Commentary Magazine

Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, by Gertrude Himmelfarb

The Triumph of Evolution
Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution.
by Gertrude Himmelfarb.
Doubleday. 480 pp. $5.95.


Eighteen fifty-nine was the annus mirabilis of the 19th-century intellectual revolution. It saw the publication of Mill’s Liberty, Marx’s Political Economy, Darwin’s Origin of Species. Men looked back on it as the year which opened up the disastrous cleft between religion and science: a cleft illuminated in England by the appearance, the next year, of Essays and Reviews, which split the Anglican Church and roused the backwoods clergy against the “infidel” Establishment. Miss Himmelfarb tells us she began by contemplating a book on 1859, but has ended by concentrating on Darwin, who in many ways was the central figure in it. She has done so, in part, because she soon discovered “how faulty and superficial were the conventional ideas about the man and the book.” Her own book is an important study not only of Darwin and Darwinism but, through them, of the scientific revolution of the 19th century.

Darwin’s life was simple enough: it is also well documented. Born into a prosperous middle-class family, the grandson of a well-known poet and scientist much praised in the 18th century, much derided in the 19th, he had an entirely conventional education, showed few intellectual interests, gave up the idea of becoming a country doctor through lack of vocation after his first studies at Edinburgh, obtained a low pass-degree at Cambridge, and finally was destined by his father, who despaired of him as an idle sportsman interested only in “shooting, dogs, and ratcatching,” for a country living in the Established Church. Then suddenly, in 1831, came the wonderful opportunity, the beginning, as Darwin himself called it, of his second life, the invitation (for at Cambridge he had become an amateur naturalist) to sail around the world as naturalist on board H.M.S. Beagle.

The whole story of that extraordinary chance, as Darwin tells it, makes wonderful reading. For five years, he visited remote parts of the world under the command of an irascible, fundamentalist aristocrat, Captain Fitzroy. Then he returned and retired into matrimony, affluence, Victorian parsimony, and perpetual invalidity, to meditate, in rural Kent, on the problem of species.

Out of this seclusion—after eight years devoted to the study of 10,000 barnacles—burst the bombshell which shattered Victorian complacency, split the Church, drove believers to despair, and caused Karl Marx to offer to Darwin, as a fellow revolutionary, the English translation of Capital. This last honor Darwin modestly declined: it would pain his family, he said, if he were connected with so atheistic a book. And so he lived on, respected and respectable. His heresies were horrible, and he did not conceal them. In The Descent of Man, he declared, in the most factual manner, that we descend from “a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits” and ultimately from something very much less dignified, like the larva of a mollusc. But when he died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, with universal approval, and was not even placed (like his grandfather) on that incomparable roll of genius, the Index of the Roman Church.

Of course it was not really as simple as that: it never is. The protective piety of his family (or rather, of his wife and daughter) has now been pierced, and Darwin’s own faults of memory or errors of reconstruction have been corrected. Miss Himmelfarb is particularly skillful at such correction. Where Darwin looked back for the origin of the Origin, and found it in the voyage of the Beagle, she works scrupulously forward from the Beagle and finds no such thing. Where the Victorians looked back for the revolution which shattered their faith and arrived at Darwin, she looks forward from Buffon and Hutton and finds Darwin not at the beginning but at the end of the revolution: “that there was a Darwinian revolution, there is little doubt. But what kind of a revolution was it that was so generously prepared for beforehand and so strongly resisted afterwards? . . . many of his enemies must have agreed with Butler: Buffon planted, Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck watered; but it was Mr. Darwin who said, “That fruit is ripe” and shook it into his lap.’”

This is not, of course, to deny Darwin’s genius, but it is to see it in a new light. What Miss Himmelfarb most clearly shows is Darwin’s marvelous fertility in theorizing. Darwin thought that he proceeded from observation, believed, in retrospect, that his observations in South America had put into his mind the idea of natural selection. In fact, Miss Himmelfarb points out, all his observations in South America had been directed toward geology, not zoology. But he was (as his own son remarked) “charged with theorizing power ready to flow into any channel on the slightest disturbance, so that no fact, however small, could avoid releasing a stream of theory”; and afterwards—to be precise, in 1837—he thought, a priori, of his theory, and having written a first theoretical sketch of it in 1842, turned back to his South American experiences to find, there as elsewhere, a multitude of facts on which to rest it. To be fair, this is generally the way of genius: perhaps the only way. But it does no harm to see it documented.

Miss Himmelfarb documents it very thoroughly. The hypothetical nature of Darwin’s reasoning is exposed by her, at times, with almost as much subtlety and virtuosity as she discovers in him. She shows how powerfully Darwin was influenced by Malthus: the intellectual stimulant which also inspired Wallace almost to forestall Darwin with the same theory. She shows how evolution, as distinct from natural selection, was accepted by most scientists before Darwin, and how the mutability of species, by other means than natural selection, had been advanced before him. Having thus carefully limited Darwin’s originality, she shows how his own thesis fails by every applicable test, and how it was defended by Darwin with reasons so abstruse, so hypothetical, and so contradictory that in the end, even by his own admission, there was little left, and the “Darwinism” which he ended by establishing was not his own theory of natural selection but the theory of evolution which he had merely assumed and illustrated. In this victory—for undoubtedly it was a victory—it must be added that he was helped as much by the intellectual bankruptcy of his opponents as by his own strength. The theory of creation was a weak adversary for the massive forces of evolution, given temporary form and motion by the novel but inessential theory of natural selection.



Miss Himmelfarb’s presentation of Darwinism as a “conservative revolution,” though no less interesting and illuminating, seems to me less persuasive, or at least less clear. Her argument seems to be that Darwin did not open, but closed, the battle for a scientific instead of a theological interpretation of the origin of man. The 1830’s and 1840’s, she points out, were not a golden age of faith: in fact they were years in which science—pre-Darwinian science—had already shaken the foundations of faith. She points out that in the 1840’s Tennyson, that intellectual barometer, was the poet of religious doubt; she quotes Froude’s eloquent passage on the spiritual anguish of the 1840’s when, “All round us, the intellectual lightships had broken from their moorings, and it was then a new and trying experience. The present generation which has grown up in an open spiritual ocean, which has got used to it and has learned to swim for itself, will never know what it was to find the lights all drifting, the compasses all awry, and nothing left to steer by except the stars”; and she is both subtle and entertaining whenever she deals with the “esoteric” honesty and “aristocratic” ambiguities of Darwin’s great teacher and friend, Lyell.

Into this ferment Darwin advanced boldly, making no concessions to religious orthodoxy but making no explicit attacks on it; in the end he found that he had won—at least for evolution—a victory so final that even religion sought to absorb rather than reject it. “The Origin,” says Miss Himmelfarb, “was the cataclysm that broke up the crust of conventional opinion. It expressed and dramatized what men had obscurely felt. More than this, it legitimized what they felt.” (It also, less legitimately, provided a general philosophical or anthropological background to various un-Victorian or anti-Victorian political theories.) Whether this—if I have correctly understood the argument—can properly be described as a “conservative” and not merely a victorious revolution, I am not sure.

But however that may be, it is an argument which has enabled Miss Himmelfarb to deploy a wonderful range of knowledge and ideas. This is—I am glad to say—a long book, and never dull. The width of Miss Himmelfarb’s interests is extraordinary—necessarily so, for Darwin’s impact in the intellectual world was universal: it affected religion, science, literature, philosophy, politics. Miss Himmelfarb (as her book on Lord Acton shows) can illuminate all these; and this book is a worthy commemoration of that universal impact.



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