Darwin's Triumph - Social Strife

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

Darwin's Triumph
Social Strife

I am got most deeply interested in my subject; though I wish I could set less value on the bauble fame, either present or posthumous, than I do, but not I think, to any extreme degree; yet, if I know myself, I would work just as hard, though with less gusto, if I knew that my Book would be published for ever anonymously.

— Letter to W. D. Fox (1857)1

Darwin was one of our finest specimens. He did superbly what human beings are designed to do: manipulate social information to personal advantage. The information in question was the prevailing account of how human beings, and all organisms, came to exist; Darwin reshaped it in a way that radically raised his social status. When he died in 1882, his greatness was acclaimed in newspapers around the world, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey, not far from the body of Isaac Newton.2 Alpha-male territory.

And to top it all off: he was a good guy. The Times of London observed, "Great as he was, wide as was the reach of his intelligence, what endeared him to his many friends, what charmed all those who were brought into even momentary contact with him, was the beauty of his character."3 Darwin's legendary lack of pretense persisted until the very end, when it slipped beyond his control. The local coffin {287} maker recalled: "I made his coffin just the way he wanted it, all rough, just as it left the bench, no polish, no nothin'." But then, after the sudden decision to bury him at Westminster Abbey, "my coffin wasn't wanted and they sent it back. This other one you could see to shave in."4

This is the basic, oft-noted paradox of Charles Darwin. He became world famous yet seemed to lack the traits that typically fuel epic social ascents. He appears, as one biographer put it, "an unlikely survivor in the immortality stakes, having most of the decent qualities that deter a man from fighting with tooth and claw. "

The paradox can't be resolved simply by noting that Darwin authored the correct theory of how people came to exist, for he wasn't alone in doing this. Alfred Russel Wallace, who arrived at natural selection independently, began circulating a written description of it before Darwin had gone public. The two men's versions of the theory were formally unveiled on the same day, in the same forum. But today Darwin is Darwin, and Wallace is an asterisk. Why did Darwin triumph?

In chapter ten we partly reconciled Darwin's decency with his fame, noting that he lived in a society in which doing good was typically a prerequisite for doing well. Moral reputation meant much, and just about everything you did caught up with your reputation.

But the story is more complex than that. A closer look at Darwin's long and winding road to fame calls into question some common assessments of him — that, for example, he had little ambition and not a shred of Machiavellianism, that his commitment to truth was unadulterated by the thirst for fame. Viewed through the new paradigm, Darwin looks a bit less like a saint and a bit more like a male primate.


From early on, Darwin exhibited a common ingredient of social success: ambition. He competed with rivals for status, and longed for the esteem it brings. "My success ... has been very good amongst the water beettles [sic]," he wrote to a cousin from Cambridge. "I think I beat Jenyns in Colymbetes." When his insect collecting got him cited in Illustrations of British Insects, he wrote, {288} "You will see my name in Stephens' last number. I am glad of it if it is merely to spite Mr. Jenyns."6

The notion of Darwin as a typical young male, bent on conquest, seems at odds with standard appraisals. The Darwin described by John Bowlby — "nagging self-contempt," a "tendency to disparage his own contributions," an "ever-present fear of criticism, both from himself and from others," an "exaggerated respect for authority and the opinions of others" — doesn't sound like an alpha male in the making.7 But remember: often in chimpanzee societies, and almost always in human societies, the social scale can't be ascended alone; a common first step is to forge a bond with a primate of higher status, and this involves an act of submission, a profession of inferiority. One biographer has described Darwin's purported pathology in especially suggestive terms: "some flaw of self-confidence, some absence of certainty, that made him emphasize his shortcomings when dealing with those in authority."8

In his autobiography, Darwin recalled the "glow of pride" he felt when, as a teenager, he heard that an eminent scholar, after chatting with him, had said, "There is something in that young man that interests me." The compliment, Darwin said, "must have been chiefly due to his perceiving that I listened with much interest to everything which he said, for I was as ignorant as a pig about his subjects of history, politicks and moral philosophy."9 Here, as usual, Darwin is too humble by half, but he is probably right to suggest that his humility itself had played a role. (Darwin goes on to note: "To hear of praise from an eminent person, though no doubt apt or certain to excite vanity, is, I think, good for a young man, as it helps to keep him in the right course."10 Yes: upward.)

To call Darwin's humility tactically sound isn't to call it disingenuous. The tendency of people to view the next rung on the social ladder with respect is most effective when they're thoroughly in its thrall, and not conscious of its purpose: we feel genuinely in awe of people before whom, it so happens, we might profitably grovel. Thomas Carlyle, one of Darwin's contemporaries (and acquaintances), was probably right to say that hero worship is an essential part of human nature. And it is probably no coincidence that hero wot ship grows powerful at the time of life when people begin their {289} social competition in earnest. "Adolescence," one psychiatrist has observed, "is a time of a renewed search for ideals... . [T]he adolescent is seeking a model, a perfect person to emulate. It's much like the moment in infancy before they realized their parents' imperfections."

Yes, the awe for role models feels much like the early awe for a parent — and may spring from the same neurochemistry. But its function is not only to encourage instructive emulation; it also helps write the implicit contract between senior and junior partners in a coalition. The latter, lacking the social status that counts heavily in reciprocal altruism, will compensate for this shortcoming through deference.

