David Kohn opens his monumental Darwinian Heritage with a deftly-delivered kick, observing that a study of the wider institutional culture of Darwin’s day seems to be ‘beyond the present ken of historians of 19th-century biology’. It’s a well-aimed blow. Little of the Darwin industry’s capital has been spent on exploring evolution in its social context. It isn’t that the subject is taboo (as it was a generation ago), just that the pioneering work of the textual analysts scrutinising Darwin’s notebooks has dominated the scene of late – and rightly so, given their immense contribution to our understanding of the route Darwin took to natural selection.
The situation is changing, however: a number of institutional studies have appeared since the 1982 centenary of Darwin’s death when Kohn’s book went to press – on the Botanical Society, on the Geological Survey and on the Zoological Society. In adjacent fields social history has achieved surprising levels of sophistication, capped by Roger Cooter’s provocative study of phrenology as an intellectual instrument of self-help liberalism and social control (The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science, 1984). But hardly any attempt has been made to apply this sort of approach to Darwinism – to explain the value of a Malthusian Origin of Species in legitimating the authority of an arriviste industrial-professional bourgeoisie. So the real problem is no longer lack of interest in institutional or social research, but a failure to integrate it with the latest microtextual work in order to draw wider conclusions concerning Darwin’s place in Victorian culture.
Kohn urges the Darwin scholars to become social historians: but surely the new Correspondence will in any case force this upon many. After all, in the two volumes published to date Darwin gives little inkling of his evolutionary leanings, even if we do find him persistently quizzing breeders over the effects of hybridisation. (On the other hand, far from keeping his speculations completely private, as historians had thought, Darwin mentioned his work on the ‘origin & variation of species’ to his Cambridge patron J.S.Henslow as early as November 1839.) The importance of the Correspondence clearly lies in a more broadly defined social area. The second volume (like the first) is meticulously edited; the notes themselves provide an embarras de richesses, with enough arcane detail to keep scholars busy for a decade. Over a quarter of the tome is taken up by appendices, biographies, bibliography, and Darwin’s questionnaires, fragments, manuscript alterations and so forth.
This series is already setting the pace in history-of-science publishing. Nor is this surprising, given the years of painstaking work by the Cambridge team, hacking through the intractable jungle of Darwin’s illegible script and cryptic marginalia. And it is precisely the degree of social detail which is crucial. It will finally enable historians to do what Kohn asks: to relocate Darwin in his social context.
This was a busy period in Darwin’s life. He moved to London, married Emma Wedgwood, and published his Journal of the Beagle voyage and his first geological papers. His gentlemanly independence, patronage by ‘the great Cambridge Dons’ and scientific dedication enabled him to slide straight into the upper echelons of the fashionable Geological Society. They also enabled him to negotiate a government grant to publish the Zoology of the Beagle voyage. A retrenching Whig ministry was persuaded to put up £1000, allowing the young Darwin to dispense his own patronage. He parcelled out his Beagle specimens to white-collar naturalists: to zoological craftsmen like John Gould (who reciprocated by christening a new rhea darwinii after him). Darwin modelled his Zoology on Humboldt’s Zoologie, acting as taskmaster and paymaster chivvying a Gradgrind work-force. Not that he was incapable of such work himself. Although in typical self-deprecatory manner he called himself ‘only a fossil Resurrectionist’, he had the patience, fortitude and finance to pore over barnacles for years like the best of them.
The Treasury ministers stipulated that the Zoology should be ‘advantageous to the Public at large’. Whether it was can partly be gauged by the new reprint. The Zoology, even though produced by others, comprises three of the first ten volumes of Darwin’s works now republished by Pickering. The whole set is handsome, and the Zoology particularly so, with its exquisite colour plates of Gould’s birds and George Waterhouse’s mammals. Darwin’s Beagle diary, and the Journal modelled on it, as well as his books on coral reefs, volcanic islands and the geology of South America (where he tends to ‘out-Lyell Lyell’, as he chuckles in a letter) complete the Beagle-related productions in the Pickering series. The first ten volumes terminate with the Foundations of the Origin of Species, originally published in 1909, and comprising Darwin’s first private essays on evolution, penned in 1842 and 1844.
