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Books: Barnacles for All

6 minute read

APES, ANGELS & VICTORIANS (399 pp.)—William Irvine—McGraw-Hill ($5).

Dr. Robert Darwin had a sharp eye. When his son Charles came home on H.M.S. Beagle in 1836, after a five-year voyage of scientific exploration, the old man took one look at him and exclaimed: “Why, the shape of his head is quite altered!” But within 30 years a greater change had taken place: standing at the helm of one of history’s great intellectual revolutions, Charles Darwin had altered the shape of contemporary thought.

It is difficult to recapture the feeling of “intellectual holocaust” into which Darwin’s doctrine of evolution by natural selection plunged the world. So much the better that Stanford University’s Professor William Irvine should be the man to have made the attempt. U.S. biography has become world renowned for the depth and breadth of its research, but almost invariably it has paid for its weightiness in stolid writing and lack of imagination. Author Irvine (who proved his touch in 1949 with The Universe of G.B.S.) is one U.S. biographer to show that vast masses of research can be moved around with light-fingered dexterity.

The great names of Victorian science, philosophy and theology find a place in Biographer Irvine’s brilliant study. Thomas Henry Huxley, who was Darwin’s right-hand man and champion, actually takes up half the book. And yet, as Huxley himself readily admitted, it is Charles Darwin who dominates the scene.

Terror of Error. Psychologists have played with Darwin’s psyche like happy children with an entrancing toy. Raised by a stern and awesome father, Darwin spent his whole life trying to be a well-behaved little gentleman deserving of love and approval; no great man was ever more prone to anxiety and apology, more terrified of being caught in error.

He was “physically awkward”—so much so that he bent every effort to making himself manually skillful, spending hours whipping a rifle to his shoulder in front of a mirror (he became a first-rate shot). Fear of error caused him to develop “an insatiable appetite for tabulation” and the determination to write nothing that he could not back up. His inability to talk back fast and deep-rooted fear of sudden criticism made him a wary recluse who spent year upon year building impregnable fortresses. Author Irvine is a shade sharp with Novelist Samuel Butler, who, like Shaw after him, quarreled with the theory of natural selection because it attributed the survival and development of species more to luck than cunning and paid no tribute to the power of the will. Yet Darwin’s own calculated struggle is like a confirmation of Butler’s criticism. Genius, Darwin himself insisted, is essentially “unflinching, undaunted perseverance.”

Unenthusiastic about becoming a clergyman (which his father proposed), too “pathologically sensitive” to become a doctor, Darwin devoted his mammoth perseverance to becoming Darwin, i.e., an authority on matter rather than mind. For eight years he studied barnacles: his “patient dissection of thousands of smelly little sea animals” so impressed his children that they assumed that everyone in the world was similarly occupied. “Then where does he do his barnacles?” asked a little Darwin about a neighbor.

Nurse for the Patient. The only casualty in Darwin’s struggle was Darwin himself. His ailments included “weakness, fatigue, headache, insomnia, sinking feelings and dizziness.” Actually, sickness was a vast help to him. “A half-hour’s conversation with a stranger could give him a sleepless night”—so Darwin happily avoided strangers. “An hour in church could produce dizziness and nausea”—so Darwin had time for his barnacles even on Sundays. He paid tribute to the very heaviest tomes by reclining in a chair to read them with numerous cushions under him. As this made his legs uncomfortable, he placed them on a footstool; this, in turn, made necessary more cushions on the chair, which demanded higher support for the feet. “One is tempted to imagine him, in the course of a long German work, rising rather close to the ceiling.”

The question of whether or not to marry had been solved with the greatest difficulty. As in his study of barnacles, he had been careful to jot down all available evidence on the nature of the married state. Against it was: “Terrible loss of time, if many children forced to gain one’s bread.” But the advantages were pretty inviting: “Children (if it please God)—constant companion (& friend in old age)—charms of music & female chitchat . . . Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa, with good fire and books . . .” In 1839 he married firm, kindly Emma Wedgwood: “the perfect nurse had married the perfect patient.” Among their many common bonds was backgammon. Darwin tabulated the results of all their games, so that towards the end of his life he was able to write to a friend: “She, poor creature, has won only 2,490 games, whilst I have won, hurrah, hurrah, 2,795 games.”

Drafts in the Abbey. The theme of Apes, Angels & Victorians is the evolution of evolutionary theory, and it is not Author Irvine’s fault if Darwin the man almost steals the whole show. Imbedded in crustaceans, orchids, insectivorous plants and earthworms. Darwin seems at one moment the most innocent and lovable of sages, at the next the most cunning of nervous foxes. From Down House, his retreat in Kent, he issued a stream of letters to his disciples and champions, urging them on, tactfully setting them straight, occasionally punctuating his orders with childlike cries of “Oh my gracious!” Far away, in sooty London, in learned Berlin, in skeptical Paris, lesser Darwinian deities wielded his thunderbolts: bearded Titans of science grappled amid earth-shaking roars with massive doctors of divinity. Darwin was dumfounded by the racket. “I feel quite infantile in intellect,” he said.

Except for a few short trips, Darwin emerged from Down House only for his funeral (1882) in Westminster Abbey. The ceremony was terrific: all sat in awe as the coffin of the archfiend, “borne by Huxley, Hooker, Wallace, Lubbock, James Russell Lowell, Canon Ferrar, an Earl, two Dukes, and the President of the Royal Society,” was carried in amid the angelic chanting of choirboys. Fortunately, there was a living Darwin present, his son William, to give the ceremony a characteristically Darwinian touch. The abbey was very drafty, so William, “with the respect shown by all Darwins for the possible invasion of disease . . . poised his black gloves on the top of his bald head and sat thus throughout the service.”

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