In the history of science, only a few men and women can be said to have cast a very long shadow. Surely among them is Charles Darwin. No one can now study biology or geology without feeling the impact of the work of this retiring English gentleman whose painstaking analysis of the animal kingdom led to the publication of the most controversial theory about the development of species: natural selection. After Darwin, in the minds of intellectuals, God took a backseat to natural forces as the shaping force for the world.
Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s comprehensive biography helps readers understand how a young, middle-class Englishman from Shropshire could have become such a renowned scientist. Arguing that any new biography of Darwin “must take account of the recent upheaval in the history of science, and its new emphasis on the cultural conditioning of knowledge,” they provide in Darwin a healthy blend of “history”—the story of Darwin’s life—with an analysis of the intellectual “doings” that characterized the turbulent century in which he worked.
Darwin was a man of great contradictions and complexities. Desmond and Moore bring into sharp focus the multifarious nature of his life: father, husband, brother, son, friend, enemy, patient, correspondent, community activist, political lobbyist, public leader (even town magistrate), and most of all man of his times. What Desmond and Moore provide is a wider context in which to view Darwin’s discoveries. Stressing the human qualities of their subject, the authors refute convincingly the myth that scientists are people sealed away hermetically in their labs, concocting abstract theories based on experiments untainted by the messy realities of everyday life.
In his professional life, Darwin was a student of Jean Baptiste Pierre Lamarck, of his own grandfather Erasmus Darwin, and especially of Thomas Malthus—all influential thinkers who paved the way for the more radical science of the nineteenth century. He was a friend of Charles Lyell (author of Principles of Geology, 1830-1833), a reader of Robert Chambers (author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, 1844), an acquaintance of eminent scientist J. F. W. Herschel, and a mentor for a host of scientific promoters, the most famous of whom, Thomas H. Huxley, made his reputation popularizing Darwin’s ideas among the English and taking on Darwin’s chief enemies, the scientist Richard Owen and the Anglican clergyman Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. Through his work Darwin expanded the frontiers of zoology, botany, geology, and genetics. Nevertheless, he was also a devoted father (some of the most poignant passages in this biography recount his grief over the premature death of his daughter Annie) and a devotee of sentimental novels, listening attentively as his wife read from them in their evenings at home.
Influencing Darwin’s thinking was the political and social climate in which he and his family lived. The Darwins were strong supporters of Whig politics; his liberal tendencies were formed early, and he never lost the spirit for reform. Not surprisingly, his scientific theories resembled advanced Whig social thinking; small wonder the Tory establishment reacted most violently to On the Origin of Species (1859) when it appeared. For years before Darwin published his notions about transmutation of species, the idea had been bandied about by radical elements of society and was associated with “riot and revolution,” as a tool in the hands of radicals who angrily eyed “the islands of gentrified opulence.”
Beneath many of Darwin’s scientific pronouncements was a firm belief that progress was possible and that people had responsibilities for taking care of the less fortunate. More than a century before “multiculturalism” became a buzzword in academic circles, Darwin was expressing concern for peoples of other colors and life-styles. Naïvely, he thought he could help less privileged communities improve by bringing European civilization to them; unlike his more imperious countrymen, he did not favor conquest and colonization as methods for effecting improvement.
The political implications of Darwin’s research are stressed repeatedly, and with good reason. For Victorian Britons, geological and biological discoveries had implications for domestic and foreign policy. Findings that supported the differences in human species fed the fires of imperialists who believed that conquest of “inferior races” was not only permissible but ordained by the deity who...