It is a courageous act in this era of educational cut-backs to reprint these works – which range from esoteric research tools of limited historical use (the Zoology is dryly descriptive) to a volume like the Origin, well known through numerous editions on the shelves. As a speculative exercise it might pay, if it appeals to collectors who aren’t put off by the poor introductions. (Or by the odd errors: Waterhouse at the time was employed at the Zoological Society, not the British Museum; Thomas Bell, who described Darwin’s reptiles, was not a ‘physician’ but a dentist – and medical politics in the 1830s made that a wide divide. It’s a pity, in an industry where Darwin’s every word is scrupulously dated and documented, that the zoologists working around him should be treated so cavalierly.) Good contextual essays to set the scene would not have gone amiss. But, for all that, it is a lavish set. It shows admirably the wealth of Darwin’s interests and his ability to co-opt some of the best talents of the day into his early Humboldtian endeavour.
Without doubt it is more valuable for appearing at the same time as the Correspondence. It is this that gives the real feel for the background, for the way Darwin agonised over these works, cajoled his draughtsmen, and (like a true author) ended up building bits to his house rather than his geological edifice. The letters reveal the three-dimensional man. All comfortable Victorian life is here: the traumas of house-hunting, the search for good servants, admission to the Athenaeum (he was elected with Dickens), Babbage’s parties (to which he took his sister ‘that she may see the World’) and dinners with the literati, including Carlyle, who nauseated Darwin with his bombastic mysticism. There are darker moments too: Emma’s worry over his religious doubt, and Darwin, intermittently ill, fearing that he would do no more in science.
We leave Darwin the correspondent, his love/hate relationship with ‘abominable murky’ London settled, finally moving out to Down. Here he adopted the life-style of a parish squire-naturalist like his Cambridge teachers. He became the ‘complete Kentish Hog’, ducking parties and declining engagements, even lowering the lane outside his house to protect himself from view. It’s a subject that James Moore has made particularly his own, providing the definitive account of Darwin’s fears, phobias and life options in his lynchpin essay in The Darwinian Heritage.
The Darwinian Heritage is a richly-detailed volume, daunting in size. It contains 31 essays, many of which break new ground. We see Darwin’s early evolutionary speculations in an entirely new light as a result of Phillip Sloan’s investigation of his Edinburgh education; we are introduced to computerised ‘content analysis’ of Darwin’s language by Frank Sulloway; James Secord marks out another new direction with his article on Darwin’s contacts among the animal breeders. Others provide assessments of current work: on the psychology of Darwin’s creativity, on his path to Malthusian selection, and so on. Interestingly (or obviously) those scholars looking at the national receptions of Darwin and the ‘Great Eunuch Spencer’, as an Italian socialist called him, tend towards the most social approach. Paul Weindling and Pietro Corsi detail the German and Italian ‘transformation’ of Darwinism to suit local needs. Francesco Scudo and Michele Acanfora depict Russian intellectuals downplaying individual competition and decrying the Malthusian component as ‘a dangerous weapon of class oppression’, replacing it with a group-struggle theory. Given this comparative framework, we can begin to ask new questions about the English reaction to Darwin. Surely the most pressing task is to look at the socialist response at home. We already have pointers. Malcolm Kottler in his essay shows that even Wallace (who studied in Mechanics Institutes and socialist Halls of Science), supposedly at one with Darwin on natural selection, in fact preferred a group (rather than individual) selection theory.
Just how widespread this kind of preference was on the left is hinted at by Adel Ziadat in his Western Science in the Arab World. Even here, among the Arab socialists who disliked Darwinism’s Malthusian base, many preached co-operative rather than individual struggle, although as radical nationalists they also had other political reasons for supporting the new doctrine. Commentaries on the political meaning of Darwinism, materialism and Spencer’s social philosophy were already appearing in modernist Arab journals in the 1880s, partly as a result of the Westernising influence of the Syrian Protestant College, but also, Ziadat hints, encouraged by the Urabi uprising in Egypt (1882). For many Muslim and Christian Arab secularists, eager to throw off the Ottoman yoke, science imports were like intellectual arms shipments. As signs of Western cultural sophistication they were the ‘tools to destroy tradition’. Even religious opponents of a materialist evolution sought Arabic precursors of Darwin and Quranic authority for a kind of ordained evolution that would serve pan-Islamic purposes. Adel Ziadat presents a unique picture of Muslim attitudes towards Darwinism and the science’s wider nationalistic uses.
