Darwin Demystified

Darwin Demystified: Two Constructivist Analyses of the “Revolutionary” Evolutionist

            Peter J. Bowler’s biography of Charles Darwin betrays its relatively unique approach in its physical appearance before the reader ever opens it. The book itself is small, an irregularity anyone familiar with the Darwin industry would find immediately anomalistic. The cover shows a picture of young Charles, before he had acquired his iconic, wizardly white beard. Who is this awkward twenty-something-year-old Victorian? Certainly not the grandfatherly and wise-looking Charles Darwin perpetuated by most biographers.

The general editor’s preface elucidates what exactly will be different about this evidently atypical biography. Part of the Cambridge Science Biographies series, Bowler’s work will concentrate on placing Charles Darwin in his context. Instead of focusing on Darwin the man — which is admittedly part of every biography and will not be completely eliminated — the book will pay special attention to those before him and his influence immediately after The Origin’s publication on into the modern world. It will thus attempt to take Darwin the legend, the exceptional genius who single-handedly revolutionized biology and provided the base for an entire scholarly industry, and place him in his time, surrounded by his influences. It will show that Darwin is not who we have been told he is; he is not the godlike, bearded messiah of biological enlightenment. He, like all of us, was a product of his time, and his ideas were not entirely his own, but built off of a complex network of cultural, social, economic, and scholarly influences. Both as an intellectual being before The Origin and afterward by those that told his story, Darwin was created. Charles Darwin was constructed like science was and is constructed — and both are undeniably human. Peter Bowler will deconstruct Darwin and reveal his humanity.

By presenting Darwin as someone both influential and influenced, Bowler opens up an avenue through which he can explore the scientific environment leading up to The Origin and how the community was changed after its publication. He does this by first laying out the basics of Darwin’s life at the beginning of each chapter, and then delving into the Victorian and scientific trends that played into Darwin’s thoughts and the reception — or condemnation — of them. As an example, in chapter three, “Young Darwin,” after an outline of available sources helpful in analyzing Darwin’s life, Bowler gives a brief synopsis of the Darwin family (highlighting Erasmus’s contributions to early thought on transmutation) and Darwin’s early schooling before moving straight into a discussion on the state of natural history during the young Darwin’s training.

The author begins his investigation by discussing the reason many natural philosophers, physicists, anatomists, physicians, and a plethora of other scientifically-inclined professions (at a time before “scientist” was an occupation) felt driven to raise questions concerning species generation or fixity. An outline of the fossil record had been constructed in the first half of the century, a development that required explanation. Some members of the scientific community, namely Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, publishing in 1809, Robert Chambers in in 1844, and Robert Grant around early- and mid-century, proposed the radical idea of “transmutation” — that is, species changing over time. This stood in stark ideological contrast to the previous and prevailing opinion of the fixity of species; God created each organism at the beginning of time, and they had remained in the same form to the present. Bowler argues that the fossil record forced even those most fundamentally minded in regards to the fixity of species to alter their beliefs. Instead of every species being exactly as they were when God created them at the beginning, they began to admit that extinction was a reality. Therefore, in a series of catastrophic extinction events, earlier species were destroyed and replaced by God in a new round of life forms.

In talking about Darwin’s predecessors, Bowler delves not only into the scientific issues with which Victorians were concerning themselves; these problems touched on political matters pertinent to the general populace as well. A time of political anxiety, Victorian England was a place very concerned with hierarchy. The French Revolution had overthrown the oldest and most structured European form of social order, and political revolutionaries of the same inclination were attempting to depose the British aristocracy. As is so often the case, science provided an avenue through which these anxieties were manifested in the form of attempted control. If a natural, stable hierarchy could be proven in the context of species fixity, an argument could be made that every human has his or her place, and in that place they must stay. It would be unnatural, for example, for a deer, a lower form of life, to transcend natural barriers and become a mighty lion, powerful and authoritative. In the same way, it was unheard of for a poor farmer to eclipse social impediments to become a duke. It was not, and could not, for the sake of social order, be possible. When Robert Grant or Robert Chambers suggested the transmutation of species, it was the transmutation of humans in the social hierarchy that struck fear in many Victorians. If transmutation were made natural, even imperative for survival, the political implications for the aristocracy were very real and very disagreeable.

