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One of a kind

Darwin’s Sacred Cause

Adrian Desmond and James Moore
Allen Lane, 512pp, £25

The Young Charles Darwin
Keith Thomson
Yale University Press, 288pp, £18.99

Darwin: a Life in Poems
Ruth Padel
Chatto & Windus, 160pp, £12.99

Darwin’s Island, Darwin’s Error, Darwin’s Luck, Darwin’s Sacred Cause . . . The 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species has produced a hail of books which reflect his extraordinary transformation from a scientist and a gentleman into something very much like an icon, the contemplation of which brings us close to the profoundest truths of existence. Part of this process involves making Darwin timeless, but that turns out to be problematic. When he stops being understood as a man of his own time, he becomes one of ours, which makes for a shock when we come into contact with his real self. Many people are surprised, reading the Origin, to find that its argument begins with a long and wonderfully nerdy discussion of pigeons:

The carrier, more especially the male bird, is also remarkable from the wonderful development of the carunculated skin about the head, and this is accompanied by greatly elongated eyelids, very large external orifices to the nostrils, and a wide gape of mouth. The short-faced tumbler has a beak in outline almost like that of a finch; and the common tumbler has the singular and strictly inherited habit of flying at great height in a compact flock, and tumbling in the air head over heels.

Darwin hated cruelty to animals but loved to shoot them; he hated slavery but seems to have had no doubts about imperialism. He wrote in a notebook of “a profound consideration of method by which races of man have been exterminated . . . very important. It seems owing to immigration of other races.” And later: “The varieties of man seem to act on each other; in the same way as different species of animals – the stronger always exterminating the weaker.”

Such things became unsayable, and possibly unthinkable, in Europe and North America after 1945. Perhaps this was because we became wiser and nicer; it is also possible that, in the ruins of Europe, we stopped believing that the process of extermination would always work to our advantage, as it had seemed to for nearly 500 years. Perhaps Darwin foresaw this might happen, but if he did not, that makes his sympathy for the losers all the more admirable and unusual. Darwin’s Sacred Cause makes a powerful case for the idea that revulsion at the slave trade was one of the driving forces of his work.

Politics, science and human rights were all closely linked. If slavery was to be scientifically defended, it was necessary to prove that the slaves were not fully human and that whites were a separate species. Slave owners might have used religious justifications, but the book by Desmond and Moore makes it clear that British Christianity was a powerful force against slavery. Darwin’s family was Unitarian, but it allied itself with the hard-edged evangelicals and Quakers from the very beginnings of the anti-slavery campaign. The conviction that all men were brothers came long before Darwin had worked out his theory of why and how the brotherhood had so diverged in appearance.

Thus, the pigeons were not a diversion: like dogs, they were an example of a single species grown various beyond imagining under selective pressure. Pigeons could be shown to breed across races, and to have fertile offspring from these crosses. This proved that they were, in fact, a single species. One of the interesting examples of racialised political science that Desmond and Moore bring out is the conviction on the pro-slavery side that mulattos must be sterile, or at least of diminished fertility, because they were a cross between species rather than – in breeders’ language – varieties within one.

To talk about humans as a species of animal is still shocking today, but for very different reasons from the time Darwin was writing. We are much less willing to admit to the cruelty and violence of the world than the Victorians were, and we entirely lack their hearty acceptance that good things spring from bad. Yet the struggle to avoid loss and suffering drives everything in the world that Darwin discovered, and the ability to suffer, along with the drive to avoid suffering, makes animals better at survival. Gentleness and kindness, he believed, were produced because they make us more likely to exterminate rivals who lack those qualities. This is not so different from the smug Anglican belief that virtue will be rewarded, but the emotional tone is entirely different, and the naturalist was gripped by psychosomatic agonies (terrible farting and vomitings) in his most productive years, as if he could not stomach his own ideas.

There is a similar tension between aggression and gentleness in the way that he put forward his ideas. The unmistakable tone of patient reasonableness should not obscure the determination and the iron confidence he had in the conclusions about which he felt sure; he did not care to attack unless he was certain of victory. The young Darwin, pictured on the front of the book by Desmond and Moore, has the clean-shaven face of a pugilist squaring up to the world and looking for its weaknesses. That set of his jaw is invisible in the pictures of the bearded great man, but it is still there. Regrettably, their book does not really do justice to this aspect of his character; for the authors, he’s too much the saint.

There’s more of a sense of the alien humanity of the Victorian age in Keith Thomson’s Young Darwin, a subtle and scrupulous account of what Darwin learned as a young man – in particular, at Edinburgh and Cambridge universities – and how this differed from what he was prepared, as an old sage, to admit to having been taught (preferring to imply that he had worked it all out for himself). Perhaps it takes an Oxford professor, as Thomson was, to appreciate the subtleties of that very English attitude where the only crime worse than making an effort is coming second.

One of the things that makes Darwin so attractive is the beauty of his writing. It is without superfluous ornament; sometimes it is without any ornament at all, especially in his letters and journals. Even then, the mix of forceful thought and rhythmic subtlety is astonishing, and it often shows up Ruth Padel. Much of her book of poems on Darwin is prose in broken lines, and when she quotes his prose, it is better. There are some lovely phrases – “Reticence descends on the house/like an ostrich on its nest: a bell jar of black feathers” – in the best poems, on the death of his daughter Annie: here, the sense of a man who loved and suffered greatly is overwhelming.

But why do we need Darwin to have been a great man, as well as a great scientist? It is only part of an answer to say that he was one, though he was. There must be many forgotten people who showed his courage and energy and breadth of sympathy. They are not lifted into myth. He is. Underlying this rush of books, there is a sense that Darwin is the exemplar of what a man should be, perhaps replacing the Victorian Jesus. But Jesus at least promised liberation in the future. The extraordinary thing about Darwin’s popularity is that the news he brought us is that we can never escape – that suffering and cruelty and death have made us what we are and will make us what we will be.

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009