December 31, 2009

Darwin's Life & Legacy: A Critical Appreciation

[Fire on the Mountain is delighted to publish this stimulating appreciation of Charles Darwin by Morten Falck, the dean of Norwegian science journalists and the (re)translator of the Communist Manifesto into Norwegian. It originally appeared earlier in the journal of Norway's revolutionary socialist party, Rødt. It appears just in time to observe not only (as Morten points out) the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, but also the birth on January 29 of this year of Dody's granddaughter. Darwin Anna Wolfe.]

by Morten Falck

Two hundred years have passed since the birth of Charles Darwin, and 150 years since he published his most important work, On The Origin Of Species. Such twofold anniversaries are rare, and big talk has been filling the air about the great genius who gave us the answers to every question, and on whom all science must be based. As a person Darwin was a stranger to such pomposity. The great theoretician was down-to-earth and very concrete; he worked hard--and ended his career with a work on beings as lowly as worms. Is it possible to find the real Darwin behind all the verbosity?

Evolution Inherited

We imagine England as a tranquil country, where the village peace is only broken by the traditional murders, which are essentially intellectual riddles for sharp-brained detectives, rather than real tragedies concerning live human beings. Even in our time, this picture, of course, masks a society of great social contradictions and sharp conflicts. Two hundred years ago, the contradictions lay in the open. Charles Darwin was born into an England where rebellions were the order of the day, and the spinal cords of the rulers still vibrated with fear because of the Great French Revolution.

It was an official truth that the Earth and the Sun, the Oceans and the Sky and everything under the Sky had been separately created in the exact form that we know it, and completed on October 23 in the year 4004 BCE, at nine o’clock in the morning. Darwin was to revolutionize natural history and be the one single person who more than anybody else condemned this medieval world outlook to the dustbin of history, while bishops and clerics were baying and barking like the hounds in a traditional British fox-hunt. Still he was laid to rest in the Westminster Abbey, as one of the nation’s great sons.

Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury in Shropshire, Northwest of Birmingham in England, as the fifth child and the second son of Doctor Robert Waring Darwin and his wife Susannah. He was born into a circle of well-to-do liberals and free-thinkers. His paternal grandfather was Doctor Erasmus Darwin, famous for his erotic poems and his great work Zoonomia, where he postulates that life on Earth has evolved from primitive primeval beings in the ocean – without any creator.

Old Erasmus, who prescribed sex as a cure for hypochondria, was a true child of the enlightenment, a hardcore freethinker full of enthusiasm for the ideals of liberty and freedom propagated by the enlightenment philosophers. He has been described as "this poet of love and machines who spreads ’the happy contagion of Liberty'." Many of his ideals he shared with his close friend Josiah Wedgwood, Charles’ maternal grandfather and founder of the famous English china factory.

Josiah Wedgwood, "the peg-legged potter," was a driving force in the English anti-slavery movement, which flared up in the last decades of the 18th century. As a result of this abolitionist movement, the slave trade was made illegal in British dominions in 1807, and slavery abolished in the British colonies in 1833. Wedgwood made the Mao-badge of his time, a cameo showing the figure of a kneeling African and the text: ”Am I not a Man and a Brother?” It was not for sale, but Wedgwood produced thousands at his own expense, and distributed them as anti-slavery propaganda. For instance, Benjamin Franklin received a batch. The movement engaged both of the families--Dr. Darwin supplied his sharp pen and ability to express himself in verse. Through several generations, the Darwin and Wedgwood families were ardent abolitionists.

Ironically, in England the French Revolution was to bring a setback to the ideals of liberty. The English bourgeoisie had made their revolution a hundred years earlier, and held power in the British state. To them, the ideas of evolution and change had a threatening tone, and they did their best to eradicate them. Heavy shackles were put on the right of expression. Meetings, assemblies and unions were prohibited, and popular protest movements heavily crushed by any means. At the same time exploitation was merciless, the pressure of taxes heavily increased, food prices soared and wages sank. Farm laborers and yeomen were driven from their lands and child labor flourished in mining and textile industries, with workdays extending to 18 hours. Distress and poverty were enormous.

Great Britain emerged victoriously from the Napoleonic wars. But while other European states experienced progress as a result of the wars, a smashing of the feudal backwardness that prepared them for a capitalist economy, a national awakening, England made no gains in the form of better conditions at home. What England gained, was a world-wide empire of colonies that no power was able to threaten, a world market for British industrial goods and superior access to raw materials. The British navy ruled the seven seas. But for popular movements at home, unions, working class movement, utopian socialist trends, in short for oppositionists at large, these were hard times.

