Harry Young

Charles Darwin. His Life and Work

Source: Socialist Standard, November 1959.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
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Charles Darwin was born 150 years ago, on the 12th February, 1809. There was little in his early life to suggest its subsequent course. He was the son of a prosperous and popular general practitioner in the town of Shrewsbury, and was sent with his brother to a Shrewsbury school. There his headmaster was Dr. Butler, father of the well-known author of Erewhon, Samuel Butler. In later years Samuel Butler conceived a bitter personal antipathy to Darwin, and wrote a series of books, articles and pamphlets opposing his theory and charging its author with personal culpability.

Darwin's father was an able practical psychologist before Sigmund Freud was born. Charles (the son) has described him in detail in the Autobiography (Autobiography of Charles Darwin, now published with all the deletions included by his granddaughter, Nora Barlow, Collins 1958) he wrote for his children. His father weighed 24 stone, and was quite a public character in the town. His treatment of his patients was most successful." He told me that they always began by complaining in a vague manner about their health, and by practice he soon guessed what was really the matter. He then suggested that they had been suffering in their minds, and now they would pour out their troubles, and he heard nothing more about the body."

The father wanted his sons to follow medicine, so to Edinburgh they both went. Charles has described the incredible dullness of the lectures at Edinburgh which, he said, "were something fearful to remember." After being bored to tears by the lectures, Darwin junior attended two operations in the theatre, "two very bad ones, the second of a child . . . but I rushed away before they were completed. Nor did I ever attend again."

After two years at Edinburgh University, Darwin senior realised that his son had no wish to become a Doctor of Medicine. He therefore persuaded him to go to Cambridge to study Divinity and become a clergyman. "Considering how fiercely I have been attacked by the orthodox it seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman. (Page 57.)

At Cambridge, Darwin attended the lectures of John Henslow, the botanist who was to give him one of the main interests of his life, Natural History. "No pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles."

The second great influence was Chas. Lyell's Principles of Geology, in which is set forth a logical sequence of explanation of changes in the Earth's crust.

Henslow was a great influence in more ways than one because it was through Henslow, Darwin finally volunteered to accompany H.M.S. "Beagle." "The voyage of the 'Beagle' has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career" (page 76). The story of that voyage is still one of the best travel books ever written.

While collecting and classifying specimens of the South American coast, Darwin was forcibly struck by the similarity of giant, almost archaic, forms of life and their small European counterparts, giant lizards, huge turtles, prehistoric-looking armoured reptiles, giant bats, and the like, and the fossil record. Assiduously mastering Lyell's method in geology, he made records of coral deposits and drafted his paper, which explained the rise of the coral reefs by the gradual subsidence of the sea-bed.

Returning to England two years later he took several years to sort his records, finally publishing The Voyage of the Beagle while attending London Scientific Society meetings and residing in Gower Street. Although unusually strong as a young man, he now showed signs of ill-health. After returning to London, he married his cousin, Emma Wedgewood, of the pottery family of Etruria.

"Divine Revelations"

Darwin's own grandfather, Erasmus, was a quite outstanding and noteworthy thinker, actively following scientific progress, and composing a poem, Zoomonia, in which the idea of the evolution, or gradual development of various species, was expressed on purely conjectural grounds. Charles himself, in reading it, was quite unimpressed, although Samuel Butler almost accused him of plagurising it.

Erasmus probably owed a good deal to Lamarck, the French 18th century naturalist, who was the Lysenko of the great French Revolution of '93, and whose book, Philosophie Zoologique, was a daring exposition of evolutionary change due to adaptation.

In 1839, Darwin was already assailed with doubts of Divine revelation :

But I had gradually come by this time to see that the Old Testament, from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindus, or the beliefs of any barbarian.
The question then continually rose before my mind and would not be banished—is it credible that if God were now to make a revelation to the Hindus would he permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu Sara, etc., as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament? This appeared to me utterly incredible.
By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported—that the more we know of the fixed laws of Nature the more incredible do miracles become—that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us—that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events— that they differ in many important details, far too important, as it seemed to me, to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eyewitnesses—by such reflections as these, which I give as not having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation.

Some time later, in July, 1837, Darwin had already started his first notebook on the Origin of Species.

Everyone who believes, as I do, that all the corporeal and mental organs (excepting those which are neither advantageous or disadvantageous to them) of all beings have been developed through natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, will admit that these organs have been formed so that their possessors may compete successfully with other beings, and thus increase in number. Page 89.

In September, 1842, Darwin decided to move out of London and finally settled at Down, just outside Bromley in Kent. In this house the world-shaking masterpieces, Origin of Species and The Descent of Man were composed.

In October, 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement, Malthus on population and, being well-prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence that goes on everywhere from long continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances, favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be desrtoyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.
Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work. (Page 120.)

After planning to work for several years on this theory by collection of evidence, Darwin received a letter containing an Essay On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type, from a remarkable naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, then in Malaya, which "contained exactly the same theory as mine." Under these circumstances the two scientists agreed to submit their papers to the Linnean Society together.

Origin of Species

The Origin of Species was published in November, 1859, and the fat was in the fire. The first edition of 1,250 was sold out on the day of publication—and the storm broke. Few writers have experienced the flood of abuse, attacks and onslaughts which its author now encountered. Its reception was a mixed one. On the one hand, the Church and the parsons foamed at the mouth, on the other, the more enlightened spokesmen of the growing capitalist class were not slow to sieze on the "survival of the fittest" and use it to justify unscrupulous exploitation. Didn't Darwin, the great scientist, say, it was those best fitted who survived ?— and therefore the richest were "the fittest"—and so on. His fellow scientists were equally divided. These arguments were being used by Labour Party writers, like Ramsay Macdonald, 50 years later in Socialism and Society, etc.

No mention of Darwin's work is really complete without reference to T. H. Huxley, the brilliant Science teacher at the Royal College, who assumed the role of Darwin's gladiator. He it was who sought out the enemy, and attacked and destroyed him. His popular lectures at the Working Men's Colleges were attended and enjoyed by. among others, Marx and Engels.

It should nevertheless be said that outside their special subject of Biology, neither man had any original contribution to make. Huxley remained a fairly orthodox Liberal and supporter of British foreign policy all his days.

In his imperturbable loyalty to scientific fact and forthright espousal of the result of his researches, come what may, Darwin ranks with Galileo or Marx. He could equalliy with Marx have written as conclusion to the preface of h book, "Pursue your course and let the people talk." While the battle raged, he sat, or rather, lay down, and went on collecting facts. What Marx did for the domam of Economics, Darwin undoubtedly did for Biology. Both men found their subjects in a mess, like an old battlefield littered with the rubbish of exploded notions, and the corpses of false theories strewn about.

The Origin of Species, like Capital, was a gigantic broom, sweeping away the accumulated junk and placing the whole subject on a firm and logical footing. In the subsequent discoveries of Mendel and the whole science of Genetics is its direct result. This evidence of the evolution of Life, due to environmental causes is obviously o paramount importance to the Marxian theory of the Evolution of Society.

Darwin's theory is not entirely flawless—the chief difficulty being the impossibility of actually proving permanent mutations, which he was the first to see. Also "the fittest" need not be confined to the individual members of a species, as Kropotkin and others have shown.

When all this has been said, Charles Darwin will nevertheless forever hold his place as the great pioneer, whose indefatigable energy supplied the evidence which became the signpost to the scientific study of Life.

His was the torpedo which sank Noah's Ark.