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On the shoulders of giants

Charles Darwin’s search for his intellectual ancestors shows that scientific discovery mirrors the v

Given the apparent serenity of the photographic portraits for which he sat, it is difficult to imagine Charles Darwin fretful. But only a month after the publication of his Origin of Species in 1859, he became very anxious – not, as one might expect, about reviews of his book, but about a letter chastising him for failing to acknowledge his predecessors, the men who had published evolutionary ideas before him. Haunted by the ghostly presence of those who had struck out before him but who had since disappeared into oblivion, Darwin decided to write a proper acknowledgment, in the form of a list of his scientific forebears.

He already knew the names of some of them: the Comte de Buffon, who flirted with evolutionary speculation in the 18th century; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the professor of invertebrates at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris who first made his evolutionary claims publicly in 1800; his own grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who had slipped evolutionary ideas between the lines of his poetry and his medical treatises at about the same time; and then there was the anonymous author of a bestselling book of 1844 entitled Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Here his list began to break down. There were “some Germans”, he wrote, and “an American (name this minute forgotten)”.

Writing the list was more difficult and time-consuming than Darwin had anticipated. He was no scholar of history, he complained to his friends. To understand and judge these ideas properly, he would have to be able to read French, German, Russian, Arabic and ancient Greek, and have access to manuscripts that had long since disappeared. Unsurprisingly, he failed to produce anything more than a sketch of his intellectual family tree. Six years later he was still adding to the list but the presence of his ancestors no longer rattled him. He had come to see them as kin.

There were others who dabbled with proto-evolutionary questions but about whom he did not know: men such as Leonardo da Vinci, who tried to work out why there were oyster shells in the Verona mountain peaks; the Renaissance potter Bernard Palissy, who was convinced that species were created spontaneously in the alchemical processes of ponds and ditches; the 9th-century Arab philosopher al-Jahiz, who sat with Bedouin nomads counting the web of interdependent species that gathered round desert campfires lit in various locations. What is striking about both the writers on Darwin’s list and those not on it is that their ideas emerged from very similar conditions. He would surely have appreciated the ways in which the history of evolution theory mirrored the very processes of evolution.

Take Aristotle, the first philosopher on Darwin’s list, who spent two years on the island of Lesbos in 345BC collecting facts about species diversity. We now know that he was not an evolutionist, but in 1865 a town clerk from Redhill persuaded Darwin that Aristotle had entertained ideas which were remarkably close to natural selection. He would have recognised the ever-present tension in Aristotle’s work between the myopic collecting of facts and the attempt to discover general laws, as well as his obsession with what Darwin called “borderliners” – organisms, often sea creatures, that did not fit established categories. Darwin was always intimidated by “the ancients”, as he called them, but he would have appreciated Aristotle’s refusal to accept as fact anything he hadn’t witnessed in person.

Consider, too, Abraham Trembley, the Swiss tutor of two Dutch boys growing up in an 18th-century aristocratic household darkened by divorce, who decided to spend a summer showing his boys the miracles of the newly invented microscope. When the boys returned with a jar of minute polyps fished from the ornamental ponds on the family estate outside The Hague, Trembley announced that they would make understanding the strange pond creature their summer project. What he and the boys discovered was quite beyond their comprehension: if you cut the polyp in half, it regenerated itself, a phenomenon entirely at odds with the known laws of nature.

Determined to share the polyp miracle with the world, Trembley posted specimens of the creatures to men and women of science across Europe with instructions on how to cut and regrow the polyp body parts. Appalled by the metaphysical speculation his discovery subsequently inspired among the savants of Paris, London and The Hague, and by the numerous ways in which his findings were exploited by materialists and atheists, Trembley retired from scientific work. The polyps, however, did not retire. They remained at the centre of materialist argument and speculation about transmutations of species for another century.

And then there was Denis Diderot, working through the night in a Paris garret in the 1750s, or arguing for atheism at the dinner tables of the rich, recruiting intellectuals to write for his encyclopaedia project at the same time as he put himself through the most extraordinary programme of reading in the natural sciences – convinced as he was that understanding the connections between species was of critical importance to understanding everything.

Given Darwin’s keen appreciation of how heretical his scientific ideas were and given his belief that, once he proved that species had mutated, the “whole fabric totters & falls”, he would not have been surprised to discover that Diderot was constantly shadowed by a police agent, or that he was arrested in 1749 and spent three years in prison. The materialism and atheism of French subversives of his sort had become very dangerous indeed.

What do the lives of these men, who lived in such different times and places, tell us about the nature of scientific inquiry? They certainly had much in common with each other. Each of them was prepared to risk public censure, imprisonment or the loss of his professional reputation for the sake of a belief in species transmutation. They were all polymaths; most of them were also fluent in several languages. They lived in port or capital cities, metropolises with large populations of itinerant foreigners with diverse religious beliefs and creation myths. Most worked in solitary ways, but all of them relied on intellectual networks to test and disseminate their work.

Many were mavericks, moving restlessly like Aristotle or Leonardo or Erasmus Darwin from one line of inquiry to another. Some had patrons who paid them a stipend or offered access to great libraries. Very few were independently wealthy as Darwin was.

It is tempting to imagine what might have happened if Darwin had been able to follow his ancestors into ancient Lesbos or 18th-century Paris or Cairo, to take a seat on a harbour wall or at a coffee house, or pull up a chair in a salon and discuss some of the questions pressing upon him. The botanist Joseph Hooker, his closest friend, once complained that Darwin’s questions were like the Hydra – cut one head off and several others grew at once in its place.

I suspect that one of the things which would have pleased Darwin most about this history is that the discovery of species mutation and its mechanisms, in which he played such a significant part, was not an inexorable march towards a final truth. Instead, like the history of species as Darwin understood it, the story of the discovery of evolution and natural selection is one of branchings and false starts, atrophies and adaptations, of movements backwards as well as forwards, of sudden accelerations and convergences. Most important of all, it is the story of a community of thinkers, rather than a single brilliant individual.

Rebecca Stott’s latest book is “Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists” (Bloomsbury, £25)

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis