Darwin's dilemma

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed May 3 20:31:22 MDT 2000

John Bellamy Foster, "Marx's Ecology":

Darwin wrote the first short draft of his theory of the transmutation of
species in soft pencil in 1842. Two years later he wrote a much longer
draft, of about fifty thousand words, and gave strict instructions to his
wife Emma that it should be published upon his death. It was not until
1858—two decades after he first articulated his theory in his Notebooks—
that he made it public in a joint presentation of papers with his young
rival Alfred Russell Wallace (publishing The Origin of Species itself in
the following year). And he only did so then when it appeared that Wallace
would scoop him. This has raised the issue (as we saw in Chapter Two) of
what Stephen Jay Gould has called "Darwin’s Delay"—a question which has
been of increasing interest to Darwin scholars, particularly with the
publication of his early transmutation notebooks.

The traditional interpretation for the delay has been that as a rational
scientist Darwin had simply been slowly accumulating evidence in order to
construct a much stronger theory. But such an interpretation must explain
why during these years he was engaged in activities such as the writing of
a multi-volume work on the taxonomy and natural history of barnacles. Based
on the evidence provided in Darwin’s Notebooks, historians of science have
recently arrived at quite different conclusions, now almost universally
held by Darwin scholars: that Darwin was a ‘‘tormented evolutionist,"
"reluctant revolutionist," and alarmed materialist, trying to reconcile his
scientific discoveries with his traditional Whig and Anglican beliefs,
fearful as well as of losing his respectability and his position within
elite circles. Still, it would be a serious mistake to attribute Darwin’s
delay to cowardice. Rather he needs to be understood not simply as a
scientist, but as a complex social actor in a time of turbulent social
change, trying to advance his scientific views, which were rooted in
materialism, while defending a particular class position. The grandson on
his maternal side of industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, living on his estate at
Down House in Kent, his money (and his wife’s money) invested in railroad
stock, Darwin was a strong believer in the bourgeois order. His science was
revolutionary but Darwin the man was not, and therein lay his inner dilemma.

England in Darwin’s day was a seething cauldron of discontent. In August
1839 when he was attending a meeting of the British Association for the
Advancement of Science in Birmingham he found a city on the verge of
martial law. The Chartist Convention was being held in the town and
socialists and red-Lamarckian evolutionists were in attendance— with half a
million pamphlets denouncing property, marriage, and the uncooperative
state being distributed. In 1842, while Darwin worked on his evolutionary
sketch, the entire country was paralyzed by a general strike organized by
the Chartists. The Riot Act was read in many of the industrial towns, and
in some demonstrators were shot and killed. Meanwhile the atheists had
recently founded an illegal penny paper, the Oracle of Reason, which was
selling in the thousands. It attacked religion with geological tidbits and
revolutionary Lamarckianism. William Chilton, writing for the Oracle,
presented materialism in revolutionary class terms, coupling this with
evolutionary concepts: "Man was just a collection of organized atoms." The
Oracle attacked Paley’s natural theology as a "pernicious" justification of
the status quo. In August 1842 the Oracle editor, George Holyoake, was
tried publicly and uttered such blasphemies as the non-existence of God and
the inability of the poor to support parsons during economic bad times.
Darwin meanwhile had been reading William Cobbett’s Rural Rides, with its
attacks on Parson Malthus and the Corn Laws. With an uprising feared, the
old "Iron Duke," the Duke of Wellington, called up the Guards and special
units of the police. The zoologist Richard Owen, a colleague and
collaborator of Darwin’s, drilled with the Honourable Artillery Company and
was called out to reinforce the police. Day after day, up to ten thousand
demonstrators massed on the commons all over the capital. Darwin and his
wife Emma, in relief, left London in the fourth week of the general strike
to take up residence in the rural surroundings of their new home at Down
House in Kent.

The new setting did not, however, lessen the magnitude of the dilemma in
which Darwin was caught, when writing up his theory for the first time. As
Adrian Desmond and James Moore observe in their biography, Darwin: The Life
and Times of a Tormented Evolutionist (1991),

"Of course Darwin could not publish. Materialism petrified him, and one can
see why, with it condemned by the forces of Church-and-State as a
blasphemous derision of the Christian law of the land. He was too
worldly-wise not to sense the danger, the damning class implications. He
had no illusions about how he would be treated.... By netting man and ape
together he risked being identified with atheistic-low-life, or with
extreme Dissenters cursing the 'fornicating' Church. The 'whole fabric' was
ready to be ripped apart without his help. As the old world "totters &
falls," he could not be seen aiding the demolition. Ultimately he was
frightened for his respectability. For a gentleman among the Oxbridge set,
priming itself to guard man’s soul against the socialist levellers,
publishing would have been tantamount to treachery—a betrayal of the old

Louis Proyect
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