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Darwin and His Doppelgänger

In 1922 Sigmund Freud wrote to Arthur Schnitzler, the Austrian playwright known for his penetrating psychological dramas, to congratulate him on reaching his sixtieth birthday. In this letter Freud asked himself why, for so many years, he had avoided meeting a fellow Viennese intellectual whose ideas he so esteemed for their similarity to his own. In answering this question, Freud offered “a confession” to Schnitzler—one that he requested the playwright to keep to himself. “I think I have avoided you from a kind of reluctance to meet my double [Doppelgängerscheu]…. Whenever I get deeply interested in your beautiful creations I always seem to find behind their poetic sheen the same presuppositions, interests and conclusions as those familiar to me as my own.”1

Freud was ambivalent about meeting his Viennese doppelgänger because, like most scientists, he was intensely concerned about scientific priority, raising this concern more than 150 times in his correspondence and published works. According to the sociologist Robert K. Merton, who documented Freud’s intense preoccupation with securing his own claims to originality, ambivalence is a hallmark of the way scientists feel about having scientific priority.2 Merton even declared, as a rule of thumb, that whenever the biography or autobiography of a scientist states that he has had little interest in being the first, one is likely to find, within a few pages, one or more references to his having been embroiled in controversy over this very issue.

1.

I Never Saw a More Striking Coincidence”

If ever a famous scientist was unexpectedly confronted by his intellectual double—a colleague whose independent discovery of the same revolutionary idea threatened to undermine his prospects for scientific immortality—that scientist was Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882). The man who threatened Darwin with losing his place as an original thinker was another British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913). Living in the jungles of the faraway Malay Archipelago, Wallace was diligently collecting tens of thousands of natural history specimens when he experienced, in February 1858, one of many recurrent attacks of malarial fever. While he was incapacitated and in a state of intermittent delirium, Wallace found himself mulling over the relentless destructive forces in nature that keep natural populations from increasing in size. Wallace suddenly recalled the argument of Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1826), in which Malthus had maintained that human populations tend to increase at a geometric rate whereas the food supply tends to increase only at an arithmetic rate. According to Mal-thus, the inevitable consequence of this mathematical discrepancy was the existence of powerful “checks” to population increase. It then flashed across Wallace’s mind, as it had Darwin’s when he read the same book by Malthus twenty years earlier, that only the fittest and most adapted individuals would tend to survive in nature, and hence that a process of natural selection would cause new and better-adapted varieties to replace older and inferior ones.

When his malarial attack had subsided, Wallace quickly sketched out his theory and dispatched his manuscript to none other than Darwin, with whom the younger naturalist had previously corresponded. Upon receiving this manuscript, Darwin, who was busy writing his own “Big Book” on species, was stunned by what he read. As he explained to his close friend the geologist Charles Lyell:

Your words have come true with a vengeance that I should be forestalled. You said this when I explained to you here very briefly my views of “Natural Selection” depending on the Struggle for existence.——I never saw a more striking coincidence. [I]f Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters…. So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.

Darwin agonized over what to do, thinking that the only honorable course of action was to step aside and yield to Wallace, but he gladly acquiesced in the solution proposed by his two closest scientific colleagues—the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell. In what has been referred to as a “delicate arrangement,” Darwin’s two friends oversaw the publication of Wallace’s paper, preceded by portions of an unpublished essay that Darwin had written in 1844, and by a letter summarizing his theory, which Darwin had sent to the American botanist Asa Gray in 1857. Darwin’s scientific priority was thereby assured. In part because of this delicate arrangement, we now describe modern evolutionary theory as “Darwinian” rather than “Wallacian.”

The life stories of these two scientific doppelgängers, their extraordinary intellectual accomplishments, and their even more extraordinary discovery of the same cornerstone of evolutionary biology have now been retold in two new and eminently readable biographies. Janet Browne starts the second and concluding volume of her superb life of Darwin with that dramatic moment in June 1858 when Darwin received Wallace’s manuscript anticipating his theory of natural selection. The life of Darwin’s intellectual double has been comprehensively chronicled by Michael Shermer in his provocative study about the scientist who was content and even flattered to live “in Darwin’s shadow.” Although Darwin and Wallace may have been scientific doubles, their latest biographers are clearly not, taking very different methodological approaches to their subjects based on disparate conceptions of what makes for good history and good biography.

Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place is a commendable successor to Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995), in which Browne tells the story of Darwin’s five-year voyage around the world on H.M.S. Beagle (1831– 1836), his conversion to evolutionary theory and subsequent discovery of the principle of natural selection, and finally his prolific pre-Origin contributions to natural science, which grew out of his Beagle voyage exploits. Browne’s second volume follows Darwin through the storm of controversy over the Origin of Species (1859) and then takes us through the remarkable diversity of his later achievements, which included The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), as well as pioneering books on orchids, variation in domesticated animals and plants, insectivorous plants, the evolutionary implications of flower structure, and a best-selling work on earthworms.