While Darwin was at Cambridge, his most extreme deference was reserved for the professor (and reverend) John Stevens Henslow. Darwin had heard from his older brother that Henslow was "a man who knew every branch of science, and I was accordingly prepared to reverence him."12 After striking up an acquaintance, Darwin reported that "he is quite the most perfect man I ever met with."13

Darwin became known at Cambridge as "the man who walks with Henslow." Their relationship was like the millions of other such relationships in the history of our species. Darwin benefited from Henslow's example and counsel and drew on his social connections, and repaid him with, among other things, subservience, arriving early for Henslow's lectures to help set up equipment.14 One is reminded of Jane Goodall's description of Goblin's social ascent: he was "respectful" of his mentor Figan, followed him around, watched what he did, and often groomed him.15

After earning Figan's acceptance and absorbing his wisdom, Goblin turned on him, displacing him as alpha male. But Goblin may have felt truly reverent until the moment when greater detachment was in order. And so it is with us: our gauging of people's worth — their professional caliber, their moral fiber, whatever — reflects partly the place they occupy in our social universe at the time. We are selectively blinded to those qualities that it would be inconvenient to acknowledge.

Darwin's worship of Henslow isn't the best example of this blindness, as Henslow was a widely admired man. But consider the captain {290} of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy. When Darwin met FitzRoy for the interview that would decide whether he sailed with the Beagle, the situation was simple: here was a man of high status whose approval might eventually elevate Darwin's own status markedly. So it's not surprising that Darwin seems to have come prepared to "reverence"

FitzRoy. After the meeting, he wrote to his sister Susan: "[I]t is no use attempting to praise him as much as I feel inclined to do, for you would not believe me... ." He wrote in his diary that FitzRoy was "as perfect as nature can make him." To Henslow (who was the rung on Darwin's ladder that had led to the Beagle) he wrote, "Cap. FitzRoy is every thing that is delightful... ."

Years later, Darwin would describe FitzRoy as a man who "has the most consummate skill in looking at everything & every body in a perverted manner." But then, years later he could afford to. Now was no time to be scanning FitzRoy for flaws, or probing beneath the civil facade commonly mustered for first encounters. Now was 4 time for deference and amity, and their deployment proved a success. On the evening Darwin was writing his letters, FitzRoy was writing to a naval officer — "I like what I see and hear of him, much" — and requesting that Darwin be named the ship's naturalist. Darwin, in one of the calmer passages in his letter to Susan, had written, "I hope I am judging reasonably, & not through prejudice about Cap. Fitz." He was doing both; he was rationally pursuing long-term self-interest with the aid of short-term prejudice.

Toward the end of the Beagle's voyage, Darwin got his strongest early taste of professional esteem. He was (aptly enough) on Ascension Island when he got a letter from Susan relaying the interest aroused by his scientific observations, which had been read before the Geological Society of London. Most notably, Adam Sedgwick, the eminent Cambridge geologist, had said that some day Darwin would "have a great name among the Naturalists of Europe." It's not yet clear exactly which neurotransmitters are unleashed by status-raising news such as this (serotonin, we've seen, is one candidate), but Darwin described their effect clearly: "After reading this letter I clambered over the mountains of Ascension with a bounding step and made the volcanic rocks resound under my geological hammer!" {291}

In reply Darwin affirmed to Susan that he would now live by the creed "that a man who dares to waste one hour of time, has not discovered the value of life."18

Elevations of status may bring a reevaluation of one's social constellation. The relative positions of the stars have changed. People who used to be central are now peripheral; the focus must be shifted toward brighter bodies that once seemed beyond reach. Darwin was not the sort of person to perform this maneuver crudely; he never forgot the little people. Still, there are hints of a shifting social calculus while he was aboard the Beagle. His older cousin, William Fox, had introduced him to entomology (and to Henslow); at Cambridge Darwin had profited much from their ongoing exchange of insect lore and specimens. During that correspondence, while seeking guidance and data from Fox, Darwin had assumed his customary stance of abject submission. "I should not send this very shamefully stupid letter," he wrote, "only I am very anxious to get some crumbs of information about yourself & the insects." He sometimes reminded Fox of "how long I have been hoping in vain to receive a letter from my old master" and enjoined him to "remember I am your pupil... ."19

It is thus poignant when, six years later, as Darwin's researches aboard the Beagle signal his rise in stature, Fox senses a new asymmetry in their friendship. Suddenly it is he who apologizes for the "dullness" of his letter, he who stresses that "You are never a whole Day absent from my thoughts," he who begs for mail. "It is now so long since I saw your handwriting that I cannot tell you the pleasure it would give me. I feel however that your time is valuable & mine worth nothing, which makes a vast difference."20 This shifting balance of affection is a regular feature of friendships amid sharp changes in status, as the reciprocal-altruism contract is silently renegotiated. Such renegotiations may have been less common in the ancestral environment, where, to judge by hunter-gatherer societies, status hierarchies were less fluid after early adulthood than they are now. {292}


During the voyage, Henslow, Darwin's mentor, remained his main link to British science. The geological reports that had so impressed Sedgwick were extracts from letters to Henslow, which he had dutifully publicized. It was to Henslow that Darwin wrote near the voyage's end, asking him to lay the groundwork for membership in the Geological Society. And throughout, Darwin's letters left no doubt about his continuing allegiance to "my President & Master." Upon arriving in Shrewsbury after the Beagle docked, he wrote: "My dear Henslow, I do long to see you; you have been the kindest friend to me, that ever Man possessed."22