The Darwin and Wedgwood families had to tread carefully with their heretical ideas. The doctor, Charles’ father, concentrated on his economic business and earned good money from his investments and his money-lending activities, which soon took priority over his medical practice. Charles was raised under liberal economic conditions, though his father was a rather frugal man.

His mother died when he was eight, and his father never remarried. But Charles had three elder sisters who worshiped him, and the doctor also had a special preference for his youngest son, and liked to discuss matters with him. Charles was never an especially smart pupil, but he was bright and curious, and he collected all sorts of things, as small boys often do. And he stretched himself to please others.

He was much more interested in Nature around him, and in his own chemistry experiments, than in the school curriculum of Greek philosophers and classical poets. It was more fun hunting and shooting birds. When he was sixteen, his father took him out of school, and sent him with his brother to Edinburgh to study at the university. Both his grandfather and his father had studied medicine there. Why shouldn’t Charles follow the family tradition as well? Physician was an acceptable occupation for a man of his standing, and it would allow him to pursue his interest in natural history.

But Charles was not attracted to the study of medicine, though he tried. He found it immensely boring, and was much more inclined to go hunting or read books about natural history. He read his grandfather’s great work Zoonomia, and a lot of other books. And he followed a course in taxidermy (mounting dead animals) given by the able John Edmonstone, a freed Guinean slave, who could also teach him about the conditions of the slaves in the sugar plantations in the West Indies. What he learned would become decisive.

Edinburgh was known as "The Northern Athens," and the university there was far more open to new thoughts than Oxford and Cambridge. Among the more important things there was a thriving environment of extramural lectures and courses, where oppositionists and dissidents could make a living in direct competition to the university’s own lecturers. In this environment all kinds of ideas about life having evolved from more primitive forms were commonplace.

The most important contact Darwin made here, was Robert Edmond Grant, a Francophile radical and uninhibited evolutionist, who never tired of lauding the French naturalist Lamarck and his theories of evolution. From Grant, Darwin learned technique, how to study the fauna of the sea and how to curate, i.e. how to treat collected samples of invertebrate marine animals--slugs, worms, starfish, crustaceans, polyps, sponges and so forth. He learned how to dissect them to study their minute and obscure internal structures. This was knowledge that would serve him well. Grant was the one person that made the most important impression on Darwin during this period, according to the monumental biography by Desmond and Moore. But Darwin never thanked him for what he learned.

That was not only because he feared to be associated with the materialist revolutionary Lamarck, but also a controversy over the priority of a discovery. Grant appropriated the findings of his student and published them as his own--something that is far from unique in academic circles. But this Darwin never forgave, and he never had any contact with Grant after he left Edinburgh.

A Young Spendthrift, Good For Nothing?

The medical study did not go so well. Not only were the lecturers boring, but when Darwin had to attend an operation upon a twelve-year-old girl, it was more than he could take. Anesthetics still lay in the future. Charles left the auditorium, and did not return.

He did not tell his father for some time, and for a period he lived the carefree student life, following nothing but his own inclinations: zoology, botany and geology--but not medicine.

But who pays for a carefree life? At last he had to come clean to his father. His father paid the bills, and he decided the boy’s future career. Not many choices were left open, if he was to get a suitable occupation. Natural science by itself hardly existed as a discipline--and not at all as an occupation. He was not good enough at mathematics to become a banker. Solicitor was out of the question, as he had no interest in classical literature. As the young man did not wish to become a doctor, the Doctor decided that Charles should become a priest, and moved him from Edinburgh to Cambridge. As a country vicar he could have a respectable life and a sufficient income to continue his natural history hobbies--and sufficient leisure time. A lot of clergymen then were naturalists in their spare time.

Darwin accepted this solution. He imagined that a life as a country clergyman would be satisfying. He also was convinced that the countless cases of perfect adaptation that nature does show, had to imply that God existed, and that he had created every animal, every plant, every adaptation, conscientiously and separately. But he continued his natural history studies: inspired by his cousin William Darwin Fox, he started to collect beetles, and he studied botany and became a friend of the botany professor John Steven Henslow and the geology professor Adam Sedgwick, who both, by the way, were theologians.

While he was on a journey with Sedgwick to study the geology of Wales in August 1831, a letter arrived from Henslow. The professor had been asked to recommend a suitable young man with an interest for natural history as a companion for the captain of the expeditionary vessel HMS Beagle, which was soon to leave England for a voyage "to Tierra del Fuego and home via East India." It had to be a cultured young gentleman who could pay for his own voyage and activity, of such a good pedigree that he could dine at the captain’s table, and at the same time a person who could collect observations and specimens of everything that could be of interest to natural history. Henslow wrote: ”I assure you I think you are the very man they are in search of.”

