Fate remains the enigma. Some chance event at the beginning of our lives keys in its plot. That this is so is the understanding of both folklore and the highest fiction. Dick Whittington’s cat, the stone embedded in a snowball and thrown in random mischief, the kite that caught on fire. There is a scene in Charles Darwin, John Bowlby’s abundantly detailed biography, in which we see Darwin relaxing on a sofa at Down House. He is reading George Eliot. Around him are his meticulously catalogued library, his notebooks, microscope, stacks of scientific journals. He is the preeminent scientist of his century and of ours. The great theory which he began to suspect as a young naturalist on the long voyage of The Beagle (1832-36) was one in which chance opened possibility after possibility over millions of years, so that the offspring of creatures now known only by fossils worked out a genetic fate. The bear, the wolf, and the dog are children of the same mother. Gratuitous modifications nudged each other toward divergent fates. George Eliot wrote about such things as they modified human lives in a few years; Darwin, as all of creation is modified over eons.
Darwin and his theory stand parallel to Marx and his. Their energies have radiated from the nineteenth century with something like the force of religious movements. They are theories with embattled histories. (Marx and Engels saw in Darwin a justification for their materialism, but a copy of Das Kapital, inscribed to Darwin by Marx, still sits in Darwin’s library, its pages uncut.)
Darwin and his theory stand parallel to Marx and his.
Even before the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) the theory had become a collaboration. Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist who had been up the Amazon with H. E. Bates and had in the Malay archipelago come to the conclusion that species transmute according to the advantages they have in their environment, proved to be not a rival but an ally. Thomas Henry Huxley in England and Ernst Haeckel in Germany took up the cause. The theory was born in some sense prematurely, for geology had not yet given Darwin the time needed, and Gregor Mendel’s work in genetics was as yet unknown. T. R. Malthus’s studies of population growth and food supply fed into the theory, as did the accumulated information of pigeon and horse breeding which Darwin could consult at any English farm. We have come to misunderstand the latter part of Darwin’s title, “by means of natural selection,” by which he meant that nature has its way of selective breeding, and that its purpose is the same as mankind’s in evolving the domestic dog from the wolf, a sturdier horse, a faster pigeon.
In the century and a half since its inception, Darwin’s theory has been under constant study toward its verification. It has no scientific rival. John Bowlby, in this new biography, is careful to demonstrate that Darwin was researching and offering proof for a theory of evolution rather than initiating it. He channeled into an orderly flow tributaries that go back to his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, to Lamarck and Cuvier, to Goethe, to many geologists, and even to Lucretius and Ovid.
John Bowlby (who died soon after completing this biography, last year) was a British psychiatrist who had a long and distinguished career as a doctor at the Tavistock Clinic, as a researcher in the United States (at the National Institute of Mental Health at Bethesda and at Stanford), and as an author of several studies of parenting, juvenile delinquency, and of the role of affection in families. It was this latter interest that brought him to write a book about Darwin, who was born into a large family which for two generations had been scientists, engineers, industrialists, and well-to-do landowners, and yet who, despite his genius, was a sufferer of neuroses, constant illnesses (he vomited every afternoon at four), a kind of hysteria that took the form of gasping and palpitations, and seizures of depression in which he uncontrollably wept.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica says confidently that all this can be explained by a recent diagnosis of Chagas’s Disease, caught in Argentina. Darwin recorded the bite of the insect that could have given him the disease in his Beagle journal. But as Bowlby points out in an appendix, Darwin was already suffering six months before the bite from the gastrointestinal nausea and cramps characteristic of the disease.
Bowlby’s thesis is that Darwin’s illness was psychosomatic, traceable to the loss of his mother when he was eight.
Bowlby’s thesis is that Darwin’s illness was psychosomatic, traceable to the loss of his mother when he was eight. The family was stoic (Grandpa Wedgwood, the famous potter, had a whonky knee obviated by the practical solution of amputating the offending leg) and treated death and grief by paying no attention to it.
Little Charles, Bowlby thinks, was deprived of the grief his mother’s death required. Darwin’s attacks tended to be more severe when members of his family died, and he once wrote a comforting letter to a friend who was grieving over a death in which he says that he himself had yet to suffer the death of a loved one—an obvious suppression of any memory of his mother’s death.
Fortunately, Bowlby’s account of Darwin’s life is so thoroughly professional that the reason he came to write it (to solve the mystery of Darwin’s chronic illness) does not obtrude. Genius pays for being genius. The biographies of intensely creative people are full of awful despondencies (as in the James family, in the lives of Beethoven, Nietzsche, and Melville) as well as of crippling illnesses. There’s Sir Walter Scott and Montaigne, both with excruciatingly painful kidney stones. There’s Francis Parkman, whose mysterious illnesses resemble Darwin’s.
And, confusingly, there are many artists who were orphaned early with no apparent harm, or who, like Brancusi, were turned out of the house to make their way in the world at age ten. It may well be that a deprivation of affection is psychologically ruinous, but it is also clearly true that prolonged and excessive parental care is smothering and has its own psychological disorders. Nature seems to be wonderfully flexible here. I have always thought it a spectacle for amusement that such exemplars of the French avant-garde in our time as Apollinaire, Cocteau, Marie Laurencin, and Sartre all had to report to their mamas well into their thirties. General Wolfe, the conqueror of French Canada, dutifully wrote to his mother a daily letter. Mencius praises an emperor who made no decisions in war or peace before he had consulted his mother.
Would Darwin’s mother, had she lived to a matriarchal age, have been distressed by her son’s materialistic theory in which a hazarded variation causes the success or obliteration of a species? She was a woman descended from freethinkers who had known Franklin and Jefferson. Darwin’s wife, Emma, loving companion that she was (her affectionate name for Charles was Nigger, and his for her Mammy), was anxious throughout their marriage about his indifference to religion. Though Darwin lists the concept of God among the “noble” ideas which separate man from the other animals, he had no talent himself for a belief in imaginary beings.
There are many accounts of Darwin’s sharp intellect.
Darwin’s illness has a special interest for Bowlby. What the reader will find far more interesting is Darwin’s hale and lively mind. There are many accounts of Darwin’s sharp intellect; Bowlby includes ample evidence of Darwin’s unfailing wit (though he failed to appreciate Sam Butier’s) and the elastic jump of the man’s curiosity. He was interested in practically everything. When an idea came into focus, he took it and ran with it. Between the Origin and The Descent of Man, his two masterpieces in science, there came the monumental The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. His later life was incredibly productive: the elegant treatise on the fertilization of orchids (still the authoritative work), his book on earthworms, the neglected work on the facial expressions of emotions, the autobiography (not published whole until 1958), and many botanical studies, botany having nudged zoology to one side in his old age. There was a day in June 1864 when Darwin wrote to the botanist Joseph Hooker: “I have a sudden access of furor about climbers. Do you grow Adlumia cirrhosa? Could you have a seedling dug up and potted? I want it fearfully, for it is a leaf climber and therefore sacred.” This from a man who was writing three books at once, raising a family of geniuses who still grace the scientific world, carrying on an international correspondence, and upchucking every day at four. (There has been a Darwin in the Royal Society since 1761.)
And therefore sacred. Several students of Darwinian discourse have noted that Darwin, Spinoza-like and probably unintentionally, evolved a faith in the natural forces he found the mechanics of. In successive editions of the Origin, Nature acquires a capital and a gender (female). The Origin and the Descent are an Old Testament and a New. The structure of ideas easily wears a new mask while keeping its architecture unassailable.
There is no event without a past. Once geology began to uncover the fossil record, a rational account of it was inevitable. Darwin was an orchestrator of evidence, and created a moment in knowledge when all the right questions began to find a plausible answer. The turbulence around Darwin is intellectual theater, still going strong. Not only theater, but a kind of myth—the Victorian debates between rhetorical giants, the almost instant abuse of the theory for ulterior motives, the invention of “social Darwinism” by Herbert Spencer, the Molièresque comedy in Dayton, Tennessee, the fundamentalist Creationists and flat-earthers whose real motive is to keep their hapless children from knowing about sex until the marriage night, the embarrassment of both Protestants and Catholics, the rifiuto of Islam.
Bowlby’s final chapter in this splendid biography is a coda in which he traces the careers of Darwin’s associates and detractors beyond Darwin’s death. It might well have been (especially as Bowlby seems to have come upon an incandescent energy at eighty) a sketch of Darwinism as it moved outward into the world. A moment still bright in Scandinavian intellectual history was the translation of Darwin by Jens Peter Jacobsen into Danish, coming hard on Georg Brandes’s lectures (the first in Europe) on Nietzsche. There was the touching drama in the United States of Louis Agassiz’s rejection of the theory while his colleague at Harvard Asa Gray accepted it. Darwinism rippled through literature in a rising tide. “The survival of the fittest” lost its scientific meaning of “most advantageously adapted to an environment” and became “might makes right.” Oswald Spengler thought Darwinism a mere version of British middle-class faith in Progress, unworthy of the Faustian soul.
Darwin’s first great good luck was to have been born into a family whose traditions were scientific and technological. The Darwins and Wedgwoods were broadminded and generous as well as industrious. The only cant word in Bowlby’s biography is “workaholic,” a coinage of the Rev. W. E. Oates in 1968, a Yuppy Babu word that is used in medieal circles and that probably struck Dr. Bowlby as a nifty Americanism. Bowlby would seem to have been a workaholic, but Darwin wasn’t. He was not a slave to work. He loved what he was doing, and he did it out of pure curiosity. He was not at a university, and did not lecture. His childhood had been an adventure in collecting, an activity that put him in with good minds and loyal friends. His sailing on The Beagle was a stroke of fate. The Beagle had a naturalist (he abandoned ship in a snit at the first opportunity). Darwin was along for the very British reason that the captain was a gentleman who could only associate with other gentlemen, and on a four-year scientific journey one wants company. Captain FitzRoy (Bowlby spells him correctly, and is practically alone in so doing) might have been invented by Dickens. His mind was narrow, he had not a scrap of imagination, and he was a pompous ass. Though he rose to admiral and governed New Zealand and sat on many naval boards, he was driven mad by knowing that he had harbored and dined with an atheist. While Bishop Wilberforce debated Huxley at Oxford, FitzRoy paced with a Bible before the crowd outside, shouting, “The Book! The Book!” He later slit his own throat.
Darwin’s first great good luck was to have been born into a family whose traditions were scientific and technological.
Bowlby notes that Darwin was unhappy and fretful if he wasn’t working. Genius finds its rest and its refuge in its work, let the psychiatrists make of this what they will. England had invented the British family, one of the most harmonious societies in the world. Servants ran it: Darwin had a Jeeves all his life, even on The Beagle. In his daily round Darwin had the company of a loving and congenial wife, a houseful of children and eventually grandchildren. He corresponded with every scientist in the world. The old Alexander von Humboldt came to England to meet him. It is, I suppose, mysterious that so successful a man should be a mess of hot nerves and gasping anxiety. I respect Bowlby’s diagnosis: hurt children can and do carry encrypted grief to the grave. That Darwin was extraordinarily sensitive can be seen in his notebooks where, as a very young man, he was already committing himself to an uncompromising materialism. He was careful to keep his aesthetic sense alive, and to work it into his theory, where it appears as sexual attraction. All excess of this thrilling response to the giddiness of mating is the bonus which we call art. It is wonderful to think of Die Zauberflöte as the sublimated evolution of the booming of grouse.
What Darwin had taught himself to see was an invisible text written across nature. He read the Galapagian finches (a slightly varying kind on each of a group of islands); he read the fossil record; he brought all of creation into one grand plot of chance and adaptation. He must have known that he was changing the way every honest mind saw the world. He had no illusions, but the Victorians were a pious and idealistic people. He could not foresee how Freud would parody his theory by imagining evolutionary stages in human emotions, or how the social sciences would vulgarize it, or how it would all become a popular misconception; but he did know that he was dynamiting acres of theology and redirecting all studies of the past and of nature.
Though Darwin’s easily recognized face can be found in all icons of Great Thinkers, he is not read. He was a competent writer but no stylist. The Voyage of “The Beagle”; is readable; the notebooks are fascinating. The Origin and the Descent can be read by people who enjoy tedious arguments and copious examples. For those with a taste for such things, Darwin on the fertilization of orchids and on the earthworm is engaging reading.
The art of biography was evolved for precisely such intricate lives as Darwin’s, which was lived mostly in the mind, and which has consequences and reverberations laterally in his own time and diachronically down to ours, and which far from running down is gaining momentum, attracting attention from many directions. Only now is the study of facial expressions coming into its own. Linguists are claiming Darwin as one of their pioneers. Paleontology, medicine, zoology, sociology, genetics all share a Darwinian heritage.
If Bowlby the clinician who specialized in grief wanted to write a biography of Darwin that emphasizes the enigmatic anguish of a great mind, he has succeeded. He has also written a thoroughly good biography in which Darwin is vividly present against the background of his distinguished family and his times.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 9, on page 60
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