March 04, 2015

Source: Shutterstock

At 31, Darwin married his 30-year-old first cousin Emma Wedgwood, and the Darwin and Wedgwood elders showered wealth upon the reunion of the two families, allowing Darwin to set up as an independent gentleman scientist. Though they were inbred and Emma got a late start, she produced seven heirs who outlived Charles. His descendants remain a notable clan to this day.

Although he’s usually pictured in old age, with his sage’s long white beard, earlier Darwin was a ruggedly masculine figure with a c       aveman’s beetling brow and jaw. He shared this Neanderthalish bone structure with his great late 20th century successor, William D. Hamilton, who was known as “€œApeman”€ to his friends while growing up within walking distance of Darwin’s old home in Kent. (Were they related?)

Like Hamilton, Darwin inspired tremendous loyalty in other scientists. This helped him through his career crisis of 1858 when young botanist Alfred Russel Wallace (who was also inspired by reading Malthus) independently dreamed up the theory of natural selection and mailed it to Darwin. His friends told him to assert his priority. The elder scientist, who was ambitious but easily distracted, had been poking around with his theory for at least 16 years. He might never have gotten around to writing up The Origin of Species, except for the need to establish his claim over Wallace. (The younger man, a saintly soul, was a good sport about how Darwinism became a thing while Wallaceism did not.)

One reason for Darwin’s endless delays in publishing in the 1840s and 1850s was his concern about adverse public reaction. But unlike Hamilton, whose career was hampered by the political biases of the 1960s and 1970s, Darwin had the wind of the zeitgeist at his back.

Johnson notes, “€œIt is astonishing how quickly the intellectual elite possessed themselves of Origin.”€ Yet, most of the heavy lifting of making opinion favorable to evolution had already been done by the 1844 bestseller Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. This anonymous publication had been secretly written by St. Andrews publisher Robert Chambers, who had been struck by how the town’s famous golf links were the result of slow, self-organizing geological and social development. He inferred that the entire universe had emerged in a similar unplanned fashion.

Vestiges was such a smash that future Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli satirized its influence in his 1847 novel Tancred. A society lady explains:

You know, all is development. The principle is perpetually going on. First, there was nothing, then there was something; then”€”I forget the next”€”I think there were shells, then fishes; then we came”€”let me see”€”did we come next? Never mind that; we came at last.

Chambers missed the mechanism of natural selection, but the prose picture he had drawn of the evolution of the universe was so plausible-sounding that the two most seemingly Darwinian poems”€” Alfred Tennyson’s “€œIn Memoriam“€ with its “€œnature, red in tooth and claw”€ and Matthew Arnold’s “€œDover Beach“€”€”were both from the era between Vestiges and Origin.

By the time Darwin published Origin in 1859, Arnold’s battle “€œwhere ignorant armies clash by night”€ had reached the mopping-up phase. Disraeli still quipped: “€œIs man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels.”€ But Darwin’s network of influential friends had made sure his book reviews were good. To a public who loved gardening and livestock breeding, he became a national hero and was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1882.

But that was then. Now, Johnson is appalled by the biologist’s racism, such as Darwin’s quotation of a comparison of Scots to Irish that resembles the Protestant v. Catholic chapter in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life:

The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits: the frugal, farseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot … passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy, marries late and leaves few behind him.

Publishing this today would risk prosecution under the hate laws. Unless Johnson (who, like Orwell, has never been much of a fan of the Irish) publishes it to shame Darwin. Then it’s legally okay.

Johnson goes on to deplore Darwin’s 1871 book The Descent of Man, which is heavily devoted to explaining the differentiation of the different races:

It is accompanied by many racial generalizations that now would be denounced as racism or chauvinism. There is a passage, for instance, praising Anglo-Saxon emigration and conquest of lesser breeds … In South America, “€œa people which may be called civilized, such as the Spanish settlers, is liable to become indolent and to retrograde, when the conditions of life are very easy.”€

Johnson is shocked, shocked to notice Darwin noticing:

Darwin’s comments on different races often make equally painful or hilarious reading. Many Hottentot women, he asserts, are steatopygous“€”that is, “€œthe posterior part of the body projects in a wonderful manner.”€

Granted, most of these quotes make Johnson’s book sound like a put-on of point “€™n”€™ sputter denunciations, but he has some serious concerns about Darwin’s historical impact. Johnson argues that:

Darwin’s writings led directly to the state of mind that promoted imperialism, the quest for colonies, the “€œrace for Africa,”€ and, to use Rhodes’s expression, “€œpainting the map of the world red.”€

Indeed, although Prime Minister Disraeli’s role as the impresario of empire might deserve more scrutiny than it gets today.

Johnson argues that Darwin’s influence on the Nazis was largely a matter of the aggressive tone of his writings, such as his phrase “€œstruggle for existence:”€

Darwin’s fondness for the word struggle”€”he used it dozens of times”€”was particularly unfortunate. Hitler adopted it and made it the title of his book, which was both autobiography and political program, Mein Kampf.

Johnson notes:

It is common among Darwin’s more enthusiastic scientific followers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, who attribute to their idol powers of prescience and wisdom he clearly did not possess and would never have dreamed of claiming, to insist that Darwin had nothing to do with any kind of social Darwinism, let alone eugenics. He was in no way responsible, they claim, for any ultimately malign or disastrous consequences of his work on natural selection.

But … 

He gave broad approval to his cousin Galton’s work. He praised his book warmly on its publication. He drew attention to his work repeatedly and approvingly in both Descent and Expression. He might have disapproved or even publicly rejected views held after his death by Galton and his followers, but this is pure conjecture. There is nothing to suggest that Darwin was opposed to eugenics in either its positive or its negative practices. Darwin took it as axiomatic that improvement of the human race, by natural or artificial means, was and is desirable.

So perhaps the tight-lipped politicians are being prudent? 


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!