Lavish and justified praise has been bestowed on the first volume of Browne’s study. There can be no doubt, however, that her second volume is an even more important contribution to Darwin studies, and, among other accolades, it has received the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. The importance of Browne’s second volume lies substantially in the fact that less is known and properly understood about Darwin’s later life, mainly because the volume of relevant documentation for Darwin’s years as a scientific celebrity is far greater, and far more diverse, than the already formidable material associated with the first five decades of his life.

What is particularly new about Browne’s approach to Darwin is her ability to place him and his scientific research within the real-life, day-to-day setting provided by his wife and family, by the small town in which he lived sixteen miles south of London (and where he served as a local magistrate, handing out pig licenses and administering fines for poaching), and by the broader mix of friends, colleagues, and celebrity seekers with whom he was in touch during the last two decades of his life.

Especially fascinating is Browne’s detailed reconstruction of Darwin’s emotional life. In fact, Browne’s biography has brought Darwin alive for me in ways that I, as someone who has studied Darwin’s life for more than thirty years, had not thought possible from the available documentary evidence. Browne’s achievement is testimony not only to her diligence in locating and judiciously mining new sources—particularly family letters—but also to her ability to exploit the previously known documents in new and fruitful ways. Owing to Browne’s perceptiveness and gifts as an author, she often writes more like a novelist than a biographer. Of course, the best biographies do sometimes read like good novels, but achieving this result with a life dedicated to science entails another degree of literary skill altogether.

In contrast to Desmond and Moore’s 1991 biography of Darwin, in which Darwin is portrayed as a tormented victim of his own relentless fears about betraying his conservative, upper-class friends and colleagues,3 Browne’s Darwin emerges as a much more self-confident man—someone who skillfully managed his various apprehensions about his work by employing multiple strategies designed to further the Darwinian revolution. Toward this end, the second volume of Browne’s biography is organized into three parts: “Author,” “Experimenter,” and “Celebrity.” The most powerful theme of her narrative, however, transcends these temporal markers of Darwin’s life and work and chronicles Darwin’s abilities as a tactician. At least four different kinds of strategies (literary, collaborative, social, and experimental—although not all explicitly identified as such by Browne) governed Darwin’s successful orchestra- tion of the revolution in science that now bears his name.

2.

Darwin as Master Tactician

Darwin’s various literary strategies were largely built around his monumental correspondence, which relentlessly drove his science forward by supplying him with facts on almost every conceivable subject that he needed for his research. Darwin wrote or received more than 14,000 letters preserved in libraries around the world, and many more such letters have been lost. The projected size of Darwin’s published correspondence, now being edited by Frederick Burkhardt, Duncan M. Porter, and others, is more than thirty volumes.4 After 1871, when The Descent of Man was published, Darwin appears to have written about 1,500 letters a year (about four letters every day), and he received a similar number in return.

By 1877 he was spending a yearly sum on postage and stationery that was roughly equal to his butler’s annual salary. In addition to a copious correspondence with fellow scientists, there were numerous letters to and from fur trappers, zookeepers, gardeners, farmers, pigeon fanciers, and many other kinds of breeders. This prodigious correspondence, Browne emphasizes, “characterized the heart of Darwin’s scientific undertaking…. With pen and ink and postage stamps he set about constructing what he hoped would be ‘a considerable revolution in natural history.’” So eager was Darwin for letters that we are told he even installed a mirror on his study window so he could catch the first sight of the postman walking up the driveway.

By means of this extensive correspondence, which took Darwin several hours a day, he used his position at the top of the scientific hierarchy to induce his many correspondents to supply him with endless facts and even to undertake entire research projects on his behalf. A year before Wallace sent Darwin his bombshell essay from the Malay Archipelago, Darwin had asked the younger naturalist to send him skins of any unusual Indonesian poultry, as well as information on the mating of jaguars and leopards, parrots that change color after eating fish, and the means of dispersal of animals and plants that inhabit oceanic islands. Other correspondents were expected to conduct matings between different breeds of domestic fowl and to dutifully report the results back to him. “I am a complete millionaire in odd and curious little facts,” Darwin informed Hooker, with many such useful letters in hand while he was writing his two-volume Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868).

  1. 1

    Sigmund Freud, Letters of Sigmund Freud, selected and edited by Frist L. Freud, translated by Tania and James Stun (Basic Books, 1960), p. 339.

  2. 2

    Robert K. Merton, “The Ambivalence of Scientists,” in The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, edited by Normal W. Storer (University of Chicago Press, 1973), pp. 383–412.

  3. 3

    Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (Warner, 1991).

  4. 4

    Charles Darwin, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Vols. 1–13 (1821– 1865), edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. (Cambridge University Press, 1985–).

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