Why Darwin?

Charles Darwin: Voyaging

by Janet Browne
Knopf, 605 pp., $35.00


Most young men of the time could only fantasize, but Charles Darwin experienced the overt drama of his century’s archetypal episode in the personal story we now call “coming of age”: a five-year voyage of pure adventure (and much science) circumnavigating the globe on H.M.S. Beagle. Returning to England at age twenty-seven, Darwin became a homebody and never again left his native land, not even to cross the English Channel. Nonetheless, his subsequent life included two internal dramas for more intense, far more portentous, and (for anyone who can move beyond the equation of swashbuckling with excitement) far more interesting than anything he had experienced as a world traveler: first, the intellectual drama of discovering both the factuality and mechanism of evolution; and second, the emotional drama of recognizing (and relishing) the revolutionary implications of evolution, while fearing the pain that revelation would impose upon both his immediate family and the surrounding society.

The Beagle years occupy (as they must) the central section of the three-part organization that Janet Browne has chosen for her long biography, which covers just the first part of Darwin’s life (until his decision, in the mid-1850s, to resolve the emotional drama and finally prepare his evolutionary views for publication). The second volume, now in preparation, will cover the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, and Darwin’s amazingly productive life thereafter (he died in 1882). In this first volume, the first part covers birth to Beagle, the second the voyage itself, and the third Darwin’s rich English life in the twenty years between his return and his fateful decision.

Janet Browne is a leading historian of science and a central figure in what can only be called the “Darwin industry.” Her book deserves the adjectives of praise traditionally used by reviewers to describe masterpieces—all but one. It is wonderful and marvelous, even magisterial. But Browne’s book is not—because it cannot be—“definitive.” Too many Darwins dwelled within this enormously complex man—some up front but elusive in their superficiality, others elusive for reasons of concealment but inferable, thanks to Darwin’s obsessive habit of recording his thoughts and experiences. Still others may be truly hidden by Darwin’s selective internal editing according to Victorian standards. Moreover, scholars can evoke intellectual Darwins, psychological Darwins, sociological Darwins, family-minded, class-based, institutionally embedded, or ideologically framed Darwins—and each may be entirely satisfying. Any biography, to rank as a forceful and coherent statement, must choose one or only a few of these Darwins as a central subject—and all are both “true” and enlightening. No biography of Darwin, therefore, can possibly be definitive.

Browne’s two hundred pages on the Beagle voyage, chronicling the adventures of Charles Darwin as a vigorous and energetic young man (he exceeded six feet in height and could match anyone on board for physical endurance)—so different from our stereotypical image of Darwin in later life as a housebound invalid—are fascinating to read and provide the added bonus of documenting a brilliant man’s intellectual growth. But some twenty pages each on Darwin’s transition from doubting creationist to firm evolutionist, and on his tortuous formulation of the principle of natural selection (the intellectual drama) struck me as far more thrilling, both for exposing the depth of Darwin’s internal effort and distress, and for the impact upon human history wrought by his resolution of these dramas. The same could be said about the numerous paragraphs and sketches throughout the third part of the book on Darwin’s reticence about revealing himself (the emotional drama).

What could possibly be more exciting than the events of early 1837? Darwin has been home from his voyage for a few months, living in London, carefully making the right contacts, working on his Beagle specimens. He learns that his small Galapagos birds are all finches, and not members of several different families, as he had thought. He never suspected this result, and had therefore not recorded the separate islands where he had collected them. (Theory always influences our manner of collecting facts. As a creationist on the voyage itself, Darwin never imagined that the birds could have had a common source and then differentiated locally. According to the creationist view, all must have been created “for” the Galapagos, and the particular island of discovery therefore did not matter. But in any evolutionary reading, and with all the birds so closely related, their dwelling places now mattered intensely.) He therefore tries to reconstruct the data from memory. Ironically (in view of the depth of their later enmity over evolution), he even writes to Captain FitzRoy of the Beagle in order to get birds that his old boss had collected—and labeled much more carefully!

On March 14, his ornithological consultant, John Gould, presents a paper at the Zoological Society, showing that the small rhea, a large flightless bird, collected by Darwin in southern Patagonia, is a new species, and not merely a geographical variant as Darwin had thought. Gould heightened Darwin’s interest enormously by naming the bird Rhea darwinii. Browne now writes:

This moment more than any other in Darwin’s life…deserves to be called a turning point. Darwin was tantalized by the week’s results. Why should two closely similar rheas agree to split the country between them? Why should different finches inhabit identical islets? The Galapagos iguana, he was further told by Thomas Bell, similarly divided themselves among the islands, and the heavily built tortoises with their individualized shells again came to mind.