Uses have never been central to Peter Bowler’s work: indeed, in the past he has had a bone to pick with Edinburgh sociologists who promoted an instrumental approach to science. Nonetheless in his sturdy account of Theories of Human Evolution he, too, looks at the wider cultural and racial values of competing evolutionary theories. His stated aim is to force the Darwin cottage industry into contact with a more adventurous history of anthropology. One might have thought this a tall order: after all, the industry, with its microtextual emphasis, looks a world removed from the sort of scholarship which scours palaeoanthropology for its mythic content. But Bowler is equipped for the task. He extends his earlier studies of evolution in the late 19th century to show how belief in neo-Lamarckism and orthogenesis shaped interpretations of the scanty fossil evidence and provided anthropologists with culturally-soothing images of convergent and parallel evolution.
The intertwining of genealogical imagery and racial mores in Bowler’s book demonstrates how strongly biological theory could be pressed into political service. This was not solely a 19th-century phenomenon. When the notions of racial hierarchy and lineal development were replaced in the 1920s by a Darwinian branching tree, a new generation took this as a further legitimation of their imperial demands: the extermination of the Neanderthals on one line by invading sapiens from another, for example, served merely to sanction the destruction of the living savages by civilised man.
Bowler’s work in bridging the historical disciplines still leaves us with the task of connecting these wider cultural attitudes with the deep structure of evolutionary science discussed by the textual analysts. In The Darwinian Heritage Stan Rachootin suggests a way in which this might be done. He describes how Darwin ‘read’ the fossil bones of the camel-like Macrauchenia – brought back from Patagonia – quite differently from the young Coleridgean anatomist Richard Owen. This divergent ‘reading’ reflected not only his distinct style of science – he was a field naturalist and Owen a museum anatomist – but also his evolutionary understanding (on which he was implacably opposed by the romantic Owen). Rachootin’s is the kind of study that could finally help provide the basis for a rapprochement between the sociologists and textual scholars.
Styles of science also figure prominently in James Secord’s superb Controversy in Victorian Geology. Here the spotlight is off high theory: Secord’s fine-resolution microscope is focused on the mundane activities of the geologists, on fieldwork and map-making. It is off class differences; his disputants, Darwin’s geology teacher at Cambridge Adam Sedgwick and ex-military-man-turned-geologist Roderick Murchison, were both members of the geological élite. Secord concentrates on the nuances of their style and practice, and the complex micropolitical negotiations resulting in the production of a piece of ‘neutral’ scientific fact. Sedgwick’s Cambridge allegiance left him looking for mineralogical features to distinguish strata, while Murchison’s Oxford and military career showed in his map-making activities and attention to fossils. How they demarcated their respective Cambrian and Silurian systems in the 1830s is a riveting story. They entered Wales at opposite ends, carving out adjacent empires. As they met, etiquette and a gentlemanly respect for property at first stopped any trespass. The two systems were dovetailed.
Murchison, glorying in his new geological campaign, then began annexing tracts of Russia for his Silurian system (spreading British scientific nomenclature, he told Peel, alongside British trade goods). Not for nothing did the Bishop of Oxford crown him the ‘King of Siluria’. But Murchison’s geological expansionism became more threatening. His Silurian began devouring Sedgwick’s Cambrian below, leading to a period of bitter recrimination. Sedgwick was constantly forced to fight a rearguard action, attempting to hold a diminished if defensible ‘territory’. Secord gives a dazzlingly detailed account of this scientific trench warfare and its social consequences. One ends up with a marvellous feeling for the major taxonomic enterprises in Darwin’s younger day: mapping, ordering, conquering – ‘taming the “chaos” of the strata’. All of these of course had social and imperial ramifications; and Secord mentions geology’s moral appeal (in supporting a divinely-stratified Creation) to a beleaguered élite intent on subduing the lower orders. We also get a wonderful insight into the bitty way these taxonomic enterprises progressed: through mapping, overlapping, property disputes and negotiation, rather than by a series of grand conceptual leaps.