Doctor Darwin, however, said no, though he declared himself willing to reconsider if Charles could get recommendations from a sensible man. Charles knew exactly whom to ask. Uncle Jos Wedgwood persuaded his father. Thus the young theological candidate Charles Darwin came to start his career as a natural scientist with the legendary voyage of the Beagle. The voyage was to last for five years--two years more than planned. Darwin was plagued by sea-sickness all the way, and the cabin that he shared with two others was so small that every night he had to take out a drawer to make room for his feet.

The fact that he himself (that is, his father) paid for the journey, meant that the vast collections he sent home to England belonged to him privately, and thus became an important basis for his future scientific activities.

Clams In The Mountains

In the autobiographical notes which he many years later wrote for his children and grandchildren, he insisted that he was in line with the official biblical belief all the time until he returned from the voyage of the Beagle. Species were unable to change, they were created by God just as they are today. To say otherwise would have threatened the existing order of things, the prevailing morals and the stability of the Empire. It would be subversive, unthinkable, heretical. Only Frenchmen and communists would have the nerve to claim that species did evolve.

Fossil remains had been found, though, of many extinct species – monstrous aquatic reptiles like ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, giant spiralled squid, a plethora of trilobites, the so-called Irish elk, and so forth. But these was species that God had been dissatisfied with, and he had let them perish and gone on to create something new and better. Finally, with a satisfied smile, he had created man in his own image and placed him on top of creation.

Among the books Darwin brought with him, was the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Lyell claimed that the Earth had not always looked like it does now, but was continuously changing. The present appearance of the globe is a result of forces that are still working around us, and that have been active in small, small steps through a very long time. Gradually, mountains have risen out of the sea, later to be torn down by winds and weather. But these processes required a lot more time than the six thousand years which the church had calculated had passed since creation. So Darwin’s professorial friends admonished him to read Lyell with a critical view, and for God’s sake not to accept all the man’s claims!

The two following volumes of Lyell’s book were sent to him during the voyage. Darwin read them, and let go of the admonitions of his friends. For Lyell’s theories made sense! High in the Andes, 13000 feet above the sea, Darwin encountered banks of sea-shells. That could only be explained if the area once had been sea floor. In Chile, he experienced an earth-quake – and observed the land elevation. Our world was not stable, it was subject to continual change.

Aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin was diligent and energetic, rich in initiative, systematic and careful. He collected animals and plants, minerals and fossils, and shipped them back to England. Assisted by the ship’s officers and crew, he established a great collection, which would take many years to revise.

He found the fossil remains of animals resembling recent species. Giant sloths, giant armadillos, a giant relative of the guanaco – why were they extinct, while smaller forms survived in the same area? He heard of a rhea that was smaller than the known form, and when he finally found it, he was about to eat it before he realized what lay on his plate. But he managed to save sufficiently of the skeleton and the skin to send it home. Why were there two kinds of ostrich-like birds in Argentina – and how were they distributed geographically? There were sufficient material to discuss and ponder, even before he reached the Galapagos archipelago, where every island had it’s own distinctive kind of giant tortoise.

He shipped his collections home to Henslow, who had promised to take care of them. And he sent his journal and extensive letters. Parts of this Henslow found so interesting that he published it. Thus when Darwin returned home in 1836, he was already a naturalist of some fame. However, he could not fall back upon his laurels. He had to grasp the opportunity. Darwin started an intense work of reviewing his specimens, and rewriting his journal in the form of a readable travelogue. Resuming his theological studies wqa no longer an option.

Simultaneously with organizing the description of his findings, he sent his material to different experts, organized illustrators and funding for the printing, edited books about mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and fossils, and wrote about his geological observations (among them a theory to explain the occurrence of corral reefs, which went contrary to the accepted view, but proved to be correct)--and he started to think about the question of how species arise. By 1837 he already had developed the main outline of his theory on species. The fact that it took so little time, seems to indicate that he had given the question, this "mystery of mysteries," a lot of thought while he was still voyaging on the Beagle.

But it is hardly a coincidence that it was exactly Darwin who developed the theory of evolution, the theory of how species evolve through natural selection. He was raised in an environment where evolution was not only seen as a possibility, but rather taken for granted. In Edinburgh, Grant had pushed him further in the same direction. This must have formed his way of thinking, and made it more easy for him to see solutions that most people were barred from seeing, due to religious and social prejudice.