Darwin now made a key analogy. Has any truly brilliant insight ever been won by pure deduction, and not by metaphor or analogy? Darwin realized that the different species of finches and rheas each inhabited specific territories right next to the domain of another species. If both finches and rheas replace each other geographically, then shouldn’t temporal succession also occur in continuity—that is, by evolution rather than successive creation? Darwin had collected important and entirely novel fossils of large mammals. He thought, and his expert consultant Richard Owen had affirmed, that the fossils of one creature, later named Macrauchenia by Owen, stood close to the guanaco, a modern South American mammal closely related to the llama. Darwin had a key flash of insight and wrote in a small private notebook: “The same kind of relation that common ostrich [rhea] bears to Petisse [the new species Rhea darwinii], extinct guanaco to recent; in former case position, in latter time.”

Darwin had not become an evolutionist during the Beagle voyage, but he had fallen under the spell of the theory of gradualism and uniformity in the earth’s development, a view identified with his intellectual hero, the English geologist Charles Lyell. Darwin, at this stage of his career, was primarily a geologist, not a biologist. He wrote three books on geological subjects inspired by the Beagle voyage—on coral reefs, volcanic islands, and the geology of South America—but none strictly on zoology. Browne writes that Darwin

was convinced that the majestic story of nature could be explained by the accumulation of little things. Though clear enough to him through Lyell’s writings, this notion was given physical reality by Darwin’s geological researches in Chile and became the hub of all his later biological thinking.

Lyell, well apprised of Darwin’s beliefs and accomplishments, rejoiced at first in the prospect of a potential disciple, schooled in the field of nature. “How I long for the return of Darwin!” he wrote to Adam Sedgwick, Darwin’s old Cambridge geology teacher. Darwin and Lyell quickly became inseparable—in part as guru and disciple, in part simply as friends. Browne writes of Lyell:

Darwin was the first naturalist to use his “Principles” effectively: Lyell’s first, and in many ways his only fully committed disciple. “The idea of the Pampas going up at the rate of an inch in a century, while the western coast and Andes rise many feet and unequally, has long been a dream of mine,” Lyell excitedly scrawled to him in October. “What a field you have to write on! If you cannot get here for dinner, you must if possible join the evening party.”

In the crucial weeks after the return of the Beagle, then, Darwin had reached evolution by a double analogy: between geographic and temporal variation, and between geological and biological gradualism. He began to fill notebook after notebook with cascading implications. He numbered the volumes, starting with A for more factual matters of zoology, but describing a second set, M and N, as “full of metaphysics on morals and speculations on expression.” He drew a tree of life on one of the pages, and then had an attack of caution, writing with a linguistic touch from Beagle days: “Heaven knows whether this agrees with Nature—Cuidado [watch out].”

I tell this story at some length both for its intrinsic excitement, and to present an interesting tidbit that Browne, as a historian but not a paleontologist, may not know (or at least does not record)—and thus I may make one tiny contribution from my own profession. For those who still cherish the myth that fact alone drives any good theory, I must point out that Darwin, at his key moment of insight—making his analogy from geography to time and evolution—was quite wrong in his example. Macrauchenia is not, after all, an ancestor (or even a close relative) of guanacos, but a member of a unique and extinct South American mammalian group, the Litopterna. South America was an island continent, a kind of “Superaustralia” with a fauna even richer and more bizarre than Australia’s until the Isthmus of Panama rose just a few million years ago and joined the continent with North America. Several orders of large mammals, now extinct, had evolved there, including the litopterns, with lineages that converged by independent adaptation upon the horses and camels of other continents.

One may not wish to become as cavalier as Charles’s brother Erasmus, who considered The Origin of Species “the most interesting book” he had ever read, and who wrote of any factual discrepancy: “The a priori reasoning is so entirely satisfactory to me that if the facts won’t fit in, why so much for the facts is my feeling.” But beautiful (and powerful) theories are not killed by the “nasty, ugly little fact” of T.H. Huxley’s famous statement—nor should they be so destroyed in a recalcitrant world where reported “facts” so often turn out to be wrong. Fact and theory interact in wondrously complex, and often mutually reinforcing, ways. Theories unsupported by fact are empty (and, if unsupportable in principle, meaningless in science); but we cannot even know where to look without some theory to test. As Darwin wrote in my favorite quotation: “How can anyone not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service?” Evolution is powerful, integrating, and correct; whatever the historical interest in this tale, and despite the irony of the situation, it matters not a whit that Darwin’s crucial analogy, at his moment of eureka, resided in factual error.

