Darwin Unbuttoned

Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836–1844: Geology, Transmutation of Species, Metaphysical Enquiries

transcribed and edited by Paul H. Barrett and Peter J. Gautrey and Sandra Herbert and David Kohn and Sydney Smith
British Museum (Natural History) and Cornell University Press, 747 pp., $75.00

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin Volume 3: 1844–1846

edited by Frederick Burkhardt, edited by Sydney Smith
Cambridge University Press, 523 pp., $37.50

Sir Peter Medawar once described the scientific paper as a fraud. His point was not that the scientific paper misrepresents nature (though of course it may), but rather that it misrepresents science. Typically, a scientific paper presents a formal and highly idealized account of research, written according to a set of standard conventions. Problems are set up, methods of investigation are described, results are given, and conclusions are drawn; but nowhere does the reader learn very much about how scientific research is done, or about where original scientific insights come from.

The reason for this “fraud” is perfectly plain. The scientist’s first duty is not to explain the secret of his or her success, nor yet to provide a blow-by-blow account of how any particular investigation was actually conducted; rather, it is to gain professional recognition for what has been done. Such recognition is necessary to the scientist’s ability to continue research, and in practice it entails the recasting of research results according to the public conventions of the scientific community. The inevitable result of such recasting is that the scientific text becomes, in part at least, something of a public relations exercise.

There are few better examples of this process of recasting in the interests of good public relations than Charles Darwin’s most famous work, On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, Or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). The thesis of this book was that species are related to one another by descent with modification from common ancestors, the modification being caused principally by the survival and reproduction of advantageous genetic varieties in the universal struggle for existence. This idea of evolution by natural selection is familiar enough today: but in 1859 it was a truly revolutionary insight, full of the most profound and unsettling implications for traditional views of God, nature, human nature, and society.

Darwin was very well aware of how controversial his new theory would be, and he took great pains to present it as persuasively and unoffensively as possible. He took the trouble to make his book conform to the strictest Victorian scientific conventions. Natural selection was defended as a true cause (vera causa) by close analogy with the artificial selection familiar from the work of stock-breeders; and the theory was advanced, not as a proven fact, but rather as the best hypothesis capable of explaining a very great diversity of familiar biological and geological evidence. Similarly, Darwin also contrived to make his book conform to contemporary theological conventions. The argument was couched in theologically orthodox terms, and it excluded all but the most fleeting references to the religiously sensitive question of human origins.

By means of such strategies, Darwin constructed a brilliantly persuasive argument for evolution by natural selection. To a considerable extent, however, he achieved this public relations success by effectively covering his tracks as a creative scientist. The Origin tells us almost nothing worth knowing about how Darwin came upon his revolutionary view of the living world, or about what he took to be its larger philosophical, religious, and social implications. The plain fact is that in 1859 Darwin was far too good a scientific politician to risk giving hostage to fortune by letting the general public in on the full story of his more than twenty-year-long quest for a comprehensive theory of organic evolution.

Darwin was nothing if not discreet; but, fortunately for us, he also possessed two other characteristic Victorian virtues. First, he was an inveterate diarist, note taker, and letter writer; and second, he was a man of strict and methodical habits, whose practice it was to keep practically all of his own and his correspondents’ writings (even if only, as in the case of the original manuscript of the Origin, for the sake of providing his children with a convenient supply of drawing paper). By these means, Darwin accumulated a mountain of manuscript material during his lifetime; and, as much by luck as by judgment, the greater part of this mountain has survived in collections at Darwin’s home at Downe in Kent, at Cambridge University Library, and elsewhere.

Over the past ten or fifteen years, and under the guidance of Cambridge University Library archivist Peter Gautrey and St. Catharine’s College zoologist Sydney Smith, a substantial team of (principally North American) historians has been hard at work on the Darwin manuscripts. In addition to secondary historical analysis, this team has set itself the mammoth task of publishing definitive editions of the more important parts of the manuscript collection, including virtually all of Darwin’s private theoretical writings and the entire extant correspondence (amounting to some 14,000 items). In recent years, the team’s pace of production has been on the increase; and now two key volumes have appeared almost simultaneously. These make an excellent sample on which to judge the quality and the significance of this major scholarly undertaking.