He knew that with this theory he moved into dangerous area. But he did not balk, he followed the logic to its end, and formed a theory that does not predict life to move in any distinct direction, a theory where concepts like "higher" and "lower" are meaningless. It is a theory that tears nature from the hands of religion, and places it on a foundation of logical, materialistic motive forces--and contingency.

The theory is strikingly simple. It says:

Every species varies. And every species produces more offspring than the resources allow. In the fight for the resources the variants that are best fitted to the environment have the best chances of survival. Gradually, this will lead to the development of sufficiently great differences between individuals to speak of different species.
Plants and animals was one thing. But Darwin did not draw any limits. On the contrary: his main intention was to form a theory that showed every human being to be related, and that even spiritual capabilities, moral, sensibility and intelligence were the result of an evolutionary process.

A Man And A Brother

It made a permanent impression upon Darwin when he got to Brazil, where slavery was widespread, to see slaves get whipped like animals. He became indignant, and got into a quarrel with Captain Fitzroy, who was of noble birth and a more conservative gentleman. When Darwin opposed his view that the slaves were taken well care of, the Captain exploded. He did not bear grudges, and excused himself the same night. But the two men avoided the subject thenceforth.

FitzRoy brought with him three Fuegians. He had “collected” them on his last voyage to Tierra del Fuego, and brought them back to England, where they were given an education. Now his intention was to establish a bridgehead for English mission with the help of these three and a missionary. His idea was that the three “civilised” Fuegians, who could read, speak English, dress properly and knew how to eat with a knife and a fork, would act as a model for their uncivilised fellow tribesmen.

The plan did not work so well. Contrary to the Captain’s aspirations, after some time the three had fallen back to their prior “uncivilised” state, they had abandoned dressing in English clothes and acted as if they had learned nothing. To the Captain this was a great disappointment, and it was a shock for Darwin as well. But he had seen them both as "civilized" and "uncivilized." It showed him that humans are flexible, and that there was no difference in mental abilities between different kinds of people. It confirmed the impression he had got from John Edmonstone in Edinburgh. "I often used to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man," he wrote later, without any trace of the racist self-righteousness so typical of British society from the middle of the nineteenth century on.

On his voyage around the world he experienced the ways British colonialism treated "inferior races." He heard of how the Tasmanians were exterminated, how the aborigines of Australia were persecuted, and how "Hottentots" were shot, stuffed and collected like strange animals. He had been raised among liberal and humane people, in the midst of a torrent of anti-slavery pamphlets and tracts. But now he got to see first-hand for himself, and the effect was much stronger than that of any sentimental pamphlet.

This was the age when "scientific racism" was formed. The slave-owners were of the opinion that "man" consisted of several different species, created separately, and of very different "worth." This view was upheld to justify the treatment of slaves as animals--and even worse. These were theories which Darwin abhorred.

Because of this, it became important to him to create a theory that could explain how even the human ability to think, human emotional life and morals, the entire human soul, was evolved from the animals. This was the starting point for the theory of evolution. By very small steps, humans had gradually become humans, in an indiscernible, slow evolution from ape to English aristocrat. The main features of the theory were established by 1837. For the rest of his life Darwin worked on the details, collecting arguments for his theory.

For more than 20 years he kept his theory a deep secret. It was not a theory he could publish until it was close to irrefutably supported by evidence. The fact was clearly shown in 1844, when a Scottish publisher anonymously published the book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, containing a similar, but poorly-reasoned theory. It stirred up a storm. The entire scientific establishment, all of Darwin’s friends, condemned the book entirely and went to great lengths to strip the book as well as its unknown author of every honorable motive.

It was a valuable warning. Darwin belonged to the well-to-do middle class. He lived by his inherited fortune, and pursued his science independently of every institution. As a scientist he stood at a crossroad--he was the last of his kind. After him came professionals associated with institutions, scientists employed by museums and universities. To continue his scientific work, Darwin depended on the recognition of the scientific community, he needed his widespread communication with the scientific environment. To make himself subject to ridicule and disrespect would have been fatal.

Further, he had no wish to undermine the existing order. His life was good, he had what he wanted and could spend his time as he liked, for what he found necessary. But he worked on his theory for these twenty years--to establish the line of argument he needed.

Eight Years For Barnacles

With some few close friends he discussed parts of his theory, and he told them that he was working on it. One of them was Charles Lyell, with whom he had made acquaintance after his return to England. Another was the outstanding botanist Joseph Hooker, who was to become director of the Royal Botanical Garden in Kew and one of those who would come to stand closest to Darwin.

Hooker questioned him sharply. How did Darwin define ”species”? Did he know how to define his concepts?

