Darwin's Delay - Social Strife

The Moral Animal - Whe We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology - Robert Wright 1995

Darwin's Delay
Social Strife

My health has improved a good deal, since I have been in the country, & I believe to a stranger's eyes, I should look quite a strong man, but I find I am not up to any exertion, & I am constantly tiring myself by very trifling things... . [I]t has been a bitter mortification for me, to digest the conclusion, that the "race is for the strong" — & that I shall probably do little more, but must be content to admire the strides others make in Science — So it must be... .

— Letter to Charles Lyell (1841)1

After discovering natural selection in 1838, Darwin spent the next two decades not telling the world about it. He didn't start writing a book on his theory until 1855, and that book he never really finished. Only in 1858, when he learned that another naturalist had arrived at the same theory, did he decide to produce what he called an "abstract" — The Origin of Species, published in 1859.

But Darwin didn't spend the 1840s idly. Though slowed by frequent illness — violent shivering and vomiting attacks, gastric pain and epic flatulence, faintness, heart palpitations — he was prolific. During the first eight years of his marriage, he published scientific papers, finished editing the five volumes of The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, and wrote three books based on the voyage: The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842), Geological {229} Observations on the Volcanic Islands (1844), and Geological Observations on South America (1846).

On October 1, 1846, Darwin made this entry in his personal journal: "Finished last proof of my Geolog. Obser. on S. America; This volume, including Paper in Geolog. Journal on the Falkland Islands took me 18 & 1/2 months: the M.S., however, was not so perfect as in the case of Volcanic Islands. So that my Geology has taken me 4 & 1/2 years: now it is 10 years since my return to England. How much time lost by illness!"3

This is vintage Darwin in several respects. There is the grim resignation with which, as his illness wore on, he often trudged through his work; though he had on this day finished a grand trilogy (at least one volume of which is still considered a classic), he doesn't sound as if he's poised to crack open a bottle of champagne. There is his never-ending self-criticism; he can't savor the project's end for even a day before turning to its imperfections. There is his sharp awareness of the passage of time, and his obsession with using it well.

You might think that this moment was an auspicious one for Darwin finally to start moving with some briskness toward his appointment with destiny. Certainly one great spur to productivity — a sense of mortality — was now honed to a keen edge. In 1844 he had given Emma a 230-page sketch of the theory of natural selection, along with written instructions to publish it — and "take trouble in promoting it" — in the event of his death. The very fact that the Darwins had now moved out of London, to the rural village of Downe, was testament to his physical decline. There he was to be insulated from the distractions and disequilibriums of city life, draw warmth from his growing family, and, under a tightly structured regimen of work, recreation, and rest, try to extract from his constitution a few good hours of output each day — seven days a week — so long as he could stay alive. This was the environment he had built for himself by the time he finished his books on the geology of South America. In a letter to Captain FitzRoy written that same day (October 1, 1846), Darwin reported: "My life goes on like Clockwork, and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it."4 {230}

Given all this — a secure workplace, the faint sound of the grim reaper's footsteps, and completion, at last, of all scholarly obligations from the Beagle expedition — given all this, what cause could there possibly be to further postpone the writing of Darwin's book on natural selection?

In a word: barnacles. Darwin's long involvement with barnacles began innocently enough, with curiosity about a species found along the coast of Chile. But one species led to another, and before long his house was world barnacle headquarters, replete with specimens solicited from collectors by mail. For so long did the study of barnacles figure in Darwin's life, and so centrally, that one of Darwin's young sons, upon visiting a neighbor's home, asked, "Where does he do his barnacles?"5 By the end of 1854 — eight years after Darwin predicted that his barnacle work would take him a few months, maybe a year — he had published two books on living species of barnacles and two on barnacle fossils, and established an enduring reputation within this realm. His books are consulted to this day by biologists studying the subclass Cirripedia of the subphylum Crustacea (that is to say, barnacles).

Now, there is nothing wrong with being a leading barnacle authority. But some people are capable of greater things. Why Darwin took so long to realize his greatness has been the subject of much reflection. The most common theory is the most obvious: writing a book that affronts the religious beliefs of virtually everyone in your part of the world — including many colleagues and your wife — is a task not to be approached without circumspection.

The task had already been approached by a few people, and the result was never unalloyed praise. Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, a noted naturalist and poet, had himself advanced a theory of evolution in 1794 in the book Zoonomia. He had wanted the book to be published posthumously but finally changed his mind, after some twenty years, saying, "I am now too old and hardened to fear a little abuse," which is what he got.6 Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck's grand exposition of a similar evolutionary scheme appeared in 1809, the year of Darwin's birth, and was denounced as immoral. And in 1844, a book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation appeared, outlining {231} a theory of evolution and making a commotion. Its author, a Scottish publisher named Robert Chambers, chose to keep his name secret, perhaps wisely. The book was called, among other things, "a foul and filthy thing, whose touch is taint, whose breath is contamination."7