This issue of interaction between fact and theory brings us to the core of our fascination with Darwin’s biography. Darwin was an accumulator of facts nonpareil—in part because he had the right theory and knew where to look; in part as a consequence of his obsessive thoroughness; in part as a benefit of his personal wealth and connections. But he also developed one of the most powerful and integrative theoretical constructions—and surely the most disturbing to traditional views about the meaning of human life—in Western history: natural selection. How could he do so much? He seems so unlikely a candidate.


In addition to general benefits conferred by wealth and access to influential circles, Darwin enjoyed specific predisposing advantages for becoming the midwife of evolution. His grandfather Erasmus had been a famous writer, physician, and freethinker. (In the first sentence of P.B. Shelley’s preface to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, he had, in order to justify Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment, alluded to Erasmus Darwin’s atheistical view on the possibility of quickening matter by electricity.) Erasmus died before Charles’s birth, but the grandson studiously read and greatly admired his grandfather’s writing—and Erasmus Darwin had been a thoroughgoing evolutionist. Charles studied medicine in Edinburgh, where he became close to his teacher Robert Grant, a committed Lamarckian evolutionist who was delighted to have Erasmus’s grandson as a student. And then, of course, Darwin enjoyed the grandest privilege of five years’ exposure to nature’s diversity aboard the Beagle. Still, he remained a creationist, if suffused with nascent doubt, when he returned to London in 1836.

Some people display their brilliance in their cradles—as with Mill learning classics and Mozart writing symphonies almost before either of them could walk. We are not surprised when such men become “geniuses”; in fact, we expect that they will, unless illness or idiosyncrasy conquer innate promise. Browne, as I shall discuss later, focuses her biography on the dynamics of Darwin’s successive families—parental, shipboard, and conjugal—for the three sections of her book. This rich and hitherto underexploited approach heightens the mystery of “Why Darwin?” in the first section, but provides enough hints for a resolution in the last two parts (with some harbingers in the first).

Descriptions of Darwin’s early years could only lead to a prediction of a worthy but undistinguished life. Absolutely nothing in any record documents the usual characteristics of intellectual brilliance. Geniality and fecklessness emerge as Darwin’s most visible dominating traits. “He was so quiet,” Browne writes, “that relatives found it difficult to say anything about his character beyond an appreciative nod toward an exceedingly placid temperament.” “Geniality was what was most often remembered by Darwin’s school-friends: the good-humored acquiescence of an inward-looking boy who did not appear much to mind whatever happened in life…. Some could barely remember Darwin when asked for anecdotes at the close of his life.”

Darwin did develop a passion for natural history, expressed most keenly in his beetle collection—but many children, then and now, become devotees to such a hobby for a transient moment in a life leading elsewhere. No one could have predicted The Origin of Species from a childhood insect collection. Darwin was an indifferent student in every phase of his formal education. Sickened by the sight of blood, he abandoned medical studies in Edinburgh. He obtained the Victorian equivalent of a “gentleman’s C” degree at Cambridge, spending most of his time gambling, drinking, and hunting with his upper-class pals. His father became so frustrated when Charles quit Edinburgh that he admonished his son: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” Charles recounted the episode in his Autobiography, written late in life with characteristic Victorian distance and emotional restraint: “He was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination.”

Robert Waring Darwin therefore sent his unpromising boy to Cambridge, where he could follow the usual course for gentle and unambitious later-born sons and train for the sinecure of a local parsonage. Charles showed the same interest in religion that he manifested at the time for all other academic subjects save natural history—none at all. He went along, faute de mieux, in his usual genial and feckless way. He still planned to become a minister during the entire Beagle voyage—though I am quite sure that his thoughts always went to the scope for amateur work in natural history that such a job provided and not at all to the salvation of souls, or even the weekly sermon.

The Beagle worked its alchemy in many ways, mostly perhaps in the simple ontogenetic fact that five years represents a lot of living during one’s mid-twenties and tends to mark a passage to maturity. Robert Waring Darwin, apprised by scientific colleagues of his son’s remarkable collections and insights, surrendered to the inevitable change from religion to science. His sister Susan wrote to Charles as the Beagle sailed home: “Papa and we often cogitate over what you will do when you return, as I fear there are but small hopes of your still going in the church:—I think you must turn professor at Cambridge.”

