March 2007

Barbara J. King


Celebrating Darwin with Janet Browne

Reflecting back over the weeks past, I conclude that for a bleak midwinter month (at least in my hemisphere), February packs a punch of holidays. Groundhog Day is playful for those who enthuse about rodent divination, Valentine’s Day offers the commodity more precious than diamonds (chocolate!), and President’s Day this year allowed thanksgiving for the finite nature of our current leader’s -- I use the word loosely -- term. Still, for evolutionary scientists, one February holiday outcompetes the rest: Darwin Day.

February 12 is the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday (a birth date shared with Abraham Lincoln). Global events of commemoration and celebration mark every Darwin Day, but all previous festivities will pale next to the 2009 version, when the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth coincides with the 150th anniversary of publication of Origin of Species

Darwin’s Origin of Species is the newest volume in Atlantic Monthly Press’s series called Books that Changed the World. Thanks to Darwin biographer Janet Browne, it’s compulsively readable, equally valuable to novice evolutionary thinkers and more seasoned Darwinists. Initially I’d feared being unable to dredge up lively interest -- after how many years of teaching this stuff! -- for another dip into the entrails of the Beagle voyage or the collection of Darwin-adored beetles, but in fact I learned new things and turned pages at an engaged clip. Only brief bouts of grumpiness, detailed below, interrupted my happy reading.

Browne is careful to situate Darwin in a financially secure family in Victorian England, the first of several junctures at which she links the processes and products of Darwin’s life to aspects of political economy. Raised in Shrewsbury (and I must note here: anyone raised in a Shrewsbury enjoys a fine start in life), Darwin the boy aspired to medicine as a career. At only 16 years, he enrolled in Edinburgh Medical School. In those pre-anesthesia days, it soon became apparent that medicine was not much to his liking, yet his time among the scientific elite was formative. One professor, Robert Grant, suggested that sponges were the root forms from which all other organisms developed: “Darwin therefore left Edinburgh with much wider intellectual horizons than many young men of his age. He had already learned to see the value of lofty questions about origins and causes, and directly encountered evolutionary explanations for the patterns of life, although there is no reason to think that he became an evolutionist at that time.”

Browne situates Origin in the stream of scientific thought in succinct and stimulating terms. How fascinating to think about teenage Charles encountering a tree-of-life explanation rooted in sponges! Once he left Edinburgh, Darwin took what Browne calls “the switchback ride from a coolly austere medical context to the lush theological pastures of Cambridge.” Cambridge, in turn, led him to the Beagle and the five-year voyage that would test his science and his theology in the tropical forests and coral lagoons of the beautiful diverse world. “In retrospect,” Browne writes, “perhaps the most significant aspect of the voyage was therefore not the huge collection of specimens, the sights, the dangers, or even the personal maturation and friendships he experienced, but the opportunity to develop an intense understanding of the variety of the natural world.”

Browne is good, too, on the ideas that Darwin began to develop, more back home in the English countryside than on the voyage itself: tiny gradual changes in the living world, just as in the famous geologist Lyell’s Earth; the diversification of forms from a common ancestor; the idea that nature itself did the selecting out, with some organisms surviving and reproducing, others dying off. In Darwin’s own words, quoted by Browne, “Being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence… it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.”

And it turned out, of course, to be a theory in the genuine scientific sense, that is, a set of proposals with solid evidence, the furthest thing from a mere educated guess. At the time of its publication, “everything in his book required the reader’s imagination.” By this, Browne means that Darwin, limited in ways common to any scientist of his day, lacked an understanding of genetic inheritance, had done no experiments to support his ideas, and could not know about magnificent fossil discoveries still to come. Today, imagination still fuels deeper understanding and in some cases revision of Darwin’s points, but evolutionary theory itself is solidly evidence-based, and has been for many decades.

My first bout of grumpiness with Browne flared around this issue of theory, for she uses the word uncritically and thus meaninglessly. Late in the book when she discusses linkages between Darwin’s work and race science of the day, she reviews preposterous suggestions by late 19th-century thinkers: “Carl Vogt’s theory, for example, was that each race had evolved from a different ape: whites from the chimpanzee, blacks from the gorilla, and orientals from the orang-utan.” It’s a severe disservice to readers to apply the word “theory” in this case.

Similarly, Browne blurs the issue of the evolutionary relationship of humans and apes. Discussing reactions in Darwin’s day to “the shocking possibility of ape ancestry,” it is important to state explicitly (because it is so very often gotten wrong) what Darwin himself understood: that humans evolved from an ape-like ancestor (and shared a common ancestor with, but did not develop from, the gorillas and chimpanzees we recognize now).

Browne is stellar when she invites us to think about Origin as a book rather than a collection of ideas. Darwin wrote it hurriedly to avoid being fully scooped by Alfred Russel Wallace. Book sales were tracked; debates and discussions ensued; new editions and translations were produced. The book was an immediate sensation: “It sold out to the book trade on publication day and the arguments that it ignited spread like wildfire in the public domain, becoming the first truly international scientific debate in history.” We can only wonder at how the world of science (and indeed of religion) might be different today if Origin had made for “breaking news” on internet sites and science blogs, and on myspace too!

And what of the response to Origin?  “…Victorians found it nearly impossible,” Browne notes, “to accept the idea of gradual change in animals and plants, and equally hard to displace God from the creative process… What was the purpose of our world if there were no reason for the existence of virtue? How could an ape be my grandfather?” I have been asked essentially the same two questions, sometimes earnestly and at other times jeeringly, in the past year in this country -- a great and terrible irony as we approach the 150th anniversary of Origin. But that’s a diatribe for another time…

Six editions of Origin were published in Darwin’s lifetime, selling 18,000 copies in total. Translations were made in eleven languages, too. But of course at its core this was a British book, reflective of its time and place: “It was common to use the book directly to legitimize the competition that flourished in free-enterprise Victorian capitalism… Enthusiasm for free enterprise merged readily into growing ideologies of imperialism and eugenics.” 

Browne does not shy away from these dark horrors. And the history of science past should bring light to the future. How cool it would be for every high schooler to read this book and discuss it with a knowledgeable teacher. Communities could provide copies for their school libraries. Or hey, Bill Gates, any chance you read Bookslut, as I hear you’ve been checking out some of the Teaching Company’s science courses? How about donating to high schools a good book about a great book that changed the world, in the service of aiding American scientific literacy? Darwin Day everyday -- that would be something to celebrate.

-- Barbara J. King, who grew up in New Jersey, would love to hear from any fellow Shrewsburyians.