THERE IS PROBABLY no other scientist, not even Newton or Freud, about whom as many books are published these days as Charles Darwin. This recognition is the more surprising when one considers that Darwin's fame had reached an all-time low early in this century when it was widely believed that most of his views were wrong.
What has brought about this complete reversal? To be able to answer this, we must first ask what does the word Darwin stand for? Whar are Darwin's theories? The first, of course, now accepted by everybody except a few fundamentalists, is that life was not created in its present condition but that it is constantly changing, evolving. A second thesis is that of "common descent," meaning that all mammals descend from one original forefather, that the same is true for all birds, reptiles, fishes, indeed for all vertebrates, for all animals, for all living beings. In short there was only a single origin of life on earth and the rich diversity now existing is theresult of ever-repeated multiplication of species (speciation) and their adaptive divergence.
Darwin's theory of common descent explained so much in comparative anatomy, classification and biogeography that it was accepted by the biological community almost at once. The only consequence of the theory of common descent that was highly unpalatable to the Victorian age was its extension to Man. To include the human species in the tree of descent and to derive Man from ape-like ancestors is still unacceptable to many people, though since the time of Darwin much additional evidence for man's anthropoid ancestry has been discovered. This includes the extraordinary similarity between Man and the African apes in proteins and other molecules, and the discovery of hominid fossils, the Australopithecines, which drastically reduce the gap between man and the African apes. But still controversial is how long ago the hominid and the pongid lines separated -- 5 millin, 8 million, 14 million years ago? The now clearly documented gradual evolution of man from the apes through a series of ape-like, small-brained ancestors raises, of course, for some people various uncomfortable questions, concerning the origin of consciousness, mind and "soul."
When, in 1980, a scientist speaks of Darwinism, he has still another theory in mind, that of evolution by natural selection. This, among all of Darwin's theories, encountered the greatest resistance. Even among evolutionists it was not generally accepted until the 1940s. Among nonbiologists, whether scientists or laymen, it is still met with scepticism if not outright opposition. This, for a number of reasons, is not surprising. Most philosophers, to the present day, are essentialists, of course, natural selection would make no sense if constant essences were at the bottom of all varible phenomena. Virtually all British scientists in Darwin's period, including his teachers and his best friends, were natural theologians who explained all adaptation and all seeming purposiveness in nature as due to design. In fact such manifestations of design were considered the most convincing evidence for the existence of God. No wonder, Darwin, by explaining design as the result of natural selection, was accused of having "dethroned God." This is why Louis Agassiz denounced his theory "as a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievous in its tendency," and why Segdwick called it "immoral."
It required a new type of thinking, often referred to as population thinking," before natural selection could be accepted. This is based on recognition that every individual, in every species of animals and plants, no less than in man, is unique, and that each of them has some special qualities which make it better qualified or less so, to survive and to leave offspring. That this idea, the core of the concept of natural selection, had to fight 80 years for recognition shows how little it conformed to 19th-century thinking.
Under the circumstances it is almost unbelievable that two individuals would think of the theory of natural selection almost at the same time. And yet this is what happened. In June 1858 Darwin received a short manuscript from a naturalist in the East Indies, Alfred Russel Wallace, proposing a theory of evolution by natural selection, "laughably similar," as Darwin put it, to the one he himself had been working on for 20 years.
From Darwin's notebooks we know that he had had the inspiration for his theory on Sept. 28, 1838. Since June 1856 Darwin had been busy writing a great work on his theory and now it looked as if Wallace had beaten him to the punch. Two of Darwin's friends, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker and the great geologist Charles Lyell, came to the rescue. On July 1, 1858, at a meeting of the Linnaean Society of London, they presented parts of Darwin's unpublished manuscripts and excerpts from a letter to Asa Gray together with Wallace's manuscript; this is now universally known as the Wallace-Darwin paper of 1858. One would have thought that such a revolutionary publication would have created an immense furor, particularly since the name of the (already then) famous Darwin was coupled with that of the virtually unknown Wallace, but curiously it went almost unnoticed. Even T. H. Huxley, Darwin's great advocate, apparently never read it. Much search through the literature indicates that only a single, and not very distinguished contemporary biologist (Alfred Newton) accepted it, one other (S. H. Houghton) rejected it. The paper needed a far more massive documentation to call attention to the theory of natural selection and this is what Darwin supplied in his Origin of Species (1859), a work of 490 pages.