Darwin felt hit by the questions, and decided to describe a species thoroughly, to be able to parry Hooker’s questions. He had barnacles in his collection from the voyage on The Beagle, and started to study them. But he was a systematic man, and the project soon grew. It was to take him eight years, and became so extensive that one off his small sons is reported to have asked a school-mate: ”Where does your father do his barnacles?”

The work resulted in four volumes containing detailed description of all known species of barnacles. Two volumes on recent species, and two volumes on extinct species. Darwin became a world authority on these small crustaceans, which everyone who has gone swimming from rocks along the shore has cut their feet upon. They look like small shells or bands of sharp, white warts, and when they feel secure, they “wave” their long arms to catch small marine animals, almost like polyps waving their tentacles. But in reality they are related to shrimps, small crustaceans cemented head down where they find suitable ground.

Darwin described new species, and he classified. He got specimens by post, often entire collections, from all corners of the world. Both private collectors and museums supplied him with material. Among other things, thanks to a well-placed connection, he managed to borrow the entire barnacle collection of the London Natural History Museum and take it to his home, Downe House in Kent, where he had carried out his research since 1842. He dissected and studied, and was struck by the unimaginable plurality of forms, the endless variations.

These eight years have been presented as an excuse to postpone the work with the species theory. In fact, it was a necessary preparation. Darwin had to study a limited group of organisms thoroughly before he could generalize.

At the same time he built a formidable net of connections around the globe. It had begun with the voyage on The Beagle, and was to go on for the rest of his life. To support his theory, Darwin needed information on the most curious details. He was lucky. The Victorian era was when when the modern British postal service was established, and to and from Downe House letters flowed in a never-ending torrent. The entire British empire stood at his disposal. 15,000 letters have been saved, and that probably amounts to just about half of the original number. This enormous web of contacts is characteristic of Darwin, he discussed the results of his own experiments and got information concerning facts that he could not observe at home.

Without this he could not have given the thorough documentation so typical for his books. "There were always other people hidden behind Darwin’s immediate achievements," Janet Brown writes in her exhaustive two-volume biography.

The 9th of September 1854 he noted with some relief in his journal: "Finished packing up all my Cirripedes...Began sorting notes for species theory."

At last he was to write the book on the evolution of species.

He had had so much support from the few friends and colleagues he had confided in, that he thought it about time to come out in the public. He had collected an enormous volume of material, and experimented with races of pigeons and rabbits and how different kinds of seeds would germinate after being drenched in salt water and so on and so forth. Hardly any link in his chain of argument was left unforged.

But his usual thoroughness made the manuscript swell. It was far from finished in June 1858 when he received a letter from the 16-years-younger naturalist and collector Alfred Russel Wallace in Malaya. The letter contained an essay "On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type." Deeply shocked, Darwin discovered that Wallace had reached the same theory as himself: Natural selection was the mechanism that was driving the evolution of species. Was 20 years of work in vain? Had he been beaten to the punch by Wallace?

His friends Lyell and Hooker saved him from his dilemma. They persuaded him to publish his theory simultaneously with Wallace’s essay, at a meeting of the Linnean Society on the 1st of July. Darwin did not attend in person. What was read were extracts from a sketch he had written in 1844, and a letter he had written to the American botanist Asa Gray the previous year, and at last Wallace’s essay. Those who attended the meeting listened absent-mindedly; no one seemed to be shocked.

Darwin immediately started writing a ”brief synopsis” of his theory, to prove that he had been working thoroughly on it for several years. Thirteen months later the manuscript was finished, and on November 24, 1859, the book was published under the title On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection, or The Preservation Of Favored Races In The Struggle For Life.

The Useful Web

This time the storm broke. The clergy wailed, the conservatives attacked. But Darwin was prepared. Very systematically, he had sent the book to friends and colleagues who he hoped could give him support, and assembled an army for defense. First and foremost Lyell, Hooker and Thomas Henry Huxley, the last very aggressive and eager to attack the conservatives and the theologians.

Huxley was the leader in the growing phalanx of professional naturalists, and he waged an indefatigable struggle for power to conquer every important position from the old theologically-educated aristocratic naturalists. To him Darwin’s book came as manna from the heavens; he threw himself into the battle and soon earned the nickname "Darwin’s bulldog." In the United States Darwin’s most prominent defender was Harvard professor of botany Asa Gray; in Germany Ernst Haeckel was an important proponent.

Janet Brown in her great Darwin biography from 2002 seems to be the first one to have noticed how Darwin in fact organized an enormous, but clandestine, PR campaign for his book. And he did not have to wait long for the results. The book was savaged by the conservatives, but it also got brilliant reviews from prominent scientists. The author’s deep-set fear of being marginalized and banned from the community of science was unfounded. Even his harshest enemies had to praise his overwhelming thoroughness and his extensive knowledge. To some the theory emerged as almost self-evident. Huxley reacted by exclaiming, "How stupid not to have thought of that!"