But Henslow's days as main mentor were numbered. On the Beagle, Darwin had (at Henslow's suggestion) read Principles of Geology, by Charles Lyell. Therein, Lyell championed the much-disputed theory, advanced earlier by James Hutton, that geological formations are mainly the product of gradual, ongoing wear and tear, as opposed to catastrophic events, such as floods. (The catastrophist version of natural history had found favor with the clergy, since it seemed to suggest divine interventions.) Darwin's work on the Beagle — his evidence, for example, that the coast of Chile had been rising imperceptibly since 1822 — tended to support the gradualist view, and he soon was calling himself a "zealous disciple" of Lyell.23

As John Bowlby notes, it's not surprising that Lyell should become Darwin's chief counselor and role model; "their partnership in advocating the same geological principles gave them a common cause that was lacking in Darwin's relationship with Henslow."24 Common causes, as we've seen, are a frequent sealer of friendships, apparently for Darwinian reasons. Once Darwin had endorsed Lyell's view of geology, both men's status would rise or fall with its fortunes.

Still, the bond of reciprocal altruism between Lyell and Darwin was more than mere "common cause." Each man brought his own assets to the table. Darwin brought mountains of fresh evidence for the views to which Lyell's reputation was inseverably attached. Lyell, in addition to providing a sturdy theoretical rack on which Darwin could array his researches, brought the guidance and social sponsorship for which mentors are known. Within weeks of the Beagle's {293} return, Lyell was inviting Darwin to dinner, counseling him on the wise use of time, and assuring him that, as soon as a spot opened in the elite Athenaeum Club, he could fill it.25 Darwin, Lyell told a colleague, would make "a glorious addition to my society of geologists... ,"26

Though Darwin could at times be a detached and cynical student of human motivation, he seems to have been numb to the pragmatic nature of Lyell's interest. "Amongst the great scientific men, no one has been nearly so friendly & kind, as Lyell," he wrote to Fox a month after his return. "You cannot imagine how good-naturedly he entered into all my plans."27 What a nice man!

It is time for yet another reminder that self-serving behavior needn't involve conscious calculation. In the 1950s, social psychologists showed that we tend to like people we find we can influence. And we tend to like them even more if they have high status.28 It isn't necessary that we think, "If I can influence him, he could houseful, so I should nourish this friendship," or "His compliance will be especially useful if he has high status." Once again, natural selection seems to have done the "thinking."

Of course, people may supplement this "thinking" with their own thinking. There must have been some awareness within both Lyell and Darwin of the other man's utility. But they surely also felt, at the same time, a substratum of solid and innocent-feeling amity. It probably was, as Darwin wrote to Lyell, "the greatest pleasure to me to write or talk Geolog. with you." And Darwin was no doubt sincerely overwhelmed by the "most goodnatured manner" in which Lyell gave him guidance, "almost without being asked."29

Darwin was probably equally sincere when, several decades later, he complained that Lyell had been "very fond of society, especially of eminent men, and of persons high in rank; and this over-estimation of a man's position in the world, seemed to me his chief foible." But this was after Darwin, now world famous, had acquired some, shall we say, perspective. Earlier Darwin had been too dazzled by Lyell's own position in the world to pay much mind to his flaws. {294}


We've seen how Darwin spent the two decades after his return to England: discovering natural selection and then doing a series of tilings other than disclose it. We have also seen several theories about this delay. The Darwinian slant on Darwin's delay isn't really an alternative to existing theories so much as a backdrop for them. To begin with, evolutionary psychology silhouettes the two forces that wrenched Darwin, one attracting him toward publication, the other repelling him.

First is the inherent love of esteem, a love that Darwin had his share of. One route to esteem is to author a revolutionary theory.

But what if the theory fails to revolutionize? What if it's roundly dismissed — dismissed, indeed, as a threat to the very fabric of society? In that event (the sort of event Darwin was the type to dwell on) our evolutionary history weighs against publication. There's hardly been a genetic payoff, over the ages, for loudly espousing deeply unpopular views, especially when they antagonize the powers that be.

The human bent for saying things that please people was clear long before its evolutionary basis was. In a famous experiment from the 1950s, a surprisingly large number of people were willing to profess incorrect opinions — patently, obviously incorrect opinions — about the relative length of two lines if placed in a room with other people who professed them. Psychologists also found decades ago that they can strengthen or weaken a person's tendency to offer opinions by adjusting the rate at which a listener agrees. Another fifties-era experiment showed that a person's recollections vary according to the audience he is to share them with: show him a list of the pros and cons of raising teachers' salaries, and which ones make a lasting impression depends on whether he expects to address a teachers' or a taxpayers' group. The authors of this experiment wrote, "It is likely that a good deal of a person's mental activity consists, in whole or part, of imagined communication to audiences imagined or real, and that this may have a considerable effect on what he remembers and believes at any one point in time... ,"33 This jibes with a Darwinian angle on the human mind. Language evolved as a way of manipulating people to your advantage (your advantage in {295} this case being popularity with an audience that holds firm opinions); cognition, the wellspring of language, is warped accordingly.

In light of all this, the question of Darwin's delay becomes less of a question. Darwin's famous bent for self-doubt in the face of disagreement (especially, it is said, disagreement from authority figures) is quintessentially human — unusual in degree, maybe, but not in kind. It isn't remarkable that he spent many years studying barnacles rather than unveil a theory widely considered heretical — heretical in a sense that is hard to grasp today, when the word heresy is almost always used with irony. Nor is it remarkable that Darwin, in the many years of the Origin's gestation, often felt anxious or even mildly depressed; natural selection "wants" us to feel uneasy when pondering actions that augur a massive loss of public esteem.