But the mystery remains. Why Darwin? No one thought him dull, but no one marked him as brilliant either. And no one discerned in him that primary emotional correlate of greatness that our modern age calls “fire in the belly.” Thomas Carlyle, a good judge, who knew both Darwin brothers, Charles and Erasmus, well, considered Erasmus as far superior in intelligence.

I think that any solution to this key puzzle in Darwinian biography must begin with a proper exegesis of intelligence—one that rejects Charles Spearman’s old notion of a single scalar quantity recording overall mental might (called g, or general intelligence, and recently revived by Murray and Herrnstein as the central fallacy of their specious book The Bell Curve). Instead, we need a concept of intelligence as a substantial set of largely independent attributes. This primary alternative to g has its own long and complex history, from an extreme in misuse by the old phrenologists, to the modern, tenable versions initiated by Louis L. Thurstone and J.P. Guilford and best represented today by the work of Howard Gardner.

I do not know what g-score might be awarded to Darwin by a modern Spearmanian. I do know, however that we need the alternate view of in dependent multiplicity to grasp Darwin’s triumph in the light of such un promising beginnings (unpromising in the apparently hopeless sense of little talent combined with maximal opportunity, rather than the more tractable Horatio Alger mode of great promise in difficult circumstances).

Moreover, the theory of multiplicity includes an important historical and philosophical consequence for understanding human achievement. If Spearman had been correct, and if intelligence were a single, innately provided and largely invariant quantity that could be plotted on a single scale, then we might frame a predictive and largely biological model of achievement with a predominant basis in blood lines and a substrate in neurology. But the theory of multiplicity demands a different kind of attention to narrative details—and a biography like Browne’s thereby gains credence because the theory of multiplicity requires the amplitude of exposition she provides, and not only for the inherent fascination of learning about so many bits and pieces.

If the sum of a person’s achievement must be sought in a subtle combination of differing attributes, each affected in marvelously varying ways by complexities of external circumstances and the interplay of psyche and society, then no account of particular accomplishment can be drawn simply from prediction based on inherited mental rank. Achieved brilliance must be (1) a happy combination of fortunate strength in several independent attributes joined with (2) an equally fortuitous combination of external circumstances (personal, familial, societal, and historical) so that (3) such a unique mental convergence can solve a major puzzle about the construction of natural reality. Explanations of this kind can only be achieved through dense narrative. No shortcuts exist; the answer lies in a particular concatenation of details—and these must be elucidated and integrated descriptively.


I used to think that the last section of Darwin’s autobiography (on “mental qualities”) amounted to little more than a lie, enforced by conventions of Victorian public modesty, since Darwin could not speak openly about his strengths. The very last line is, indeed, a tad disingenuous: “With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.”

In rereading this statement while preparing this review I have changed my mind. I now view Darwin’s assessment of his strengths and weaknesses as probably quite accurate, but set in the false context of his own belief in something close to a Spearmanian definition of brilliance. He had internalized a fairly stereotypical notion of an acme in scientific reasoning (mainly mathematical ability and lightning quick powers of deduction), and he recognized that he possessed no great strength of that kind. He understood what he could do well, but he granted those powers only secondary rank and importance. If he had embraced the notion of intelligence as a plethora of largely independent attributes, and had also recognized (as he did for the evolution of organisms) that great achievement also requires a happy concatenation of uncontrollable external circumstances, then he might not have been surprised by his own success.

Darwin begins the last section of his autobiography with deep regret for his weaknesses:

I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men, for instance, Huxley…. My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics.

He then almost apologizes for his much humbler positive qualities:

Some of my critics have said, “Oh, he is a good observer, but he has no power of reasoning!” I do not think that this can be true, for the “Origin of Species” is one long argument from the beginning to the end, and it has convinced not a few able men. No one could have written it without having some power of reasoning. I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent…. From my early youth I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed…. These causes combined have given me the patience to reflect or ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem.

The beginning of the final paragraph, then, beautifully summarizes the argument that I advocate here—sublime achievement as a unique joining, at a favorable social and historical moment, of a synergistic set of disparate mental attributes. But Darwin does not accept this definition and therefore views his achievement—which he does not deny, for he was not, internally at least, a modest man—as something of a puzzle:

Therefore my success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions.