And none of these heretical theories was quite as godless as Darwin's. Chambers had a "Divine Governor" guiding evolution. Erasmus Darwin, being a deist, said that God had wound up the great clock of evolution and let it tick. And though Lamarck was denounced by Chambers as being "disrespectful of Providence,"8 Lamarckian evolution, as compared to Darwinian, was downright spiritual; it featured an inexorable tendency toward greater organic complexity and more highly conscious life. Imagine, if these men were due a severe scolding, what was in store for Darwin, whose theory involved no Divine Governor, no clock-winder (though Darwin pointedly left open the possibility of one), and no inherent progressive tendency — nothing but the slow accretion of fortuitous change.9

There's no doubt that Darwin was, from early on, worried about public reaction. Even before his belief in evolution had crystallized into the theory of natural selection, he weighed rhetorical tactics that might blunt criticism. In the spring of 1838, he wrote in his notebook, "Mention persecution of early Astronomers."10 In later years, Darwin's fear of censure is evident in his correspondence. The letter in which he confessed his heresy to his friend Joseph Hooker features one of the most defensive passages he ever produced — no small achievement. "I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable," he wrote in 1844. "Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a 'tendency to progression' 'adaptations from the slow willing of animals' &c, — but the conclusions I am led to are not widely different from his — though the means of change are wholly so — I think I have found out (here's presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends. — You will now groan, & think to yourself 'on what a man have I been wasting my time in writing to.' I sh'd, five years ago, have thought so."11 {232}


The theory that Darwin was slowed by a hostile social climate assumes many forms, ranging from baroque to simple, and these depict his delay in various ways, ranging from pathological to wise.

In the more elaborate versions of the theory, Darwin's illness — which was never clearly diagnosed and remains a mystery — figures as a psychosomatic procrastination device. Darwin was feeling heart palpitations in September 1837, a couple of months after opening his first evolution notebook, and his reports of illness are fairly frequent as those notebooks unfold toward the theory of natural selection.12

It has been suggested that Emma, who held her religion dear* and was pained by her husband's evolutionism, heightened the tension between his science and his social environs; and that, by so devotedly nursing him, she made his unwellness easier than was healthy. A letter to Charles just before their marriage contains a passage to that effect: "[N]othing could make me so happy as to feel that I could be of any use or comfort to my own dear Charles when he is not well. If you knew how I long to be with you when you are not well! ... So don't be ill any more my dear Charley till I can be with you to nurse you...,"13 These sentences may represent the high-water mark of Emma's premarital ardor.

Not all theories linking Darwin's illness to his ideas imply a subconscious plot to conceal them. Darwin may have simply had what is known today as an emotionally induced illness. Anxiety about social rejection is, after all, an ultimately physiological thing, as Darwin would have been the first to point out. It takes a physiological toll.14

Some people accept that Darwin had a bona fide disease, probably contracted in South America (perhaps Chagas' disease or chronic fatigue syndrome), but say he used barnacles to subconsciously forestall the day of reckoning. Certainly, as Darwin entered his barnacle phase, insisting it would be brief, he had some misgivings about what lay beyond. He wrote to Hooker in 1846: "I am going to begin some papers on the lower marine animals, which will last me some months, {233} perhaps a year, & then I shall begin looking over my ten-year-long accumulation of notes on species & varieties which, with writing, I daresay I shall stand infinitely low in the opinion of all sound naturalists — so this is my prospect for the future."15 That's the sort of attitude that could lead to an eight-year barnacle research project.

Some observers, including some of Darwin's contemporaries, have said the barnacles did him a great service.16 They immersed him fully in the details of taxonomy (good experience for someone who purports to have a theory explaining how all valid taxonomies came to be) and gave him an entire subclass of animals to examine in light of natural selection.

Besides, there were things other than taxonomy that he hadn't yet mastered — which leads to the simplest of all theories about his delay. The fact is that in 1846 — and in 1856, and, really, in 1859, when the Origin was published — Darwin had not fully figured out natural selection. And it is only logical, before unveiling a theory that will get you defamed and hated, to try to get it into good shape.

One of the puzzles about natural selection that faced Darwin was the puzzle of extreme selflessness, of insect sterility. Not until 1857 did he solve it, with his precursor of the theory of kin selection.17

Another of the puzzles Darwin never solved.18 This is the problem of heredity itself. A great virtue of Darwin's theory is that it doesn't depend, as Lamarck's did, on the inheritance of acquired traits; for natural selection to work, it isn't necessary that a giraffe's stretching for higher leaves affect the neck length of its offspring. But Darwinian evolution does depend on some form of change in the range of inherited traits; natural selection needs an ever-changing menu to "choose" from. Today any good high school biology student can tell you how the menu keeps changing — through sexual recombination and genetic mutation. But neither of these mechanisms made obvious sense before people knew about genes. For Darwin to have talked about "random mutations" when asked how the pool of traits changes would have been like saying, "It just does — trust me."19

It is possible to assess Darwin's delay from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology. This view doesn't yield a whole new theory about the delay, but it does help drain the episode of some mystery. {234}

It can be best appreciated after the evolutionary roots of his ambitions and fears have become clear. For now, let us leave the story in 1854, when the last of the barnacle books was published and the time had come for Darwin to muster his full reserves of enthusiasm for the coming culmination of his life's work. He wrote to Hooker: "How awfully flat I shall feel, if, when I get my notes together on species, &c. &c, the whole thing explodes like an empty puff-ball."20 {235}