The Man Who Dared to Climb the Family Tree ; Charles Darwin Sat on His Great Theory of Evolution for Years, Worrying about the Public Backlash He Would Have to Endure

Article excerpt

One morning in 1858 Charles Darwin picked up his mail and discovered a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin had spent 20 years working out evidence to support his theory of natural selection, secure in the knowledge that the theory was too radical and the details too arcane for anyone else to have thought out. He could have published all or part of his work at almost any point; his closest scientific friends often urged him to do so. But he kept silent because he dreaded the consequences: Publication would invite public condemnation likely to make Rome's reception of Galileo look friendly. He didn't think that he could bear the notoriety.

Then came the paper from Wallace, laying out the theory of natural selection in words that could very nearly have been Darwin's own.

Janet Browne could not have chosen a more dramatic incident to begin the second book of her riveting two-volume biography of Darwin. In the entire range of intellectual history, there is not a moment that tops the Darwin-Wallace collision for sheer human drama. With Wallace somewhere in the remote rain forest of southeast Asia - weeks away by the fastest steamers - no one would ever have known if Darwin had "lost" that manuscript. It is unlikely that he even considered such a course.

Over the course of these two volumes, we come to understand the man's character intimately. Partly because Browne has waded through endless bundles of family letters that have sat unread since the original recipients tied them with silk ribbons. Partly because Browne, a British professor of the history of biology, understands Darwin's world. But mostly because she is a master of the art of biography.

Darwin was bound to publish Wallace's paper. The great question was, would he publish his own? His agonized decision came down to deciding which he dreaded more: facing the public scorn that evolution aroused in Victorian England, or allowing credit for the theory that had been his life's work to go to someone else. At this point the story becomes weirdly modern.

Darwin inhabited an old-fashioned world that is very foreign to us. He got the chance to explore not because he was a qualified scientist, but because he was a conversable gentleman from the right sort of family. He never held a paying job. Some English gentlemen did work, but it was more respectable to settle in a big country house and live on inherited money. Charles married his first cousin, and each of them inherited part of grandpapa Wedgewood's china fortune.

But the most startlingly unmodern thing about Darwin was, in the words of his son Francis, "the curious fact that he who has altered the face of Biological Science, and is in this respect the chief of the moderns, should have written and worked in so essentially a non- modern spirit and manner. …