The power of Browne’s biography lies mainly in her thick description of both the various attributes of mind (multiple intelligences) that motivated Darwin’s work and powered his conclusions, and the conjunction of numerous external factors that fed his triumph.

Darwin’s multiple intelligences: As the greatest veil-coverers of recent times, the Victorians not only hid their sexual habits. More generally, they concealed most displays of passion for anything. Since passion may be the common ground for Darwin’s diverse strengths, and since he so carefully constructed an external persona of dispassionate gentility, this wellspring of his greatness can easily be missed. But the sheer accumulative density of Browne’s documentation eventually prevails.

We come to understand, first of all, Darwin’s enormous energy—whether overt and physical when he was young and active on the Beagle, or cerebral when he became an invalid for most of his adult life. (Some people just seem to live at a higher plane of intensity, and must see most of us as we view the languorous world of a sloth.) We often miss this theme with Darwin because he led such a quiet life as an adult and spent so much time prostrated by illness. But I am, of course, speaking about an internal drive. Our minds are blank or unproductive most of the time (filled with so much Joycean buzz that we can’t sort out a useful theme). Darwin must have been thinking with useful focus virtually all the time, even on his sickbed. I don’t quite understand how this intense energy meshes with Darwin’s placidity of personality (as expressed so strongly from earliest days), the geniality that makes him so immensely likable among history’s geniuses—usually a far more prickly lot. Perhaps he just kept the prickly parts under wraps because he had been schooled as such an eminent Victorian. Perhaps (a more likely alternative, I think), emotional placidity and level of intrinsic energy are just different things.

In any case, this energy—expressed as passion, wide-ranging curiosity, thoroughness, zeal, even ruthlessness at times—drove Darwin’s achievements. Browne shows us the most overt form of energy in Darwin’s roving over South America, trekking for weeks across mountains and deserts because he heard some rumor about fossil bones at the other end—and then, with equal restlessness, thinking and thinking about his results until he could encompass them in a broad theoretical conception. (For example, Darwin developed a correct theory for the origin of coral reefs—his first great contribution to science—by reading and pondering about them before he ever reached Pacific atolls for direct observation.)

Back in London, Darwin virtually moved into the Athenaeum club by day, using its excellent library as his private preserve, reading the best books on all subjects from cover to cover. Browne writes:

Something of Darwin’s mettle also showed through in the way he set off on a lifetime’s programme of reading in areas formerly holding only faint attractions. He tackled David Hume, Adam Smith, and John Locke in turn; Herbert Mayo’s Philosophy of Living (1837), Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, and John Abercrombie’s Inquiries Concerning the Intellectual Powers and the Investigation of Truth (1838) came between Gibbon and Sir Walter Scott.

As he reads theory and philosophy in all fields, he also begins an almost obsessive querying and recording of anyone in any station who might supply him with information about natural history:

He asked Mark, Dr. Darwin’s [his father’s] coachman, for his opinion on dogs, and Thomas Eyton for his views on owls and pigs. He made Fox [his cousin] struggle with a deluge of farmyard questions of all shapes and sizes. He struck up a correspondence with his Uncle Jos about Staffordshire worms…. Darwin elaborated this way of proceeding into one of the most distinctive aspects of his life’s work. When seeking information on any new topic, he learned to go straight to the breeders and gardeners, the zookeepers, Highland ghillies, and pigeon fanciers of Victorian Britain, who possessed great practical expertise and, as Darwin fondly imagined, hardly any interest in pursuing larger theoretical explanations…. Being a gentleman—being able to use his social position to draw out material from people rarely considered scientific authorities in their own right—was important. His notebooks began bulging with details methodically appropriated from a world of expertise normally kept separate from high science.

Darwin went through these intense cycles of reading, pondering, noting, asking, corresponding, and experimenting over and over again in his career. He proceeded in this way when he wrote four volumes on the taxonomy of barnacles in the late 1840s and mid-1850s, when he experimented on the biogeography of floating seeds in the 1850s, and on fertilization of orchids by insects in the early 1860s, and when he bred pigeons, studied insectivorous and climbing plants, and measured rates of formation of soil by worms.

He coordinated the multiple intelligences that can seek, obtain, and order such information with his great weapon, a secret revealed only to a few within his innermost circle until he published The Origin of Species in 1859—the truth of evolution explained by the mechanism of natural selection. I don’t think that he could have made sense of so much, or been able to keep going with such concentration and intensity, without a master key of this kind. He must have used yet another part of his extraordinary intelligence to wrest this great truth from nature. But once he did so he could then bring all his other mentalities to bear upon a quest never matched for expansiveness and import: to reformulate all understanding of nature, from bacterial physiology to human psychology, as a history of physical continuity, “descent with modification” in his words. Had he not noted, with justified youthful hubris in an early notebook, “He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke”?

Darwin’s fortunate circumstances: All the world’s brilliance, and all the soul’s energy, cannot combine to produce historical impact without a happy coincidence of external factors that cannot be fully controlled: the health and peace required to live into adulthood; sufficient social acceptability to gain a hearing; and life in a century able to understand (though not necessarily, at least at first, to believe). George Eliot, in the preface to Middlemarch, wrote about the pain of brilliant women without opportunity:

Here and there a cygnet is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind. Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heartbeats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances instead of centering in some long-recognizable deed.

Darwin had the good fortune to be a member of that currently politically incorrect but ever-so-blessed group—upper-class white males of substantial wealth and great opportunity. This subject, a staple of recent Darwin biographies, has been particularly well exploited by Adrian Desmond in several works and by Desmond and James Moore in their recent biography, Darwin.* Though the theme is now familiar to me, I never cease to be amazed by the pervasive, silent, and apparently frictionless functioning (in smoothness of operation, not lack of emotionality) of the Victorian gentleman’s world—the clubs, the networks, the mutual favors, the exclusions of some people, with never a word mentioned. Darwin just slid into that world and stuck there. He used his wealth, his illnesses, his country residence, his protective wife for one overarching purpose: to shield himself from ordinary responsibility and to acquire precious time for intellectual work. Darwin knew exactly what he was doing and wrote in his autobiography: “I have had ample leisure from not having to earn my own bread. Even ill-health, though it has annihilated several years of my life, has saved me from the distractions of society and amusement.”

Browne covers this familiar ground in new depth, but her greatest contribution lies in a theme that has always been recognized but, strangely, never exploited as a major focus for a Darwin biography—the dynamics of immediate family. (Not accidentally, I am sure, this theme has become the most fashionable of all subjects for the 1990s, and one that, to later historians, will probably define our premillennial decade). Browne ranges widely among Darwin’s experiences on the Beagle and among Darwin’s social and intellectual connections, but she keeps returning to the immediate potentiators in Darwin’s intimate family circles.

I had never realized, for example, just how rich and powerful Darwin’s father had been. I had known that he was a famous physician, but I hadn’t appreciated his role as the most prominent moneylender in the county. He was a fair and patient man, but nearly everyone who was anyone owed him something. And I feel even more enlightened about the warm and enabling (in the good sense) relationship of Charles and his remarkable wife, Emma, whose unwritten biography remains, in my view, one of the strangest absences in our scholarship about nineteenth-century life. (Sources exist in abundance for more than a few Ph.D.s. We even know the cumulative results of thirty years of nightly backgammon games between Charles and Emma; for Charles, as I have said, was an ardent recorder of details.) Quite enough has been said about Emma and other family ties as sources of Charles’s hesitancies and cautions (and I accept, as substantially true, the old cliché that Charles delayed publication because he feared the impact of his freethinking ideas upon the psyche of his devout wife). But we need to give more attention and study—and Browne has made an excellent beginning—to Darwin’s family as promoters of his astonishing achievement.

If I had to summarize the paradoxes of Darwin’s complex persona in a phrase, I would say that he was a philosophical and scientific radical, a political liberal, and a social conservative (in the sense of life-style, not necessarily of belief)—and that he was equally passionate about all three contradictory tendencies. Many biographers have argued that the intellectual radical is the “real” Darwin, with the social conservative as a superficial aspect of his character, serving to hide an inner self and intent. To me, this heroically Platonic view is nonsense. If a serial killer has love in his heart, is he not a murderer nonetheless? And if a man with evil thoughts works consistently for the good of his fellows, do we not properly honor his overt deeds? All the Darwins are parts of a complex whole; all are equally him. We must acknowledge all facets to fully understand a person, and not try to peel away layers toward a nonexistent archetypal core. Darwin hid many of his selves consummately well, and we shall have to excavate if we wish to comprehend him. I am not fazed. Paleontologists know about digging.

  1. *

    Warner Books, 1992.