Mr. Darwin's Abominable Volume

Article excerpt

AN ESSAY

Charles Darwin holds a peculiar position in the history of science and society. His name is a household word but his ideas-with a single exception-aren't household ideas. He's central, he's iconic, but that's not to say that he's widely and well understood. Everyone knows something about who Darwin was, what he did, what he said, and the thing that most people think they know is: He concocted "the theory of evolution." This isn't quite wrong, just confused and imprecise, but it misses those points about Darwin's work that are most profoundly original, and dangerous, and thrilling.

One measure of his supposed familiarity is the careless use, within common discourse, of the terms "Darwinism" and "Darwinian," which presume at reducing to trademark simplicity a diverse body of work that can't be so easily reduced. Forget about Darwinism, it doesn't exist. Charles Darwin didn't found a movement or a religion. He never assembled a creed of scientific axioms and chiseled them onto a stone tablet beneath his own name. He was a reclusive biologist who wrote books. Sometimes he made mistakes. Sometimes he changed his mind. Sometimes he worked on little subjects and sometimes on big ones. Most of his published writings share a single underlying theme-the unity of all life, reflecting the processes of evolution. He particularized that theme in a variety of concepts, some of which interlock nicely and remain valuable to biology, some of which don't. The most daring and original of those concepts, natural selection, is also the most enduringly significant, still central to a scientific understanding of life in its many forms on this planet.

Contrary to common impression, Darwin became an evolutionist slowly, during the period just after his famous voyage as naturalist aboard the survey ship Beagle. That voyage lasted from 1831 until 1836. Darwin was in his mid-twenties, the right age for maximum exertion in difficult circumstances and maximum absorption of new facts and impressions. While the Beagle's captain and crew did their work, young Mr. Darwin collected marine specimens with a plankton net dragged behind the ship and made long excursions ashore for further collecting and observing. Inexperienced at the start, he gradually became a methodical and keenly percipient scientist. He visited Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and a number of small oceanic islands, including Cape Verde, the Azores, Tahiti, Mauritius, St. Helena, and the Galapagos. Once home from the voyage, he began to develop his ideas about how species originate.

Many people, even among those who would say they accept Darwin's theory of evolution (whatever they take it to be), decline to absorb the full implications of what he would work out in the coming years. His biggest idea, bigger than mere evolution, was just too big, too harsh and threatening. That idea was natural selection, which he identified as the primary mechanism of evolutionary change. According to Darwin's view (since reaffirmed by a century and a half of further biological evidence), natural selection is a purposeless process but an efficacious one. Impersonal, blind to the future, it has no goals, only results. Its sole standards of valuation are survival and reproductive success. From scattershot variations, culled and accreted, it produces pragmatic forms of order. Its driving factors are hyperfecundity and mortal competition; its products and by-products are adaptation, complexity, and diversity. It embodies a deep chanciness that is contradictory to the notion that Earth's living creatures, their capacities (including human capacities), their histories, their indigenousness to particular locales, and their interrelations all reflect some sort of divinely preordained plan. It was a profoundly radical idea, offered to the world by a very cautious man.

Landing at Falmouth in southwestern England on October 2, 1836, Charles Darwin would never leave Great Britain again. …