Darwin at Home

by Kieran Healy on November 4, 2005

On a couple of long plane flights this week, I read Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, the second volume of her biography of Darwin. (I haven’t read Volume One.) I strongly recommend it. Three things stood out for me.

First, in an unobtrusive but compelling way, Browne brings insights from the sociology and social history of science to bear on her narrative. She discusses how Darwin was at the center of a vast and remarkable network of written correspondence: he wrote thousands of letters to all kinds of people, in the effort to gather information and clarify points of interpretation about everything from rare Malaysian birds to common English flowers. He built up and exploited this network for data over the course of many years, and then—when he was finally compelled to write the Origin (itself an interesting story)—he drew on it to quietly but efficiently promote and defend his ideas.

Second, while being directly plugged in to this global web of science, he was also remarkably well-insulated from any other distractions. Within his home, at Down House, his wife and daughters made sure that he didn’t have anything much to worry about, and so his amazing capacity for driving, constant work could be brought to bear on the problem of evolution. This insulation was aided by the fact that he was comfortably well-off, of course, and further abetted by the physical illnesses—marked mainly by long periods of retching and vomiting—that afflicted him. Darwin suffered a great deal from these health problems, but it’s also clear that they buffered him against unwanted obligations of all sorts. Part of this was just a consequence of being sick, but often his (quite real) attacks came on him at just the right times. The Victorian tendency to build personal and even marital relationships out of chronic invalidism was well-represented within Down House. His home life was striking in another way, too: Darwin seems the last and greatest of the gentleman amateurs of biology, doing virtually all his experiments (plant and animal breeding, etc) in his own garden and greenhouse, helped by his gardeners and relying on mostly ad-hoc instruments and equipment. His late work on plants came was treated derisively by a newer generation of scientists working much more systematically in research institutes and university departments. He laid the theoretical groundwork for modern biology and anticipated the cosmopolitan world of scientific communication. But while his experimental methods were painstaking, they were not rigorous in the modern sense.

Finally, Browne does a very good job of conveying the awful crisis of faith that Darwin helped bring upon Victorian England. The big debates between the likes of T.H. Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce are entertaining, but the overwhelming mood is a kind of desperate hope shading into melancholy. Those involved in the debates repeatedly try to reconcile the implications of the theory of natural selection with their belief in God—a personal God, at that, who created Adam and Eve and flooded the world in the relatively recent past, and who promised everlasting happiness after death. The saddest cases are those who are too honest to dismiss the theory and its evidence, and yet unwilling to give up on the hope of an afterlife. “What I want” says Alfred Tennyson bluntly, “is an assurance of immortality.” Current debates about Intelligent Design are thrown into sharp relief by the book. The content of the arguments, the substance of the disagreements, even the name-calling are almost perfectly parallel: the continuing aftershocks of the earthquake Darwin unleashed under the feet of England’s respectable classes in the 1860s.

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Darwiniana » Darwin Bio’s
11.04.05 at 11:48 pm



John Quiggin 11.04.05 at 6:54 pm

It’s always been striking to me, looking back at the 19th century, how easily people in general have adjusted to the loss of faith, and the disappearance of belief in Heaven and Hell. Nearly everyone who thought about this in the 19th century assumed that the end of religious belief would make a huge difference (most thought for the worse, some for the better). But comparing the US with other developed countries, it’s hard to discern any of the effects you might expect.


joe o 11.04.05 at 8:23 pm

It cracks me up that Darwin’s kid once asked a friend : “Where does your father work on his barnacles?”


catherine liu 11.04.05 at 8:33 pm

I’m just wondering — this is completely OT, if some one on Crooked Timber is going to post on the situation in the Parisian suburbs — one of the economists for example — I’m a literature and cultural theory person who spends some time in Paris every year and the news coming out of the suburbs is very disturbing. I would love to have the economic picture amplified. I have posted about the situation myself — but it did seem to me this summer during a visit to Paris that something was very off keel.