What's amazing, in a way, is that Darwin could be steadfast in his belief in evolution, given the pervasive hostility toward the idea. Leading the assault on Vestiges, Robert Chambers's 1844 evolutionist tract, had been Adam Sedgwick, the Cambridge geologist (and reverend) whose praise, relayed to Darwin at Ascension Island, had so thrilled him. Sedgwick's review of the Chambers book was candid about its own agenda. "The world cannot bear to be turned upside down; and we are ready to wage an internecine war with any violation of our modest principles and social manners." Not encouraging.

What was Darwin to do? The standard view is that he vacillated, like a laboratory rat eyeing food whose procurement will bring a shock. But there's also a minority view: during his celebrated barnacle detour, while failing to publish his theory about evolution, he was busy paving the way for its eventual reception. The strategy can be seen as three-pronged.

First, Darwin strengthened his argument. While immersed in barnacles, he continued to gather evidence for his theory, partly through the postal interrogation of far-flung experts on flora and fauna. One reason for the Origin's ultimate success was Darwin's meticulous anticipation of, and preemptive response to, criticism. Two years before the book's publication, he correctly wrote, "[I] think I go as far as almost anyone in seeing the grave difficulties against my doctrine."

This thoroughness grew out of self-doubt — out of Darwin's {296} legendary humility and grave fear of criticism. Frank Sulloway, an authority on both Freud and Darwin, has made this point by comparing the two men: "Although both were revolutionary personalities, Darwin was unusually concerned about personal error and was modest to a fault. He also erected a new scientific theory that has successfully stood the test of time. Freud, in contrast, was tremendously ambitious and highly self-confident — a self-styled 'conquistador' of science. Yet he developed an approach to human nature that was largely a collection of nineteenth-century psychobiological fantasies masquerading as real science."36

In reviewing John Bowlby's biography of Darwin, Sulloway made the point Bowlby failed to make. "[I]t seems reasonable to argue that a moderate degree of lowered self-esteem, which in Darwin was coupled with dogged persistence and unflagging industry, is actually a valuable attribute in science by helping to prevent an over-estimation of one's own theories. Constant self-doubt, then, is a methodological hallmark of good science, even if it is not especially congenial to good psychological health."37

The question naturally arises as to whether such useful self-doubt, however painful, might be part of the human mental repertoire, preserved by natural selection because of its success, in some circumstances, at propelling social ascent. And the question grows only more intriguing in light of Darwin's father's role in forging his son's self-doubt. Bowlby asks: Was Charles "the disgrace to his family his father had so angrily predicted, or had he perhaps made good? ... Throughout his scientific career, unbelievably fruitful and distinguished though it would be, Charles's ever-present fear of criticism, both from himself and from others, and never satisfied craving for reassurance, seep through." Bowlby also notes that "a submissive and placatory attitude towards his father became second nature to Charles" and suggests that his father is at least partly to blame for Charles's "exaggerated" respect for authority and his "tendency to disparage his own contributions."

The speculation is irresistible: perhaps the elder Darwin, in implanting this lifelong source of discomfort, was functioning as designed Parents may be programmed — whether they know it or not — to adjust their children's psyches, even if painfully, in ways that {297} promise to raise social status. For that matter, the younger Darwin, in absorbing the painful adjustment, may have been functioning as designed. We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones. (Of course, we're designed to pursue happiness; and the attainment of Darwinian goals — sex, status, and so on — often brings happiness, at least for a while. Still, the frequent absence of happiness is what keeps us pursuing it, and thus makes us productive. Darwin's heightened fear of criticism kept him almost chronically distanced from serenity, and therefore kept him busy trying to reach it.)

Thus, Bowlby may be right about all the painful paternal influence on Darwin's character yet wrong to make it sound so pathological. Of course, even things that aren't pathological in the strict sense may be regrettable, and valid targets of psychiatric intervention. But presumably psychiatrists can more ably intervene once they get clear on what sorts of pain are and aren't "natural."

The second prong of Darwin's three-pronged strategy was to beef up his credentials. It's a commonplace of social psychology that cred ibility grows with prestige. Forced to believe either a college pro fessor or a grade-school teacher on some question of biology, we usually choose the professor. In one sense, this is a valid choice, as the professor is more likely to be right. In another sense, this is just another arbitrary by-product of evolution — a reflexive regard for status.

Either way, an air of mastery is a handy thing when you're trying to change minds. Hence barnacles: even aside from what Darwin learned from the barnacles, he knew that the sheer weight of his four volumes on the subclass Cirripedia would lend prestige to his theory of natural selection.

That, at least, is the suggestion of one biographer, Peter Brent: "[P]erhaps ... Darwin was not training himself with the Cirripede, he was qualifying himself." Brent cites an exchange between Darwin and Joseph Hooker. In 1845, Hooker had offhandedly professed doubts about the grand pronouncements of a French naturalist who "does not know what it is to be a specific Naturalist himself." Darwin, characteristically, took the remark to reflect on his own "presumption in accumulating facts & speculating on the subject of variation, without {298} having worked out my due share of species." A year later Darwin went to work on barnacles.

Brent may be right. Several years after the Origin was published, Darwin advised a young botanist, "let theory guide your observations, but till your reputation is well established, be sparing in publishing theory. It makes persons doubt your observations."

