By all accounts a modest and retiring example of his species, Charles Darwin would surely have been more astonished than flattered by the honours done him during this year’s bicentennial celebrations.
By all accounts a modest and retiring example of his species, Charles Darwin would surely have been more astonished than flattered by the honours done him during this year’s bicentennial celebrations. An avalanche of major exhibitions, international conferences, TV and radio series — everything, indeed, short of a movie starring Brad and Angelina — is accompanied by a perfect tsunami of books made saleable by association with the bald, bearded sage of Down House. In the unfavourable climate of modern publishing, the survival-of-the-fittest principle threatens early extinction for several of them, but a few are sturdy enough to establish themselves without needing a peg of topicality to swing from.
Darwin’s Island is a case in point. When it came to choosing titles, the great man was scarcely his own best friend. Even the most inquisitive non-specialist is unlikely to fall with avidity on The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom or The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. Our loss, according to Steve Jones, whose thoughtful reading of these and other unpromisingly-labelled works in the Darwinian canon reveals how much more underpins the scientist’s evolutionary perspective than giant tortoises and ancestral hominids.
The Beagle experience, three years of seasickness, cramped quarters and the not especially congenial company of the crosspatch creationist and defender of slavery Captain Fitzroy, was traumatic enough to turn Darwin into a convinced homebody, nursing his hypochondria with doses of Condy’s Fluid and seldom venturing beyond the confines of his Kentish garden at Down House. It was here that most of his crucial scientific insights arrived, deriving from such varied research fields as the sexuality of cowslips, the capacity of dogs to register emotion, the refined sensitivities of hops, mimosa and honeysuckle, co-dependent impulses in moths and the habits of hermaphrodite barnacles.
Jones is so entertaining and persuasive a writer that we have no trouble in accepting his identification of Down House as the true engine-room of modern biology. His chapter on Darwin’s study of worms is thrilling and bizarre enough to engage even the most scornfully indifferent non-scientist. Mighty, it seems, is the power of the humble annelid. No wonder Cleopatra declared them sacred creatures, to be ranked alongside hippos, jackals and ibises, their cult overseen by a special order of priests. Without worms, as Gilbert White observed in Georgian Selborne ‘the earth would soon become void of fermentation and consequently sterile’. Their slime recycles nitrogen and potassium, their excreta fertilise the soil and, as Darwin himself discovered, it is their continuing restlessness as diggers and defecators which causes ancient walls to tumble and buries ruins for a future generation of archaeologists to uncover.
‘Where was the intellectual?’ asks Keith Thomson in The Young Charles Darwin. To use an expression beloved of modern parents defending their more unpromising offspring, the boy took time to find himself. Miserable at school, frittering away a freshman year at Cambridge and bored or squeamish as an Edinburgh medical student, he only came into his own under the tutelage of the mineralogist and botanist John Stevens Henslow, whose studies to some extent foreshadowed an evolutionary theory. Thomson ably charts the concept of ‘transformism’, as Darwin called it, via the Beagle voyage and an unhappy spell in London — that ‘ vile smoky place, where a man loses a great part of the best enjoyments of his life’ — to ultimate formulation against the background of marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood and the births of their first children.
Looking after such a convinced vale- tudinarian as her husband was no picnic for Emma but Mrs Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book suggests a resolute culinary ingenuity. Some of her dishes, even in the context of a most attractively produced book combining the practical and the informative in an ideally Victorian fashion, have too irredeemably period a look. Arrowroot pudding belongs firmly to the sickroom and a boiled chicken garnished with macaroni is rather too Mrs-Beetonish for my taste. I enjoyed making several others, such as Nesselrode pudding (exquisite), beef collops (interesting), and rice patties (toothsome), so I may give the invalid food a go if only for the sake of a closer walk with 19th-century gastronomy.
Sean Carroll’s book, subtitled ‘Epic Adventures in the Search for Remarkable Creatures’, celebrates the work of adventurous 19th-century figures like Alfred Russell Wallace or the Dutch anthropologist Eugene Dubois and of modern pioneers such as Mary Leakey and Linus Pauling in extending the reach of Darwinian science. Carroll, a genetics professor like Steve Jones, has an agreeably conversational style, giving personal immediacy to what might so easily have been a mere progress-report on the quest for natural origins during the past 150 years. There are a few minor factual errors. In no circumstances, for example, could either Thomas Huxley, a school- master’s son, or Alfred Russell Wallace, whose father was an attorney with a private income, be described as working-class. Otherwise, this book, proving that the Darwinian revolution is far from over, offers a bracing tonic for those whose rational enjoyment of the natural universe currently seems in danger of being overwhelmed by the strident infantilism of creationists or the snake-oil pedlars of ‘intelligent design’.
Darwin’s Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England by Steve Jones (Little, Brown, £20, pp. 307, ISBN 9781408700006)
The Young Charles Darwin by Keith Thomson (Yale, £18.99, pp. 276, ISBN 9780300136081)
Mrs Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book revived and illustrated by Dusha Bateson and Wesley Janeway (Glitterati Incorporated, $35, pp. 175, ISBN 9780980155730)
Remarkable Creatures by Sean Carroll (Quercus, £16.99, pp. 331, ISBN 9781847247216)
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 4, 2009Tags: Darwin, Evolution, Nature, Non-fiction, Science