Paradoxically, Darwin scarcely does mention humankind at all in his book. Not until the third page from the end does he write:
In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.
Even this vague and almost hidden remark was too much for the clergy and the conservatives. They immediately got the point. Human morals, culture and tradition, "man’s immortal soul" were not created by a god, but evolved "accidentally" through laws of nature. Where was man’s god-ordained position at the top of creation? Where was the social hierarchy? How now to justify the prominence of the well-to-do white man and his ruling position in society? Where was the leap between apes and humans--was a mere degree of mental capacity all there was to it?

But it was not the 1830s any more. Industrialism had momentum, and to the industrial capitalists, the new lords of the empire, change was a necessary part of being. Everything changed and evolved, factories were growing, the railways flung their glistening tracks through the green landscapes of England end the Empire was steadily expanding. Everything evolved just like Darwin said: by gradual, almost inconceivable changes, increases or diminishing of the one or the other character. The idea of evolution was no longer a threat, it was about to become a general truth. With astonishing speed, the theory of evolution was accepted as an important theory, though disputed.

It did not happen by itself. A fight was needed--just like dust and dirt gather in the corners until you grasp the broom. One of the most efficient brooms appeared to be the flood of caricatures and satires made about Darwin and man’s relationship with the apes. They spread the idea more effectively than anything else.

Darwin did not himself engage directly in the debate. He stayed in the background and pulled the strings, organized the campaign through his enormous web of contacts. And he continued his research. He published several books to cover other aspects of his theory, to respond to critical questions and objections. All were exhaustive and contained an overwhelming abundance of facts. Gradually, he obtained the stature of a national symbol, the secluded sage, the scientist in rural isolation in search for unblemished truth. He became known as a friendly man with a pleasant appearance, who did not harm even the smallest fly.

At best, this picture is only part of the truth. He was a very conscious strategist, and the British politeness may cover a lot of less pleasant traits of character. Not everybody contributing to his science received the thanks they deserved, and he more and more withdrew from social events from which he himself had nothing to gain.

He had a lucky hand with money. He had inherited sufficiently to live a carefree life for the rest of his days, and by clever investments he made his assets grow considerably. No doubt he belonged on the sunny side of British society. Darwin was and remained a bourgeois intellectual, a representative of his class. It shows in his books.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx read Darwin with great interest, and he wrote in a letter to Frederick Engels on December 19, 1860:
Although developed in the crude English fashion, (Darwin’s book on natural selection) is the book which, in the field of natural history, provides the basis for our views.
The 16th of January, 1861 he wrote to Ferdinand Lassalle:
Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle. One does, of course, have to put up with the clumsy English style of argument. Despite all shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, "teleology" in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained.

And on June 18, 1862 he again wrote to Engels:
I’m amused that Darwin, at whom I’ve been taking another look, should say that he also applies the "Malthusian" theory to plants and animals, as though in Mr. Malthus’s case the whole thing didn’t lie in its not being applied to plants and animals, but only--with its geometric progression--to humans as against plants and animals. It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian "struggle for existence." It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an "intellectual animal kingdom," whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society.
Darwin’s book certainly did not have much in common with the evolutionary writings from earlier in the century. They described a rebellious evolution driven from below, that would result in an ascending and unavoidable progression towards a completely cooperative society. What Darwin articulated, was "a Malthusian science for the rising industrial-professional middle classes," Adrian Desmond writes in his book The Politics of Evolution from 1989.

Darwin liberated biology from the dank grasp of the church, and removed--as Marx remarked--the foundation for the idea that the evolution of life’s forms had any higher aim. Of this he himself says:
We can allow satellites, planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universe to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by special act.
In a famous letter to Asa Gray the 22nd of May 1860, he writes:
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

The theory of evolution renders the living world coherent and systematic. It makes it possible to understand nature, not just record it. The fact that every species - plants, fungi, animals and microbes, are related, enables us to systematize the teeming abundance that surrounds us in a meaningful way--the natural system that Linnaeus aimed at, but could never obtain.

A Man For His Time

In 1871 Darwin at last spoke out on the origins of humans, in the book The Descent Of Man, And Selection In Relation To Sex. Here he launches a mechanism that aims at explaining the evolution of "useless" features – like the oversized tail of the peacock. The long tail feathers renders the peacock visible and makes it difficult for it to make a quick escape. But they also make it irresistible to the peahen, and thereby increase the chances that just that particular cock with the biggest tail may reproduce in the place of less well endowed fellow suitors.