The third prong of Darwin's strategy was to marshal potent social forces — to meld a coalition that included men of stature, men of rhetorical power, and men who fit both descriptions. There was Lyell, who would bring Darwin's first paper on natural selection before thes Linnean Society of London, lending it his authority (though Lyell was then an agnostic on natural selection); Thomas Huxley, who would famously confront Bishop Wilberforce in the Oxford evolution debate; Hooker, who would less famously confront Wilberforce and would join Lyell in unveiling Darwin's theory; and Asa Gray, the Harvard botanist who, through his writings in the Atlantic Monthly, would become Darwin's chief publicist in America. One by one, Darwin let these men in on his theory.

Was Darwin's assembly of troops really so calculated? Certainly Darwin was aware, by the time the Origin was published, that the battle for truth is fought by people, not just ideas. "[W]e are now a good and compact body of really good men, and mostly not old men," he assured one supporter only days after publication. "In the long-run we shall conquer." Three weeks after the Origin's publication, he wrote his young friend John Lubbock, whom he had sent a copy, and asked, "Have you finished it? If so, pray tell me whether you are with me on the general issue, or against me." He assured Lubbock in a postscript that "I have got — I wish and hope I might say that we have got — a fair number of excellent men on our side of the question... ." Translation: If you act now, you can be part of a winning coalition of male primates.

Darwin's pleas for Charles Lyell's full support — almost pathetic in their persistence — are similarly pragmatic. Darwin sees that it is the prestige of his allies, not just their number, that will shape public opinion. September 11, 1859: "Remember that your verdict will probably have more influence than my book in deciding whether such {299} views as I hold will be admitted or rejected at present. ..." September 20: "[A]s I regard your verdict as far more important in my own eyes, and I believe in the eyes of the world than of any other dozen men, I am naturally very anxious about it."46

Lyell's long delay in granting unequivocal support would bring Oanvin to the point of bitterness. He wrote to Hooker in 1863: "I am deeply disappointed (I do not mean personally) to find that his ti rrnidity prevents him giving any judgment... . And the best of the joke is that he thinks he has acted with the courage of a martyr of old."47 But in terms of reciprocal altruism, Darwin was asking for too much. Lyell was by then sixty-five years old, with an ample intellectual legacy that wouldn't much benefit from his endorsing another man's theory and which could suffer appreciably from identification with a radical doctrine that later proved false. Besides, Lyell had opposed evolutionism in its Lamarckian guise, and thus might be viewed as backtracking. So Darwin's theory wasn't "common ca,xise" for the two men, as Lyell's had been two decades earlier, when Darwin needed a display case for his freshly gathered data. And Lyell, hauving repaid Darwin's support in various ways, had little if any debt outstanding. Darwin seems to have suffered here from a quaintly pre-Darwinian conception of what friendship is. Or, perhaps, he was under the sway of an egocentric accounting system.

That Darwin was urgently recruiting allies as of 1859 does not, of course, prove that he had for years been plotting strategy. The origin of his alliance with Hooker seems ingenuous enough. Their bond matured during the 1840s as a friendship of the classic variety — based on common interests and common values and consecrated by affection.48 As it became clear that one of those common interests was openness to the possibility of evolution, Darwin's affection can only have deepened. But we needn't assume that Darwin then envisioned Hooker becoming an avid defender of his theory. The affect tion inspired by common interests is natural selection's implicit recognition of the political usefulness of friends.

Much the same can be said of the way Darwin warmed to Hooker' s sterling character. ("One can see at once that he is honourable to the back-bone.")49 Yes, Hooker's trustworthiness would prove {300} essential; Darwin used him as a confidential sounding board long before natural selection entered public discourse. But no, that doesn't mean Darwin was from the beginning calibrating the value of Hooker's trustworthiness. Natural selection has given us an affinity for people who will be reliable reciprocal-altruism partners. In all cultures, trust joins common interest as the sine qua non of friendship.

Darwin's very compulsion to have a confidant — and, as he comes closer to making the theory public, to have additional confidants in Lyell, Gray, Huxley, and others — can be viewed as the product of evolutionary, and not just conscious, calculation. "I do not think I am brave enough to have stood being odious without support," he wrote days after the Origin was published.50 Who would have been? You would have to be just about literally not human to launch a massive attack on the status quo without first seeking social support. In fact, you would almost have to be non-hominoid.

Imagine how many times since our ape days social challenges have hinged on the challenger's success in forging a sturdy coalition. Imagine how many times the challengers have suffered from acting too soon, or from being too open in their machinations. And imagine the ample reproductive stakes. Is it any wonder that mutinies of all kinds, in all cultures, begin with whispers? That even an untutored six-year-old schoolboy feels intuitively the wisdom of discreetly eliciting opinions about the local bully before mounting a challenge? When Darwin confided his theory in a select few, employing his trademark defensiveness (to Asa Gray: "I know that this will make you despise me"),51 he was probably driven as much by emotion as by reason.


The greatest crisis of Darwin's career began in 1858. While trudging along on his epic manuscript, he found he had waited too long. Alfred Russel Wallace had now discovered the theory of natural selection — two decades after Darwin did — and stood poised to preempt him. In response, Darwin fiercely pursued his self-interest, but he pursued it so smoothly, and shrouded it in so much moral angst, that, ever {301} since, observers have been calling the episode yet another example of his superhuman decency.