Darwin never denied that Wallace had discovered the theory independently from him, and never failed to give him credit. He often referred to it as "our theory." Yet, in A Delicate Arrangement, Arnold C. Brackman, endeavoring to write a sensational book, has developed the thesis that Darwin's friends Hooker and Lyell conspired to rob poor Wallace of the rightful rewards of priority.
Brackman's desire to give proper credit to Wallace is highly praiseworthy, for Wallace was indeed a most admirable scientist who is well remembered in the history of biology not only for the selection theory (and its later developments), but also for his contributions to the theories of geographic speciation and mimicry. He is, moreover, the virtual founder of zoogeography. Wallace, as is well brought out by Brackman, was an altogether admirable character - an idealist of the highest order, a champion of all good causes, exceedingly modest and unselfish, naive and easily duped in business matters and about such movements as spirtualism, full of ideas, and remarkably industrious. In many ways Wallace, with all of his virtues and foibles, was typical representative of the Victorian age. But more than that: By his books, essays and lectures he was a significant contributor to the thinking of the Victorian period, a fact frequently overlooked by those who are blinded by Darwin's brilliance.
Brackman does a spendid job in bringing Wallace alive and reminding us of his great contribution. It is a pity, though, that he mars his sympathetic biography by endeavoring to show that Wallace was "robbed" of the glory of the discovery of natural selection by the Hooker-Lyell conspiracy to publish the Wallace manuscript simultaneously with extracts from unpublished writings of Darwin. Brackman's whole style of writing, the continuous insinuations of misdeeds and falsifications by Darwin, Hooker and Lyell, leaves a bad taste. As far as essential facts are concerned, I have found nothing new in the volume, although Brackman studied a lot of unpublished notebooks and letters and has filled in a considerable amount of detail. What is truly new has little to do with science, but rather with Wallace's personal life, his marriage and his financial affairs. Wallace's background was lower-middle-class, and for this reason and owing to lack of formal education, he was never fully accepted in the circle of the Cambridge-London "gentlemen" of Victorian England. He never was given a position commensurate with his abilities and achievements. This social climate rather than any specific activities of Darwin, Hooker or Lyell, was responsible for the less than appropriate treatment Wallace received from his contemporaries.
Alan Moorehead's Darwin and the Beagle is sheer delight. The Beagle, with Darwin on board, had sailed from Plymouth, England, in December 1831, has surveyed the coasts of South America, particularly of Tierra del Fuego, and had returned home via Chile, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Mauritius, Capetown and St. Helena, arriving at Plymouth after five years, on October 2, 1836. On this voyage Darwin kept a daily journal, subsequently published as Journal of Researchers. For years I have had this volume at an arm's length, reading it again and again, for I agree with the widespread opinion that it is the best of all travel books. No wonder it was printed over and over, and translated into so many languages. There is no better way to become acquainted with Darwin than to read his journal.
What a superb observer he was! And with what enthusiasm Darwin studied everything he encountered. Not merely geology, plants and animals, as one might expect from a young naturalist, but also anything concerning the local populations, whether it be Brazilian slaves and their masters, the urban inhabitants of Buenos Aires, the gauchos ("cowboys") of the Argentinian pampas, or the Indians in various parts of South America. In his descriptions Darwin reveals one of the secrets of his greatness. Not only a superb observer, he never stopped asking the searching question: Why is this or that occurring? He would then propose some hypothesis or theory that might account for the phenomenon or process. And then he would make observations that would either confirm or refute his hypothesis. This is how he advanced his theory of coral reefs, and after his return to England, the theories of common descent and of natural selection.
