 20(1):115–130 (Spring 1987); and Michael Ruse, “The Darwin Industry: A Guide,” in Victorian Studies, 39(2):217–235 (Winter 1996).

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