The biographer of Charles Darwin confronts a major challenge: to narrate his seemingly simple domestic life in the English countryside and, at the same time, to clarify and place in their contexts his complex, revolutionary, and far-reaching intellectual achievements, for few scientists or intellectuals in history have had greater influence on their period and subsequent ones than Darwin. In his journals, correspondence, and autobiography, he recorded numerous details and anecdotes as sources for a biographer. His lengthy narrative of the five-year expedition aboard the Beagle (1831-1836), for example, accounted for his activities during the most important formative period of his life. As the ship’s naturalist, he made scientific observations and collected specimens worldwide, especially along the South American coast, for later study and analysis.
Following his return to England, Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood in 1839 and settled into life as a scientist living quietly on a country estate. Through his physician father’s wealth and generosity, he was able to live independently in Downs, Surrey, only a few miles south of London. There he and Emma reared their large family, seven of the ten children surviving to adulthood.
As Bowlby explains, Darwin set a careful daily schedule and followed it seven days a week, except when family affairs or medical problems took him away from home. Remarkably, Darwin’s schedule allowed for only three hours of work daily, and it has been ruefully observed that on this limited work schedule he managed to revolutionize the field of biology. Yet, as Bowlby points out, this conclusion is misleading. “Work” meant only time spent on the specific paper or book he was engaged in writing at the time. It did not include such activities as observation, reading, correspondence, and reflection, which occupied several additional hours daily.
While Bowlby keeps the reader informed of Darwin’s interactions with family and friends and of his related activities, the more challenging and more significant task is to account for his scientific career and place him within the milieu of nineteenth century science so as to demonstrate his original contributions. Everyone knows that Darwin formulated the theory of evolution; few people know of his long years of systematic study of such subjects as earthworms, barnacles, coral reefs, the Venus’s-flytrap, and animal psychology.
Although Darwin became something of a collector during his student years at Christ’s College, Cambridge, the major stimulus to his scientific career was his time as a ship’s naturalist aboard the Beagle on its long journey around the world. Commanded by a dour Scots captain, Robert FitzRoy, the ship had as its primary mission the charting of the South American coast below the equator. Bowlby has ascertained that FitzRoy’s charts were so accurate that some are still in use. Darwin was expected to advance a number of scientific fields during the voyage, though at the outset he concentrated on geology. Among the books he selected for the voyage was a copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833), a revolutionary work that adduced evidence for concluding the earth to be much older than previously thought. Yet Darwin had time to study botany, zoology, paleontology, and what is now called anthropology. On one trip over the Andes, he observed fossils of sea creatures embedded in limestone above the ten- thousand-foot level, and his reflections on the length of time required for the complex processes that had thrust up the deposits from the sea bottom supported Lyell’s view of the earth’s antiquity.
Yet Darwin achieved few significant theoretical insights during the voyage itself. When the governor of the Galápagos told him that the giant tortoises were slightly different on each island, the fact made no particular impression at the time. Later it became an obvious example of isolated populations of a species undergoing diverse development. Darwin did, however, note that the finches on the islands seemed related to those on the continent, though slightly different, and he made similar observations about sea iguanas on different islands. Experience with the natives of Tierra del Fuego impressed upon him both the distance between their level of civilization and that of Europeans and the difficulties involved in attempting to change them. The voyage left him with ample evidence that species were mutable, a revolutionary though not entirely new idea. By 1839, after studying his notes and continuing his observations of living organisms, he had become convinced that all life was related and that human beings were no exception.
Bowlby places Darwin clearly within the tradition of evolutionary thought in order to reveal his original contributions. Darwin was by no means the first writer to believe in evolution of life on the planet; so far as is known, his grandfather was the first Englishman to ascribe to the view, in well-known and eloquent verses. Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) accepted the radical view that species were variable and incorporated it into his poetry, celebrating a progressivist view of life. Somewhat later, in 1809, the French scientist Jean- Baptiste-Pierre de Lamarck outlined evolutionary theory with a highly speculative view of the way it took place. Evolution became more plausible but hardly more widely accepted after Lyell’s Principles of Geology offered evidence for geologic time that extended back millions of years. Another Englishman, Robert Chambers, argued for evolution in his Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and found himself ridiculed for his views of the processes that brought it about. After lengthy study of the matter, Darwin outlined the evidence for the view in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). Darwin’s fellow scientist A. R. Wallace reached similar conclusions independently at about the same time, though he always credited Darwin with the discovery.
Darwin had indeed made the fullest and most systematic account of the evidence in support of the theory: evidence that at the time rested upon distribution of plants and animals over the continents, on the successful alteration of domestic species through selective breeding, on observations about extinction as revealed through paleontology, on comparative anatomy, and on the presence of vestigial organs. Darwin had accumulated his evidence from observations and studies during the Beagle expedition and from additional studies following his return.