Wallace was a young British naturalist who, like the young Darwin, had set sail for foreign lands to study life. Darwin had known for some time that Wallace was interested in the origin and distribution of species. In fact, the two men had corresponded about the matter, with Darwin noting that he already had a "distinct & tangible idea" on the subject and claiming that "it is really impossible to explain my views in the compass of a letter." But Darwin continued to resist any impulse to publish a short paper outlining his theory. "I rather hate the idea of writing for priority," he had written to Lyell, who had urged him to get his views on the record. "[Y]et I certainly should be vexed if any one were to publish my doctrines before me."52

The vexation hit on June 18, 1858, when the mail brought a letter from Wallace. Darwin opened it and found a precise sketch of Wallace's theory of evolution, whose likeness to his own theory was stunning. "Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters," he observed.53

The panic that must have struck Darwin that day is a tribute to natural selection's resourcefulness. The biochemical essence of the panic probably goes back to our reptilian days. Yet it was triggered not by its primordial trigger — threat to life and limb — but rather by a threat to status, a concern more characteristic of our primate days. What's more, the threat wasn't of the physical sort common among our primate relatives. Instead it came as an abstraction: words, sentences — symbols whose comprehension depended on brain tissue ac quired only within the past few million years. Thus does evolution take ancient raw materials and continually adapt them to current needs.

Presumably Darwin did not pause to reflect on the natural beauty of his panic. He sent Wallace's paper to Lyell — whose opinion of it Wallace had asked Darwin to solicit — and sought advice. Actually, "sought" is a little strong; I'm reading between the lines. Darwin proposed a pious course of action and left it for Lyell to propose .1 less pious one. "Please return me the MS., which he does not say he wishes me to publish, but I shall, of course, at once write and offer to send to any journal. So all my originality, whatever it may amount {302} to, will be smashed, though my book, if it will ever have any value, will not be deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of the theory."

I yell's reply — which, oddly, has not survived, even though Darwin saved correspondence religiously — seems to have succeeded in checking Darwin's piety. Darwin wrote back: "There is nothing in Wallace's sketch which is not written out much fuller in my sketch, copied out in 1844, and read by Hooker some dozen years ago. About a year ago I sent a short sketch, of which I have a copy, of my views ... to Asa Gray, so that I could most truly say and prove that I take nothing from Wallace."

Then Darwin gets into an epic wrestling match with his conscience, in full view of Lyell. At the risk of sounding cynical, I include in brackets the letter's subtext, as I interpret it: "I should be extremely glad now to publish a sketch of my general views in about a dozen pages or so; but I cannot persuade myself that I can do so honourably. [Maybe you can persuade me.] Wallace says nothing about publication, and I enclose his letter. But as I had not intended to publish any sketch, can I do so honourably, because Wallace has sent me an outline of his doctrine? [Say yes. Say yes.] ... Do you not think his having sent me this sketch ties my hands? [Say no. Say no.] ... I would send Wallace a copy of my letter to Asa Gray, to show him that I had not stolen his doctrine. But I cannot tell whether to publish now would not be base and paltry. [Say nonbase and nonpaltry.]" In a postscript added the next day, Darwin washed his hands of the affair, appointing Lyell arbitrator: "I have always thought you would make a first-rate Lord Chancellor; and I now appeal to you as a Lord Chancellor."

Darwin's anguish was deepened by events at home. His daughter Etty had diphtheria, and his mentally retarded baby, Charles Waring, had just contracted scarlet fever, from which he would soon die.

Lyell consulted with Hooker, whom Darwin had also alerted to the crisis, and the two men decided to treat Darwin's and Wallace's theories as equals. They would introduce Wallace's paper at the next meeting of the Linnean Society, along with the sketch Darwin had sent to Asa Gray and parts of the 1844 draft he had given Emma, and all of this would then be published together. (Darwin had sent {303} Gray the 1,200-word sketch only a few months after telling Wallace it would be "impossible" to sketch the theory in a letter. Whether he wanted to produce unimpeachable evidence of his priority, after sensing Wallace gaining on him, will never be known.) Since Wallace was then in the Malay Archipelago, and the next meeting of the society was imminent, Lyell and Hooker decided to proceed without consulting him. Darwin let them.

When Wallace learned what had happened, he was in a position much like Darwin's during the Beagle's voyage, when the thrilling word of Sedgwick's endorsement arrived. Wallace was a young naturalist, eager to make a name for himself, isolated from professional feedback, still not sure if he had much to give science. Suddenly he found that his work was being read by great men before a great scientific society. He wrote proudly to his mother that, "I sent Mr. Darwin an essay on a subject on which he is now writing a great work. He showed it to Dr. Hooker and Sir Charles Lyell, who thought so highly of it that they immediately read it before the Linnean Society. This assures me the acquaintance and assistance of these eminent men on my return home."56


This ranks as one of the most poignant passages in the history of science. Wallace had just been taken to the cleaners. His name, though given equal billing with Darwin's, was now sure to be eclipsed by it. After all, it wasn't news that some young upstart had declared himself an evolutionist and proposed an evolutionary mechanism; it was news that the well-known and respected Charles Darwin had done so. And any lingering doubt about whose name should be attached to the theory would be erased by Darwin's book, which he would now finally produce with due speed. Lest the relative status of the two men escape anyone's attention, Hooker and Lyell, in introducing the papers to the Linnean Society, had noted that, "while the scientific world is waiting for the appearance of Mr. Darwin's complete work, some of the leading results of his labours, as well as those of his able correspondent, should together be laid before the public."57 "Able correspondent" isn't a phrase likely to wind up at the top of a marquee. {304}

Now, it may be that Darwin's having put the pieces together so many years before Wallace makes Wallace's eventual obscurity just. But the fact is that as of June 1858, Wallace, unlike Darwin, had written a paper on natural selection that he was ready to publish, even if he didn't ask Darwin to publish it. If Wallace had sent his paper to a journal instead of to Darwin — indeed, if he had sent it almost anywhere instead of to Darwin — he might be remembered today as the first man to posit the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin's great book, technically speaking, would have been an extension and popularization of another scientist's idea. Whose name the theory would then have carried will forever be an open question.