Charles Darwin’s Notebooks contains authoritative and beautifully presented editions of approximately a dozen private notebooks dating from the period immediately after Darwin’s return from the voyage of HMS Beagle. These notebooks are fragmentary and extremely disjointed. They contain an initially intimidating jumble of facts, references, notes, queries, comments, and speculations; and (a point constantly to be borne in mind when assessing the editorial effort represented by this publication) they are often appallingly difficult to decipher in the original hand. Quite literally, Darwin appears to have dashed down anything and everything that occurred to him as being in any way relevant to what he once described as “the great fact—that mystery of mysteries—the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”

The directness of the notebooks makes them superficially difficult to read; but it also makes them worth taking time and trouble over. Precisely because they were written for their author’s eyes only, they contain in abundance the qualities that are so notable by their absence from Darwin’s and most other scientists’ conventionally published works: they show germs of new concepts; struggles with difficult and half-formed ideas; the attempts to reach out for far horizons; the false starts and fresh beginnings—all conveyed with a sense of freshness and immediacy that serves to draw the reader into the most remarkable and rewarding of all intellectual activities, the extension of human understanding.

The first, “Red Notebook,” covers the period from mid-1836, when Darwin is homeward bound aboard HMS Beagle, until early 1837, when he is safely back in England. Darwin’s mind is full of the findings he has made during his five-year voyage around the world, and especially of his geological and biological discoveries in South America. He is chiefly concerned with interpreting geological features—land formations and rock types, patterns of elevation and subsidence of the earth’s crust, fossils, and so forth. At the same time, though, he is busy arranging for the detailed examination of his collections by expert colleagues; and already his thoughts are turning to larger questions, as he wonders “if one species does change into another.”

Subsequent notebooks reveal the pattern of Darwin’s unfolding investigations. The “A” and the “Glen Roy” notebooks deal almost entirely with geology (the latter records the results of an important field trip to Scotland that Darwin undertook in the summer of 1838). A series of notebooks labeled “B” through “E” records Darwin’s inquiry into “Transmutation of Species” over a two-year period from the summer of 1837. This inquiry expanded very rapidly, and in the summer of 1838 Darwin decided to open a second, parallel series of notebooks (labeled “M,” “N,” and “Old and Useless Notes”) on human mental and social evolution. All of these works, together with five smaller and often very fragmentary manuscripts, are transcribed here.

The impact of these notebooks on our understanding of the history of Darwinism is enormous. Not so long ago, for example, it was fashionable in certain quarters to belittle Darwin’s intellectual abilities. Partly, perhaps, this was the result of Darwin’s tendency toward public self-deprecation (one should never confuse modesty with stupidity); but partly, also, it was the result of straightforward prejudice against natural history in general, and the Darwinian enterprise in particular. Today, thankfully, one hears no more about the author of the Origin’s supposed mental weaknesses. For the man revealed by the notebooks is a bold and confident thinker in full command of an ambitious and wide-ranging theoretical undertaking:

The Grand Question, which every naturalist ought to have before him, when dissecting a whale, or classifying a mite, a fungus, or an infusorian. [sic] is “What are the laws of life.”

Darwin’s special genius was his ability to combine the naturalist’s love of detail with the philosopher’s determination always to make details speak to large issues.

The scope of Darwin’s vision alone is simply breathtaking. The history of the earth; the geological pattern of organic change; the process of transmutation in relation to fundamental biological processes such as sexual reproduction and inheritance; the geographical distribution and ecological interrelationships of living organisms; instincts; the history of humankind, including the diversity and present distribution of human races, the relationship between animal and human mind, and the place of morality in social life: these themes tumble through the pages of the notebooks in an ever-changing but coherent series of patterns. At times Darwin seems almost like a conductor marshaling many different instruments in a single creative effort. The analogy, however, is inexact. For Darwin has not only to conduct the orchestra but also to make up the music as he goes along.