By deconstructing Darwin, Peter Bowler paints a picture of Victorian England that addresses many of the issues its citizens were tackling. This insightful project will no doubt prove useful to historians of nineteenth century science and culture by contextualizing ideas, trends, and practices developed and accepted or rejected in the Victorian atmosphere. Rebecca Stott, in the first three chapters of her book Darwin and the Barnacle, offers a similar approach; using Charles Darwin’s time at Edinburgh, she artfully brings to the fore important aspects of the Victorian scientific landscape that created and influenced its many scientific men. She does this in a distinct way, however, disparate from Bowler’s methods. Instead of a deconstruction, Stott offers a construction. She starts from the influences and works her way into Darwin, in much the same way the natural philosopher himself would have experienced it. While Bowler’s biography is far broader, covering Darwin’s entire life and even the intellectual playing field before and after his major contribution, Stott’s focus is more on his formative years at Edinburgh and their effect on his studies thereafter. Using more of a microhistorical approach, Stott spends a great deal of time setting the scene; she describes the beaches and tide pools where Darwin and his colleagues in the Plinain Society found specimens, the relationships Darwin had with Robert Grant and John Coldstream, and his sickly episodes on The Beagle. Instead of deconstructing Darwin to find his influences, she uses his influences to create the researcher and theorist he would become.

The focus of Grant and later Darwin and Coldstream on the sea and its less notable inhabitants (to most modern readers at least) at first seems odd. Stott quickly brings the reader into the mind of a Victorian naturalist, however, when she describes the theories they would have been reading about — that the origins of life could have emerged from a “primordial ocean” — and the fascination with which they examined sea sponges in order to understand them. These ambiguous creatures existed on the fringes of classification, neither truly plant nor truly animal. The fossil record, the major impetus according to Bowler, certainly stimulated research into how species developed and populated the planet. But these organisms, defying classification before the very eye of the scientist, promoted impassioned and novel thoughts about biodiversity and the geographical distribution of species. Were these strange sea creatures reminiscent of the earliest life forms? Did the sea, the theoretical breeding ground for the earth’s first life, still contain its secrets? What were these creatures, and how did they fit into the strict categorization of earthly life forms? By transcending the natural boundaries in a much more concrete way than fossils, these organisms demanded attention and ultimately a theory to explain their problematic existence. Stott solidifies the powerful influence of Darwin’s time at Edinburgh by taking note of the fact that a good portion of his work aboard The Beagle was devoted to the gather and study of sea creatures.

Both authors treat Darwin’s time at Edinburgh as formative, but Stott uses these years and the professional relationships acquired during them to highlight research trends and thought patterns that would later prove influential not only to Darwin but to natural historians everywhere — and also, to some extent, to the general population. The sea (especially the deep, previously completely inaccessible part of it) was taking on an important role in the nineteenth century as the last earthly frontier, and the organisms that made this vast body of little understood water their home were of particular interest to many.[1] Stott’s approach offers a more minute, in-depth look at why and how sea creatures inspired evolutionary thought, a useful observation for understanding the part the ocean played in promoting scientific investigation into species formation, extinction, and differentiation. Her work illuminates the scientific process on a more personal, understandable level. Bowler, in contrast, hits the main points of Darwin’s Edinburgh experience, namely his professional associations and interest in oceanic life as research material, but primarily uses other periods of Darwin’s life for his purposes of elucidating the Victorian scientific atmosphere. His approach is more all-encompassing, focusing on major ideological trends and how they played into the generation and reception of scientific work, but in its extensity, it feels more mechanical. It is certainly useful in understanding Victorian English science, but some of the intrinsic motivations of those who practiced it remain mysterious.

By constructing Darwin, specifically during his time at Edinburgh, Rebecca Stott presents a way of experiencing the philosopher’s influences through his own eyes. We can understand why he constructed his own theory by seeing and experiencing what he did. By deconstructing him, Peter Bowler provides a bird’s eye view of Darwin’s life, placing him in context from an outsider’s perspective. We can understand how, in the context of his time, he came to produce a work like The Origin. Both authors focus on what makes Charles Darwin, and both approaches demystify the man, making him once again human. They attack the assumption, so often inherent in less sophisticated studies of Darwin’s life, that he transcended his time to propose a theory so revolutionary it put him on a pedestal for eternity. Like Newton, he too stood on the shoulders of giants, and like all human beings he was influenced by the culture and scientific environment of his time. This idea, Darwin constructed, brings to light an important point in the history of scientific theory, especially as far as apropos methodology is concerned — the men and women who created these theories were themselves created, and we should never forget that they instill their humanity into their formulations.

[1] David Lebrun, Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision, film, directed by David Lebrun (2004; Night Fire Films, 2004).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s