Yet Darwin did not limit his study to presentation of evidence; he also attempted to show how evolution had occurred, to clarify the mechanism that drove the process of change. He termed this “natural selection,” as opposed to the artificial selection employed by breeders of domestic animals. Highly influenced by Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), he observed that in nature many more individuals are born than can survive. Those that do survive pass on their traits to their offspring; thus a natural winnowing contributes to the improvement of the species. The explanation proved to Darwin and others the most unsatisfactory part of the theory, and following the publication he continued to explore other possibilities of mutation and development of species. Unaware of Gregor Mendel’s work on genetics, he put forth the incorrect view that pangenesis accounted for inherited characteristics.
While he followed the controversy that ensued after the publication of his most theoretical book, Darwin chose usually not to involve himself in it, in part because of his chronic ill health and in part because of his retiring temperament. He left his defense in the hands of supporters such as Charles Lyell, Thomas Henry Huxley, and the eminent botanist Joseph Hooker. Sometimes even his followers did not agree with him on every point. Lyell, for example, considered humans to be an exception to the theory long after Darwin had abandoned that idea and had begun serious study of emotions and other “human” qualities of other mammals.
Meanwhile, he continued to produce a steady stream of scientific articles and monographs, many having little theoretical content. He lived to see his reputation and acclaim steadily increase, though often more rapidly abroad than in England. While controversy swirled in England, the eminent naturalist Asa Gray of Harvard became his advocate in America, and the Prussian government awarded him its highest honor, the medal Pour le Mérite.
The richly illustrated text offers more than the usual scholarly apparatus and illustrations. In addition to its thorough documentation, the book includes explanatory notes at the bottoms of pages in order to give additional perspective on the contents. Useful extra compilations include a chronology of Darwin’s life and an appended “Who’s Who” identifying 172 individuals who played some part in Darwin’s life. Among the many illustrations are genealogical charts of Darwin’s ancestors and descendants. The chapters on the voyage of the Beagle provide maps that detail the journey clearly, showing its course along the South American coast and through the Galápagos Islands. A cross-section diagram of the ship depicts its below-deck arrangement and lading. Numerous black-and-white reproductions of photographs and portraits of Darwin, members of his family, his friends and supporters, and his opponents are provided.
A psychiatrist by training and experience, Bowlby devotes extended attention to the recurring illnesses that plagued Darwin for most of his life. These involved palpitations of the heart, gastrointestinal distress (including vomiting and pain), occasional depression, and a variety of skin problems. These afflictions did not interfere significantly with his work schedule, though they may in some measure account for his aversion to travel and his uneasiness in company. Earlier biographers have suggested a variety of explanations, both physical and psychological, to account for Darwin’s symptoms. A popular diagnosis has been that he suffered from Chagra’s disease, a chronic illness that produces similar symptoms. It was known that Darwin was bitten by the insect that carries the disease while he was in South America. Bowlby, on the other hand, believes that childhood trauma resulting from the early death of his mother may account for the symptoms. The family ignored the grief, and the two older sisters who cared for the young Darwin never mentioned their mother, thus depriving him of a period of grief. Like the diagnosis of disease, Bowlby’s hypothesis is plausible, yet it does not explain similar symptoms in the earlier generation of Darwin’s family, nor those in his children. Evidence of these symptoms is rife in the extensive family correspondence that Bowlby cites frequently. Bowlby supports his conclusion with a considerable amount of psychological explanation but does not definitely settle the long-standing question.
With his thorough understanding of family relationships and interaction, Bowlby creates a memorable and poignant account of the Darwins’ family life during the nineteenth century. As he observes, the afflictions that they endured were by no means unique. Large families, the norm for the period, meant more physical suffering from infectious diseases and more bereavements through early deaths. These sufferings took a heavy psychological toll upon the women of the age, often contributing to mental breakdowns that brought further family stress and anguish. Darwin and his immediate family were spared the worst consequences of suffering but had to endure their portion of premature deaths of children. Bowlby’s portrait of Darwin amply clarifies his towering scientific achievements and his warm, sympathetic, and vulnerable personal character.
Sources for Further Study
Contemporary Review. CCLVIII, February, 1991, p. 107. A review of Charles Darwin.
Lancet. CCCXXXVI, July 21, 1990, p. 146. A review of Charles Darwin.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 9, 1991, p. 12. A review of Charles Darwin.
Nature. CCCXLVII, September 6, 1990, p. 27. A review of Charles Darwin.
New Scientist. CXXVII, August 11, 1990, p. 57. A review of Charles Darwin.
The New York Times. XCVI, July 14, 1991, p. 12. A review of Charles Darwin.
The New Yorker. LXVII, August 12, 1991, p. 79. A review of Charles Darwin.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, February 8, 1991, p. 42. A review of Charles Darwin.
Science. CCLII, May 17, 1991, p. 992. A review of Charles Darwin.
The Times Literary Supplement. July 6, 1990, p. 719. A review of Charles Darwin.