dc 11.04.05 at 8:50 pm

The 1992 biography of Darwin by Adrian Desmond & James Moore is one of my favourites. I’m quite surprised that someone else has had a go. Desmond’s biography of T.H. Huxley provides even more enlightenment of those times. The answer to the question about how easily people in general adjusted to the loss of faith is that is was the working people who attended Huxley’s meetings and who were already predisposed to arguments which reduced the tyranny of the clergy. The churches controlled the education system and enforced conformity. Charles Darwin was thrown out of the university here, Edinburgh, Scotland. Now they name buildings after him. I look forward to reading this new biography of the most important thinker in human history. What really upsets me is the general ignorance of Darwin’s work. Only recently I heard a version of the ‘Darwin recanted on his deathbed’ myth. As if that would make any difference.


LogicGuru 11.04.05 at 8:57 pm

I don’t know that people have adjusted to the idea of personal annihilation. Seems that a significant percentage of those who wouldn’t give serious consideration to religious belief in any conventional sense have vague notions about reincarnation, spooks, nirvana or some sort of survival. And why not? Taking a card from Pascal, it’s a reasonable bet: you have everything to gain and no chance of disappointment. I can only hope that by the time I am old I will be firmly convinced of the prospect of post-mortem survival: why shouldn’t people aim for this?

Or do you mean that the disappearance of beliefs about other-worldly rewards and punishments hasn’t made a moral difference? Hardly surprising. The whose business of religion isn’t so much to provide incentives for good behavior or disincentives for bad behavior as to provide mechanism for negotiating and justifying ourselves.


Kieran Healy 11.04.05 at 9:01 pm

Taking a card from Pascal, it’s a reasonable bet: you have everything to gain and no chance of disappointment.

Depends on which God you choose to believe in, of course. You might be very disappointed indeed if you are half-right — i.e., there is a God, but it’s Odin or Osiris or “Xtapolapocetl”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Made-up_words_in_The_Simpsons#X or what have you.


Steve LaBonne 11.04.05 at 9:11 pm

I haven’t read Browne, but if the dismissive tone about Darwin’s “amateur” naturalism comes from her, then I think she’s a bit off base; of course his methods- like everyone else’s in his time- lacked modern rigor, but he was a formidable scientist. Even some of his minor contributions, like the discovery of the role of earthworms in creating topsoil, would have made the reputation of a lesser man. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is still regarded as marking the foundation of ethology.


LogicGuru 11.04.05 at 9:18 pm

Depends on which God you choose to believe in

Yeah, yeah…but I’m not talking about belief in God here, or in beliefs about post-mortem reward and punishment for correct belief. I’m just talking about belief in survival as such.

Shouldn’t we, rationally, try to persuade ourselves of that? No good behavior or religious commitment required to cramp your style–just convince yourself that you will not be annihilated and live your life as you would regardless. No costs…no chance of disappointment.


John Quiggin 11.04.05 at 9:28 pm

Logicguru, I was going to make your point, but in the opposite way.

A vague acceptance that there might be something in reincarnation seems to provide an adequate substitute for an elaborately detailed promise of eternal life. Similarly, general notions that “truth will out”, “what goes around, comes around” and so on, seem to have more or less the same effect (or lack of it) on behavior as a list of mortal and venial sins, backed up by Hell, Purgatory and so on.


Kieran Healy 11.04.05 at 9:30 pm

the dismissive tone about Darwin’s “amateur” naturalism

You’re misreading my intent here. Of course he was a formidable scientist. He was Charles fucking Darwin! By “amateur” I didn’t mean “semi-competent” or “mere hobbyist.” I meant it in the older English sense of a gentleman doing high-quality work at home, supported by an independent income and recruiting servants and family members into the research process in various ways. He represents the peak of this tradition in biology, and its endpoint. No scientist would ever again be as central to biological science (as measured by his correspondence network and substantive contributions) and yet outside the research institutions of universities and the like. As the book makes clear, Darwin was a tremendous observer of nature, astonishingly hard-working and productive, and fantastically persistent and careful in his experimental work. It’s just that he didn’t do it in the manner (or in the institutional setting) that became typical of biological research in the later 19th century and after.