I have read many travelogues in my life, very exciting ones, and some with splendid descriptions of the landscape and the people, but I have not encountered a second one written by a traveler as curious about everything as was Darwin. And he did not lose this intense curiousity until the end of his life. Darwin is the most convincing proof of the thesis, now widely held among the theorists of science, that the asking of penetrating questions is the key to all scientific progress.
Moorehead in retelling Darwin's experiences on the Beagle has splendidly captured the spirit of the voyage. His extremely readable account is magnificently illustrated with 48 color plates and over 140 other illustrations from contemporary sources.
Anyone who has seen the PBS television series The Voyage of Charles Darwin will love the book with the same name. It consists of carefully selected excerpts from Darwin's published travelogue The Yoyage of the Beagle and from his autobiography. It gives a splendid impression of the young Darwin, and his many experiences during the five-year voyage of the Beagle, particularly to southern South America. In contrast to the Moorehead volume, Ralling, the director of the series, lets Darwin speak himself. The volume is copiously illustrated by photographs, many of them in color, with those of tropical flowers and butterflies and of the scenery in Tierra del Fuego and the Andes particularly striking. The eight chapters correspond to the eight installments of the television series.
To the degree to which Darwin's greatness and influence has been recognized, the interest in anything he published has also increased. It had long been known to scholars that in addition to the Origin and the Descent of Man, as well as about a dozen other books, Darwin had published numerous, mostly short, papers in scientific and popular journals. Sets of the old volumes of these journals are available only in a very few libraries, and it was therefore a most helpful idea of Professor Paul H. Barrett of Michigan State University to reprint as many of these smaller publications as could be traced, in all a total of 152. Twenty-two papers relate to geology, 63 to botany, and 67 to miscellaneous subjects. They are published in chronological order in two volumes, comprising a total of over 600 pages. These smaller essays and notes are as amazing as Darwin's books, displaying a breadth of interest that ranges from geology to all aspects of botany and zoology. Again they reveal Darwin's enthusiasm and his insatiable curiosity. Many of these shorter papers are forerunners of his later books, and shed light on the development of Darwin's thought. Others are fact-finding inquiries, directed at other naturalists, whenever Darwin thought he might be able to elicit information by publishing such inquiries. All in all The Collected Papers of Charles Darwin are an indispensable tool for any serious Darwin scholar.
As T. H. Huxley wrote to Darwin, apropos some attacks by Samuel Butler, quoting Goethe: "Even a whale has his louse." The attacks on Darwin have not ceased since his death. Particularly silly was Loren Eiseley's claim, in Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X (reviewed in Daily Book World on July 13, 1979), that Darwin had plagiarized the concept of natural selection from a paper by Edward Blyth (1837). Actually, Blyth had referred to deviations from the average value (a concept widely recognized in the 17th and 18th centuries) and had argued that this would ensure stability; in other words he used this process of elimination as an argument against evolution.
Recent attacks on natural selection are more substantial. All too many geneticists had made the assumption that genes were the units of selection and that evolution was nothing but a process changing the frequency of genes in populations. This badly missed the point! Selection deals with whole individuals who, as a result of certain properties, have more or less reproductive success. Favoring in every generation certain individuals owing to some properties they have, natural selection chooses automatically all their other genes, including many that are near-neutral or even slightly deleterious. When such selection happens in very small gene pools, rather pronounced departures from the optimal genotype sometimes survive, owing to errors of sampling. This is, of course, not a refutation of the process of natural selection, but such random processes are simply superimposed on the normal selective processes. Such errors of sampling are the analogue to turbulence in the physical sciences, which make predictions in meterology, oceanography and cosmology so uncertain.
It is no exaggeration to say that in its principal outlines Darwin's theory of evolution is accepted by just about every qualified biologist. The attacks against it are either based on ignorance or are motivated ideologically. They will not be successful, unless someone comes up with a superior theory. There are no indications so far that such a theory exists.