The book contains a lot of formulations that will not find a very wide support in our days, like this:
With civilised nations, the reduced size of the jaws from lessened use, the habitual play of different muscles serving to express different emotions, and the increased size of the brain from greater intellectual activity, have together produced a considerable effect on their general appearance in comparison with savages.
It is generally admitted that with woman the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least, of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilization.

The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain--whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.
Passages like these do not, however, substantiate the use of Darwin in support of different social-Darwinist advocates trying to use his theories in support of racism and oppression. Compared to contemporary writings, the remarkable thing about Darwin is how few statements like these one can find. He belonged to his class and his times, and could not shed his skin. His prejudices were not personal, they were those of his class. And the anti-racist within was still alive and kicking.

In Darwin’s world the transition from one species to the other is sliding and gradual--he insisted that nature does not make any leaps: “Natura non facit saltum”. There is no sharp divisions between the different races of humans, we all have got the same mental powers and the external differences are quite superficial. Humanity is one and the same species, and evolved from a common progenitor, whom we share with the great apes. Darwin never doubts that there are racial differences, and our European supremacy, which shows by the ability to treat the primitive races with the same humanitarian spirit as we show our peers. This is the friendly humanitarianism of the British bourgeoisie forming his views. That very class which would engage vehemently in the protection of a sick sheep or a lonely dog at home, and simultaneously show no mercy as it butchered rebellious Indians, Chinese, Tasmanians, Zulus or Irish when necessary to safeguard the Empire and secure the superprofits which where extracted from it.

Huxley And Sterility

There were problematic points in his theory, with which Darwin was wrestling all his life and to which he still never found a good solution. Huxley criticized him in an important atena. What separates different species is that they cannot interbreed and have fertile offspring. They are mutually sterile. ”You have loaded yourself with an unnecessary difficulty in adopting ‘Natura non facit saltum’ so unreservedly,” Huxley said. He was asking for the leaps. For if evolution only brought forth minute differences of degree--where, then, originated the leaps that qualitatively separates one species from the other?

Darwin did not know the laws of heredity, and desperately searched for a mechanism that could explain how characters are inherited from parents to offspring. To counter his critics on this point he later went a long way to accept the Lamarckian view that acquired characteristics could be inherited. While in the beginning it was important to Darwin to separate himself from the revolutionary Frenchman, the difference between the two grew less and less sharp. But we know that inheritance follows the "germ line"--a person who has lost an arm will not beget one-armed children.

In 1868 Darwin published a book on variation in plants and animals under domestication. It amounted to two thick volumes, and contained his proposal for a solution to the problem of inheritance. He christened it "pangenesis," and it was a pet theory of his, though he never was able to vindicate it by experiment nor by observation. He thought that every part of the body, every structure and every organ, excreted minuscule particles, "gemmules," which found their way into the bloodstream and on to the reproductive cells. Thus a trait would be transmitted via infinitely small "building blocks." About this he wrote a lot of nonsense. The great theoretician was wrong, but he was in such a need for an explanation that he was unable to reject his own hypothesis.

Ironically, just at the same time the Austrian abbot Gregor Mendel published the results of his experiments with crossing different strains of peas. In the garden of his monastry in Brno, Mendel discovered the laws of inheritance and laid the foundation of genetics. But his results never reached the study of Charles Darwin. When they were "rediscovered" around 1900, the result was a temporary decline in the popularity of Darwinism, until the two theories were synthesized around 1930. Presently the theory of evolution is proved beyond any doubt, and one of the strongest arguments lies in genetics. The fact that modern genetic technology can transplant characters from trees to fish, or from bacteria to mammals, prove that all living things are related.

I See Open Fields...

While Darwinism is one of the most well-documented and best verified theories of science, it is still disputed. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Both. A theory which is not disputed has ceased to develop. It is finished off, becoming stale and turning into dogma.

The opposition coming from religious circles, from Christian fundamentalists in the USA or from rigorous imams in Turkey and other Moslem countries, is a result of class contradictions and history, and will not disappear by itself. It must be fought by open and concrete debates, the Darwinian theory. All the peoples of the world are sensible people, and most of them are believers in one way or another. That does not make them anti-Darwinists--even the Pope has accepted Darwinism.

We need Darwin to understand how Nature is structured. The more nature we destroy, pollute and lay waste to, the more species we drive into extinction, the more important it will be to understand the mechanisms of nature, its possibilities and its limitations--simply in order to survive on this tiny planet.