However just Darwin's worldwide fame, it seems hard to argue that when given the toughest moral test of his life, he passed with flying colors. Consider the options confronting him, Lyell, and Hooker. They could publish only Wallace's version of the theory. They could write Wallace and offer to thus publish his version, as Darwin had originally suggested — without, perhaps, even mentioning Darwin's version. They could write Wallace and explain the sit-nation, suggesting joint publication. Or they could do what they did. Since Wallace might, for all they knew, have resisted joint publication, the option they pursued was the only one which ensured that natural detection would go down in history as Darwin's theory. And that opt ion entailed publishing Wallace's paper without his expressed permission — an act whose propriety someone with Darwin's king-size scruples might normally question.

Remarkably, observers have time and again depicted this ploy as some sort of testament to human morality. Julian Huxley, Thomas Huxley's grandson, called the outcome "a monument to the natural generosity of both the great biologists." Loren Eiseley called it an example of "that mutual nobility of behavior so justly celebrated in the annals of science." They're both half right. Wallace, ever gracious, would long insist — correctly, but still generously and nobly — that Darwin's length and depth of thought about evolution had earned him the title of premier evolutionist. Wallace even titled a book of his Darwinism.

Wallace defended the theory of natural selection for the rest of {305} his life, but he crucially narrowed its scope. He began to doubt that the theory could account for the full powers of the human mind; people seemed smarter than they really had to be to survive. He concluded that although man's body was built by natural selection, his mental capacities were divinely implanted. It may be too cynical (even by Darwinian standards) to suggest that this revision would have been less likely had the theory of natural selection been called "Wallacism." At any rate, the man whose name was synonymous with the theory mourned the weakening of Wallace's faith. "I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child," Darwin wrote to him. (This from the man who, after mentioning Wallace in the introduction of the Origin, referred to natural selection in subsequent chapters as "my theory.")

The common idea that Darwin behaved like a perfect gentleman throughout the Wallace episode rests partly on the myth that he had some option other than those outlined above — that he could have rushed his theory to press without so much as mentioning Wallace. But unless Wallace was even more saintly than he seems to have been, this would have brought a scandal that left Darwin's name tainted, even to the point of endangering its connection to his theory. In other words: this option was not an option. The biographer who admiringly observes that Darwin "hated losing his priority, but he hated even more the chance of being suspected of ungentlemanly or nonsporting conduct"63 is creating a distinction where none existed; to have been thought unsporting would have threatened his priority. When Darwin wrote to Lyell, on the day he received Wallace's sketch, "I would far rather burn my whole book, than that he or any other man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit," he wasn't being conscientious so much as savvy.64 Or rather: he was being conscientious, which, especially in his social environment, was the same as being savvy. Sawiness is the function of the conscience.

The other source of retrospective naivete about Darwin's behavior is his brilliant decision to place the matter in Lyell's and Hooker's hands. "In despair, he abdicated," as one biographer obligingly puts it. Darwin would forever use this "abdication" as moral camouflage. After Wallace signaled his approval of the affair, Darwin wrote to him: "Though I had absolutely nothing whatever to do in leading {306} Lyell and Hooker to what they thought a fair course of action, yet I naturally could not but feel anxious to hear what your impression would be... ." Well, if he wasn't sure Wallace would approve, why didn't he bother to check? Couldn't Darwin, having gone two decades without publishing his theory, have waited a few months longer? Wallace had asked that his paper be sent to Lyell, but he hadn't asked that Lyell determine its fate.

For Darwin to say he exerted no influence "whatever" on Hooker and Lyell strains the facts and, anyway, is irrelevant; these were two of his closest friends. Surely Darwin wouldn't have felt he could., appoint his brother Erasmus as a disinterested judge. Yet, there is every reason to believe that evolution, in embedding friendship in the human species, has resourcefully used many of the impulses of affection, devotion, and loyalty that it first used to bind kin.

Darwin didn't know this, of course, but surely he knew that friends tend toward partiality — that the whole idea of a friend is someone who at least partly shares your self-serving biases. For him to depict Lyell as impartial — "a Lord Chancellor" — is remarkable. And it only appears more so in light of Darwin's later appeals to their friendship, when he virtually asks Lyell to endorse the theory of natural selection as a personal favor.


Enough moral outrage. Who am I to judge? I've done things worse than this, Darwin's biggest single crime. In fact, my ability to muster all this righteous indignation, and assume a stance of moral superiority, is a tribute to the selective blindness with which evolution has endowed us all. Now, I'll try to transcend biology and summon enough detachment for a brisk appraisal of the salient Darwinian features of the Wallace episode.

Note, first of all, the exquisite pliability of Darwin's values. As a rule he was gravely disdainful of academic territoriality; for scientists to guard against rivals who might steal their thunder was, he believed, "unworthy of searchers after truth." And though he was too perceptive and honest to deny that fame had a tempting effect on him, he generally held the effect to be minor. He claimed that even without it he would work just as hard on his species book. Yet when his {307} turf was threatened, he took steps to defend it — which included producing the Origin at a rather stepped-up pace once there was doubt as to whose name would become synonymous with evolutionism. Darwin saw the contradiction. Weeks after the Wallace episode, he wrote to Hooker that, as far as priority goes, he had always "fancied that I had a grand enough soul not to care; but I found myself mistaken and punished."