Secord’s work shows what a fine-grained study of text and context can achieve. What comes across is how charged and creative geological map-making really was, and how our supposedly ‘inert’ taxonomic constructs still reflect their contingent heritage. This applies as much to animal classifications as to geological columns. Nowhere is this borne out more clearly than in the most unexpected letter in the Correspondence. In 1843 Darwin told Waterhouse that classifications will depend upon the criteria used to construct them, and that, on his view (‘which I give every one leave to hoot at’), groupings of animals should reflect their ‘descent from common stocks’.
The new works show how history of science can be both technically detailed and social embedded. Pleas to put Darwin himself back into a gentrified Broughamite setting and display the ideological input into his science are not new, however. For two decades Robert Young has been preaching that Darwin’s Malthusian science was inseparable from the social and economic issues of his class and culture – part of a changing philosophy of nature accompanying a shifting social order. Six of Young’s seminal essays arguing for this radical historiography, which is ‘critical rather than custodial’, are now available in Darwin’s Metaphor. Some of them are historiographical landmarks, especially the last one. The sheer power of this epic paper of 1973 on the historiographic context of the Darwinian debate, in which Young charts his own revolt from a decontextualised and depoliticised intellectual history of science, is still evident. For many younger historians these essays were instrumental in breaking the strictures of Sixties science history – much of it internalist, Whiggish and serving to legitimate modern evolutionary ends.
Admittedly, Young’s influence has never been as strong on the textual exegetes as on those studying more obviously ideologically-loaded issues like phrenology, morphology and Lamarckism. But given the rise of sociology of knowledge, a new interest in the social history of science, and a useful model in the work now being done on the reception of phrenological ideas among the petit-bourgeoisie, we can surely expect new developments on the Darwin front.
Even in The Darwinian Heritage a new awareness is evident. Silvan Schweber looks at the way laissez-faire commitments and political economy helped shape Darwin’s theory. And Moore develops Young’s idea of a changing ‘theodicy’ from Paley to Darwin, relating it to the switch from a static rural economy to a bourgeois-industrial one. Moore draws an inviting picture of Darwin as the ‘parson’ naturalist of Down. We are shown the incumbent in his country seat absorbing contemporary anti-radical, Malthusian values. We then see him naturalising these in the Origin, with its implicit message that competition and starvation are the price to be paid for advancement – as it were, codifying scientific laws for the liberal bourgeoisie.
So although Darwin studies remain an internalist citadel, many historians are working over, round, and underneath it. Despite this, richer, more detailed studies are still called for. Young’s cast-list of historical actors is itself much too select (however expanded it was on his predecessors’). As the textual analysts are showing, there was more to Darwin than a transformed Paley or Malthus. Young’s work, whatever its emphasis on the wider social issues, made little contact with political events in Victorian England: with Reform Bills, educational experiments, learned societies, Chartist riots, radical medicine, Dissenting grievances. There are also handling problems with his main thesis of a ‘common context’, in which his essentially middle-class actors, from Malthus and Paley to Darwin and Spencer, are seen performing the same task: sustaining the dominant social order and reconciling man to his place. This ‘common context’ has become too embracing, too unwieldy; it’s difficult to use, and this might explain the reticence of some historians.
It needs finer tuning; to be broken up into sub-contexts – geographical (Edinburgh, London, Oxbridge), political (Benthamite, Coleridgean), theological (Dissenting, Anglican), and so forth. We need a better understanding of the varieties, the functions and the status of the sciences in these cultural milieux. We need to tackle the origins of naturalism (which clearly pre-dated the Origin). Finally, we must get outside middle-class science altogether. What about the artisan activists who repudiated Malthusian science as a ruling-class snare and developed their own Lamarckian co-operative alternatives? These sorts of study should allow us finally to put Darwinism into political perspective.