The extent of Darwin’s theoretical ambitions in the notebooks is most obvious in his attempt to integrate humankind into his evolutionary philosophy of nature. From the outset, Darwin was determined to treat Homo sapiens as a species like any other:

Nearly all will exclaim, your arguments are good but look at the immense difference between man,—forget the use of language, & judge only by what you see compare, the Fuegian & Ourang & outang, & dare to say difference so great…”Ay Sir there is much in analogy, we never find out.”

Darwin’s analogy may strike us today as objectionably racist; its aim, however, was not so much to demean particular groups of people as to dethrone the entire species. Thus: “Animals—whom we have made our slaves we do not like to consider our equals.—Do not slave holders wish to make the black man other kind?”; and again, “Has not the white Man, who has debased his Nature & violates every best instinctive feeling by making slave of his fellow black, often wished to consider him as other animal—.”

These last two quotations, which by contrast with the first might almost have been taken from the contemporary animal liberation movement, come close to the heart of Darwin’s radical purpose. In the pages of these notebooks we find in outline a comprehensive evolutionary theory of human nature—body, mind, and spirit. Darwin is daunted by nothing; where necessary, he willingly engages philosophers and theologians on questions as varied as the nature of consciousness, the sources of the emotions, the roots of rationality, and the grounds of conscience. All this is a far cry indeed from the Darwin of the Origin of Species, the man who tiptoes cautiously around the problem of human origins and credits another thinker, the philosopher Herbert Spencer, with the responsibility for developing an evolutionary psychology.

Clearly Darwin’s notebooks provide a far more direct line to his thoughts than any of his published works. Yet it would be a mistake to regard the notebooks as utterly transparent windows on his mind. Even in the secrecy of the study, Darwin carried with him the larger social world in which he moved, and before which he knew that his work must ultimately be presented for judgment. Thus, while some of the entries in the notebooks are apparently unself-conscious, others are acutely aware of the need to persuade a skeptical and potentially hostile audience, and others again are straightforward dress rehearsals for battles to come: “In my theory I must allude to separation of sexes as a very great difficulty, then give speculation to show that it is not over-whelming.”

As the psychologist and historian Howard Gruber pointed out in his book Darwin on Man,* even at this early stage a major element of Darwin’s selfconsciousness was his fear of persecution. This emerges clearly in entries which refer, for example, to “persecution of early Astronomers,” and even to a dream of hanging and decapitation. It also emerges at another level of Darwin’s awareness in his correspondence. By coincidence, Volume 3 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin opens with him finally summoning up the courage to tell one of his closest friends and colleagues, the botanist Joseph Hooker, of his heretical views on origins. On January 11, 1844, Darwin writes:

I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wd [sic] not say a very foolish one…. I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.

Indeed it was, for Darwin, “like confessing a murder.” In the early 1840s, the reluctant revolutionary took a handful of trusted friends into his confidence; but each time the decision was a painful one, and the response was keenly and anxiously awaited. The notebooks and the correspondence together reveal with what infinite care and patience Darwin worked, not only at his evolutionary theory but also at the task of molding both it and its intended environment (namely, the circle of his professional colleagues) so as to give his brainchild the maximum possible chance of a favorable reception. Here, in short, we see the master strategist of the Origin at work on his game plan.

Charles Darwin’s Notebooks and The Correspondence of Charles Darwin are major contributions to our understanding of the Darwinian revolution; but they are also much more. For in these works we are provided with a unique opportunity to look behind what Sir Peter Medawar encouraged us to see as the fraudulent façade of so much conventional scientific writing. Here we may obtain a glimpse, not only of the realities of scientific theory construction, but also of the ways in which theories are eventually prepared for public scrutiny. Only rarely are the sources themselves so intrinsically interesting and the scholarly attention devoted to their presentation so thorough as they are in this case. The editors of these volumes and their sponsors are to be congratulated for having stuck to their task and produced such signal contributions, not just to our comprehension of Darwinism but to our understanding of the scientific enterprise.

  1. *

    London: Wildwood House, 1974.