As the crisis receded into the past, though, Darwin's old pieties resurfaced. He claimed in his autobiography that he "cared very little whether men attributed most originality to me or Wallace."70 Anyone who has read Darwin's distraught letters to Lyell and Hooker will have to marvel at the power of Darwin's self-deception.

The Wallace episode highlights a basic division within the conscience, the line between kin selection and reciprocal altruism. When we feel guilty about having harmed or cheated a sibling, it is, generally, because natural selection "wants" us to be nice to siblings, since they share so many of our genes. When we feel guilty about having harmed or cheated a friend, or a casual acquaintance, it is because natural selection "wants" us to look like we're being nice; the perception of altruism, not the altruism itself, is what will bring the reciprocation. So the aim of the conscience, in dealings with nonkin, is to cultivate a reputation for generosity and decency, whatever the reality. Of course, gaining and holding this reputation will often entail actual generosity and decency. But sometimes it won't.

In this light we see Darwin's conscience working in top form. It made him generally reliable in his bestowal of generosity and decency — in a social environment so intimate that actual generosity and decency were essential to maintaining a good moral reputation. But his goodness turned out not to be absolutely constant. His vaunted conscience, seemingly a bulwark against all corruption, was discerning enough to weaken a trifle just when his lifelong quest for status most needed a slight moral lapse. This brief dimming of the lights allowed Darwin to subtly, even unconsciously, pull strings, employing his ample social connections to the detriment of a young and powerless rival.

Some Darwinians have suggested that the conscience can be viewed as the administrator of a savings account in which moral {308} reputation is stored. For decades Darwin painstakingly amassed capital, vast and conspicuous evidence of his scruples; the Wallace episode was a time to risk some of it. Even if he lost a little — even of the affair produced a few suspicious whispers about the propriety of publishing Wallace's paper without his permission — this would still be a risk worth taking, in terms of the ultimate elevation of Darwin's status. Making such judgments about resource allocation is what the human conscience is designed to do, and during the Wallace episode Darwin's did it well.

As it happened, none of Darwin's capital was lost. He came out smelling like a rose. Before the Linnean Society, Hooker and Lyell described what had happened after Darwin received Wallace's paper. "So highly did Mr. Darwin appreciate the value of the views therein set forth, that he proposed, in a letter to Sir Charles Lyell, to obtain Mr. Wallace's consent to allow the Essay to be published as soon as possible. Of this step we highly approved, provided Mr. Darwin did not withhold from the public, as he was strongly inclined to do (in favour of Mr. Wallace), the memoir he had himself written on the same subject, and which, as before stated, one of us had perused in 1844, and the contents of which we had both of us been privy to for many years... ,"

More than a century later, this sanitized version of events was still the standard version — an utterly scrupulous Darwin virtually coerced into letting his name appear alongside Wallace's. Darwin, one biographer wrote, "seems hardly to have been a free agent in the face of Lyell's and Hooker's pressure for publication."

There is no basis for concluding that Darwin consciously orchestrated his eclipse of Wallace. Consider the judicious appointment of Lyell as "Lord Chancellor." The natural impulse, in times of crisis, to seek the guidance of friends feels perfectly innocent. We don't necessarily think, "I'll call a friend, rather than some stranger, because a friend will share my warped ideas about what I deserve and what my rivals deserve." So too with Darwin's pose of moral anguish: it worked because he didn't know it was a pose — because, in other words, it wasn't a pose; he actually felt the anguish.

And not for the first time. Darwin's guilt about asserting priority — pulling rank on Wallace in a quest for still higher rank — {309} was just the latest in a lifelong series of comparable pangs. (Recall John Bowlby's diagnosis: Darwin suffered "self-contempt for being vain." "Time and again throughout his life his desire for attention and fame is coupled with the deep sense of shame he feels for harbouring such motives.")75 Indeed, it was the proven authenticity of Darwin's anguish which helped convince Hooker and Lyell that Dar win "strongly" resisted glory and thus helped them convince the world of it. All the moral capital Darwin built up over the years had come at a large psychological cost, but in the end the investment paid dividends.

None of this is meant to imply that Darwin behaved in perfectly adaptive fashion, constantly attuned to the task of genetic prolifei ation, with every bit of his ample striving and suffering warranted by that end. Given the difference between nineteenth-century Eng land and the environment(s) of our evolution, this sort of functional perfection is the last thing one should expect. Indeed, as we suggested several chapters ago, Darwin's moral sentiments were manifestly more acute than self-interest dictated; he had plenty of capital in his moral savings account without losing sleep over unanswered letters, without crusading on behalf of dead sheep. The claim here is simply that lots of odd and much-discussed things about Darwin's mind and character can make a basic kind of sense when viewed through the lens of evolutionary psychology.

Indeed, his whole career assumes a certain coherence. It looks less like an erratic quest, often stymied by self-doubt and undue deference, and more like a relentless ascent, deftly cloaked in scruples and humility. Beneath Darwin's pangs of conscience lay moral positioning. Beneath his reverence for men of accomplishment lay social climbing. Beneath his painfully recurring self-doubts lay a fevered defense against social assault. Beneath his sympathy toward friends lay savvy political alliance. What an animal! {310}