Steve LaBonne 11.04.05 at 9:37 pm

Thanks for the clarification. Darwin was indeed an amazing guy. Not the possessor of the quickest, most nimble mind as he was the first to admit, but his brain was just enormously persistent and powerful at slowly grinding up huge masses of information. His thought process reminds me of one of those gigantic 19th century steam engines like the famous one at the 1876 Centennial Exposition.


y81 11.04.05 at 10:08 pm

It seems quite wrong, historically, to suggest that Darwin, or the Victorian era, witnessed a crisis of faith different from that of some other period. What has always struck me is that historians of the late 18th century suggest that this was the age when age-old faith was shaken (whether by Voltaire and Thomas Paine or by the collapse of the ancien regime depends on the historian’s taste); historians of the Victorian era suggest that this was the age when age-old faith was shaken (whether by Darwin or by industrialization depends on the historian’s taste); historians of the late 20th century century suggest that this was the age when age-old faith was shaken (whether by Hiroshima or by the Holocaust depends on the historians taste); and so it goes. I have no doubt that the discovery of America, the Reformation, the Glorious Revolution, the age of Feurbach and Marx etc. could also each be defended as the age when age-old faith was shaken. In fact, I’d bet that faith is shaken in every age.


Kenny Easwaran 11.04.05 at 10:18 pm

I just read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell a month or so ago, and although I (of course) thought of it as an interesting parable for philosophical research, it probably makes at least as good sense of the scientific breakthroughs of the times. In fact, the shift in the way the characters think of magic is probably similar to the shift from “natural philosophy” to “science”, though I’m sure the most significant parts of that shift occurred a couple centuries earlier.

Sorry for the tangent, just the whole “amateur scientist” thing suggested the “gentleman magician” notion to me.


Kieran Healy 11.04.05 at 10:20 pm

Hmm, yes: JS and MrN, with MrN as Darwin and JS as Arthur Russell Wallace …


John Landon 11.04.05 at 11:51 pm

Janet Browne is too hagiographic, Desmond and Moore’s Darwin is much better, and goes into the ideological bias in Darwin the Whig, Darwin, not just Spencer, the Social Darwinist. The question of evolution and faith is mostly a mass delusion, since the theory of natural selection was exposed almost at once. No self-respecting atheist, contra Dawkins, should claim this theory for his views. Darwin’s theory, in the final analysis, notwithstanding its obvious influence on secularization, gave ammunition to religious critics and these chickens have come home to roost once again. If Darwin’s theory was so decisive why are we still debating the issue? Better to base secular beliefs on something else than natural selection. Why is the whole academic world stuck on this? The ID camp may not make a dent in core secular culture, but as it loses battles it wins the war, and that is going global already. What a dumb strategy to promote secular views on natural selection, guaranteed to fail in the end. So I don’t share the respect for Darwin given him by the ‘bright crowd’ of half-baked Darwin atheists. I have no religious beliefs or agenda in saying so, and can only bemoan the way Darwinists have handed traditionalists their postmodern comeback, with a vengeance.


Pablo Stafforini 11.05.05 at 12:33 am

I don’t get it, John. How on earth are you going to promote a secular worldview if you are not ready to challenge the belief that the world was created a couple thousand years ago?


agm 11.05.05 at 5:08 am

Darwin is now a screen saver?


John Emerson 11.05.05 at 9:08 am

Darwin suffered a great deal from these health problems, but it’s also clear that they buffered him against unwanted obligations of all sorts.

Or look at Nietzsche. Max Weber and William James also had “nervous breakdowns” lasting a year or more. Mendel apparently was a monk primarily because there was nothing else he was capable of doing in his society.