But what is Darwinism today? It is not a closed science, where we know every mechanism and regularity. We constantly learn new things; and the increased insight makes it possible to develop the theory further. For the last fifty years, genetics has gotten more and more prominent. At present we know the hereditary substance, we can read the genes. That did not give us the solution to all questions; it gave us an endless number of new riddles to resolve. It turns out that inheritance and evolution have several mechanisms; the picture is not a simple and easy one. And within science as well, there are sharp contradictions leading to bitter strife.

This spring the great Natural History Museum in Kensington in London showed a fantastic exhibition called "Darwin’s Great Idea." It was assembled in the USA, and had earlier been showed at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The scientific responsibility for this exhibition had been given to American zoologist Niles Eldredge, who also published the book Darwin: Discovering The Tree Of Life as a supplement to the exhibition. It is an exciting book, explaining how Darwin developed his theory of natural selection. But neither in the British museum, in the many bookshops of London nor in Darwin’s home, Downe House in Kent, which is also a museum, was there any sign of the book!

The reason is probably that Eldredge is a controversial person in Darwinian circles. Together with the well-known paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, in 1972 he launched the theory of punctuated equilibrium, providing a solution to the problem Huxley posed, the problem of sterility between different species.

Darwin advocated a vision of change happening through gradual increase or decrease of heritable characteristics in species. But that does not explain the qualitative leaps between old and new species. Development does not happen in the way Darwin imagined. At a certain point of development there always emerges something qualitatively new. Darwin wanted to draw a line marking himself off from the revolutionary and rebellious evolutionary theories of his time. He formed a theory marked by the view of the well-to-do middle classes, that evolution is a gradual, smooth process--a view that can also be the foundation of a view of capitalism as an ever-existing, perpetual social system.

But even the smallest seed goes through a development in leaps, from seed to germ to full-grown plant, from bud to flower to seed. Darwin’s social position became an obstacle for his thinking.

Eldredge and Gould were of the opinion that development does not happen gradually, but by bounds and leaps. The pattern we can see in nature, and which Darwin tried to explain away, among other things by pointing out that the fossil record is incomplete, look the same more than 100 years later, and therefore had to be real. So many fossils have been excavated since Darwin’s time that they should show an even development, had it existed. Eldredge defends the theory of punctuated equilibrium in his book, and points to how Darwin’s view originally was more flexible the one he finally arrived at.

But the theory of punctuated equilibrium is not popular among English natural scientists. They curse and scold this theory, and insist that Darwin has to be taken literally. You could almost believe that they find it embarrassing that two Americans have something to teach the world about Darwinism. Eldredge and Gould’s development of the theory also makes it possible to surmount the objections of Karl Marx. And no one can claim ownership to Darwinism.

Another much debated question among scientists the last decades has been what can be called "ultradarwinism." Quite a few claims to find ”Darwinian” explanations to everything, from religion to social development, gender roles and differences in wages. There is a cornucopia of popular science claiming to explain everything as ruled by the genes and developed according to Darwinism, the most extreme of which is Richard Dawkin’s “Selfish Gene" theory. This literature is threatening to develop Darwinism to a bourgeois super-ideology, where we are being fed thoughts that aim to make us accept our existence: "This is how we are, and the reason is genetic. It is impossible to change that, we have to learn to live with it."

At the same time we hear complaints that sociology and gender research do not take Darwinism seriously. But Darwin himself was open to the thought that much was accidental. He did not try to explain all phenomenons. Humans are evolutionarily developed, with their mental and psychological capabilities and capacities. But contingency, chance and externalities, can lead to development of faculties which can be used for quite other things than what propelled their development. The dinosaurs developed the scales of their skin into feathers, not for flying, but for insulation. But it gave them the possibility to fly.

Mammals do not have such scales in their skin, but hairs which make up an insulating fur. Flying mammals has developed the ability to do so by developing membranes of skin strong enough to carry the body through the air. The big human brain is developed for quite other things than playing computer games or reading periodicals. But it can be used for that as well.

These controversies within natural science are a good thing. They lead to research, to testing of hypotheses, to further development of theory. Darwinism is still a young theory that has to be developed to be able to explain new discoveries.

But we are also marked by our environment. It was not the genes that made Darwin formulate a theory about gradual development. It was his social position. Social development is non-Darwinian--we learn by experience and are able to communicate with each other.

Just as much as social sciences must learn from Darwinism, Darwinian natural science must see its limitations, and accept that it is not able to explain everything. Natural selection cannot explain the financial crisis. And even though Sarah Palin may be equipped with a Darwinian-developed ability to think, it is not genetics that decides her thinking. Alas.

No comments: