In a recent issue of the London Times Literary Supplement, a reviewer of Darwin’s correspondence with Henslow marveled how the untried young man, a prospective candidate for Holy Orders, could sail away in the Beagle with nothing but courage and horse sense and without ever having had a training in natural science, and come back five years later an experienced hard-headed man of science. This brought down an indignant protest from Professor Harold Fruchtbaum who contended that, before the voyage, Darwin was one of the best trained and most experienced all-round naturalists in England; all this on the basis of his having collected pebbles and beetles, accompanied fishermen on their trawls, watched a Negro skin birds, and attended some lectures at Edinburgh and Cambridge.
The reviewer retorted that this was not the view of the man who knew him best, Henslow, who told him straight that he was not even a finished naturalist, let alone a scientist. He might have added that a few weeks before the Beagle sailed, Darwin showed by his astonishment at a remark made by Adam Sedgwick that he did not even know what science meant. Furthermore, the lectures that Darwin attended at Edinburgh disgusted him with the subjects taught to such an extent that he vowed never to touch geology again. So there was still a problem to discover what it was, in the way of observations and meditations during the voyage of the Beagle, that awakened and developed Darwin’s critical faculties to such an extent that he made such marvelous use of his unpredictable opportunities in observing and collecting just what was needed for his great contributions to science. This is where Professor Michael T. Ghiselin comes in.
In Alan Moorehead’s sumptuous book, Darwin and the Beagle, he had the opportunity to identify the stimuli to which Darwin’s senses were exposed during the voyage, but failed for two reasons. One was that Darwin’s fundamentally important contributions to geology were neglected, and, as Ghiselin shows in his splendid analysis under review here, the pattern of Darwin’s researches in geology is the key to his biological work. The other reason is that Moorehead allowed a degree of hindsight to creep into his estimates of the progress of Darwin’s thoughts, for the quotations which he gives come, not from Darwin’s diary and the letters written during the voyage itself, the only proper source of information on this question, but from books published years afterward, when Darwin had already solved the problems of evolution and natural selection. So the gap in the most important chapter in the history of ideas remained yawning open, and this Ghiselin has set out to close. This is why his book is so valuable.
Ghiselin works with bold strokes on a wide canvas, and pays particular attention to methodology, a subject sadly neglected by scientists today. He shows that “the progressive development of Darwin’s thinking—from geology to biogeography, to evolution, and to evolutionary anatomy—becomes readily intelligible when it is seen how similar…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.