My theory is that the “madness and genius” cliche picks it up from the wrong end. It’s not that madmen are geniuses or that geniuses are madmen. It’s that people who dutifully fulfill all of their normal obligations are terribly cramped and overwhelmed. (Normal duties expand to fill the space). Those who are lucky enough to be absolved from normal duties for health reasons had the option of developing their genius if they actually were geniuses, though the vast majority were quite mediocre. (There was a XIXc belief that TB and epilepsy were signs of genius, I think partly for this reason.

ALternatively, of course, maladies like mania and schizophrenia could be thought of as genius-enhancing but normality-destroying forms of illness. (This would be the original form “madness and genius” hypothesis). The common thread of both hypotheses is just that the normal obligations of life can be suffocating.

But then you have geniuses like J S Bach who were awesomely normal. He was just lucky that in his society music was valued enough that being a musical genius was regarded, in itself, as satisfying the normal obligations of life. He was paid to do be a genius.


Jake 11.05.05 at 2:18 pm

Darwin was also the first person to discover that basic emotional expressions are the same across all human cultures–again, owing to that networking ability of his and the willingness of his more well-travelled friends to gather data for him.

This notion that John Emerson elucidates above reminds me of the idea that societies need to be able to support a leisure class before they begin to show significant scientific and technological advancement. The bedridden geniuses are the upper end of that curve.


eudoxis 11.05.05 at 4:55 pm

Regarding Darwin’s homelife not intruding, surely the illnesses and deaths of his children were profoundly intrusive. As I understand it, the death of his daughter, Anne, provided the motivation to fully explore naturalists explanations and leave behind a belief in a benevolent god.

Speaking of a benevolent god, (“Depends on which God you choose to believe in, of course.”) a popular argument against IDists, imperfect design, assumes a god with specific attributes.

I also think that Darwin was far more rigorous in a scientific sense than many scientists today.


gaw3 11.06.05 at 4:44 am

I have to agree with y81 that the crisis that Darwin provoked in Victorian society is not historically unique- Augustine’s society had a comparable amount of trouble dealing with the sack of Rome, hence City of God . What makes the crisis downstream of Darwin so interesting is its continuity with current events in America.


David B 11.06.05 at 9:29 am

If I recall correctly, Darwin’s late work on plant movement was criticised by the leading German authority on the subject, who disagreed with Darwin’s attempts to bring different kinds of movement under a single theory. But the later discovery of plant growth hormones to some extent vindicated Darwin.


gary 11.06.05 at 11:13 am

post #19: “He was paid to do be a genius.”

And Sinatra was paid to doo be doo be doo a singer!


John Emerson 11.06.05 at 12:15 pm



C. Schuyler 11.07.05 at 10:14 am

logicguru wrote: “Shouldn’t we, rationally, try to persuade ourselves of that [i.e. survival]?”

I can only ask: why? I of course cannot insist that life after death is impossible, but it seems to me, on the basis of what I know or think I know about the world, to be unlikely in the extreme. Just what do I gain by believing in a probable illusion? I won’t be disappointed if (when) it turns out be be false, but perhaps it’s harmful to me in other ways to be saddled with such a belief. If I waste even a moment of the life I actually know I have because of the hope of another life, that hope has harmed me.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and most people are not harmed by believing a bunch of comforting illusions; but something about this idea (entertaining an implausible belief because it makes one feel better to do so) strikes me as repugnant, even though I can’t express with complete success why it does. The prejudice in favor of “eyes wide open,” “life without illusions” and so on has just been too strongly instilled in me.


Slocum 11.07.05 at 1:47 pm

This notion that John Emerson elucidates above reminds me of the idea that societies need to be able to support a leisure class before they begin to show significant scientific and technological advancement. The bedridden geniuses are the upper end of that curve.

And how do you shoehorn Wallace into that thesis?

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