Darwin as a foursome
THE idea of collective biography is as old as Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and carries into our own time in the form of masterworks such as Richard Holmes’s Footsteps ( 1985) and studies of dynasties such as Brenda Niall’s The Boyds ( 2002) in which lives run together in a family history over generations.
Darwin’s Armada is Iain McCalman’s exhilarating take on the collective biography idea applied to Charles Darwin and his fellow adventurers in evolutionary science: Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley and Alfred Wallace.
Portrait photography was making its mark as a craft about the time that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. The book appeared in 1859 when Darwin was 50. Due to many ailments and his age, the bald dome was already there ( though not yet the long grey beard), as was the ponderous, slow gait and the life of near, though by no means total, seclusion. The image of the ‘‘ solitary labourer in the vast fields of nature’’ was set in popular memory. We remember him, ageing and alone, like some guru on a mountaintop or a solitary philosopher in a cave.
It is refreshing, therefore, to be reminded how much scientific achievement, even genius such as Darwin’s, relied first and foremost on the volcanic energies of youth, on collective effort and simultaneous or parallel thinking, and with that to follow the lives of four young men who were determined to make their mark in the scientific world. In the flood of books to mark the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth, and the sesquicentenary of On the Origin of Species , it is this originality of perspective, along with prose taut and vivid, that makes Darwin’s Armada a standout. Here are the connections in brief:
Darwin established a name for himself in science following his return from an around-theworld voyage and the publication of his journal Voyage of the Beagle in 1839. Hooker was enchanted by the journal. He met Darwin soon after he read it and the first fragment of a lifelong collaboration was under way before the young botanist joined HMS Erebus for the Ross southern oceans expedition ( 1839-43).
When Hooker came home he was transformed, a seasoned voyager, no more a mere collector but a fully fledged ‘‘ philosophical botanist’’. In the mid-1840s he began to visit Darwin at Down House and the ponderous doyen came to rely on him as a research assistant and confidant. Hooker’s reaction to Darwin’s transmutation theory was somewhat sceptical, but he agreed that species were not immutable and might change with time. The question was, how?
A conversation was under way. A decade and more later when Origins was rushed into print, Hooker played an important editorial role and was instrumental in managing the delicate politics of the publication.
Like Hooker, Huxley was of humble means and recognised the only way he could hope to earn money and pursue scientific research was to join the navy. He had no formal education, unlike Hooker and Darwin, but he was a voracious reader, consuming texts on science and philosophy from a very young age. In 1846 he was appointed surgeon and naturalist aboard HMS Rattlesnake and spent the next four years on the southern oceans. It was a voyage that permitted Huxley the luxury of sustained investigation into marine invertebrates and his research won him high praise back in England in the early 1850s. Huxley was at first a sceptic on evolutionary theory, but through the years his views changed and by the 1860s he was a champion of Darwin’s theory, so much so that he was nicknamed ‘‘ Darwin’s bulldog’’.
The third collaborator was Wallace, a socialist, a resilient loner and perhaps the most extraordinary individual in the pack. Unlike the others (‘‘ mere’’ voyagers), Wallace went bush for years and in the wildest places. ‘‘ We can only guess,’’ writes McCalman, ‘‘ how the Indians viewed this amiable, skinny man with long white legs, glittering wire spectacles and a mania for catching insects.’’ The prose is a delight.
Wallace would formulate his own theory of natural selection, a theory similar to Darwin’s. He would trouble and rival Darwin as much as he would assist him. In 1848, Wallace embarked on a natural history expedition to the Amazon Basin. That ended in disaster four years later when his massive collection of specimens, and much of his written work, was lost at sea. Undaunted, he set off again, but to the Far East.
He studied plants and animals ( and people) in the Malay archipelago and it was there that he came up with his own theory of natural selection. He corresponded with Darwin, sending him the skins of birds and other specimens during eight years of travel. Then he wrote a paper called On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type and sent a copy to Darwin for review. Wallace’s paper precipitated the most terrible crisis for Darwin. It seemed Wallace had pre-empted the theory he had been working on, very privately, for 20 years. What to do? Rivalry was a trigger. With the help of Hooker and Huxley, Darwin hurried his Origins into print, ensuring that Wallace’s paper was published too, but that his own work, rightly, had scientific priority.
McCalman has organised his version of the ties that bound these four men around the voyages of scientific discovery, giving the book its unique angle of vision. This is no tale of deskbound scholarship. These young men were adventurers. Fired by ambition, they had ferocious stamina. They journeyed to the far reaches of the globe, Australia included. Darwin puzzled over the platypus, Huxley fell in love in Sydney — what a tale — and Hooker thought Australia contained the most remarkable flora on the globe.
They were hunter-collectors; they were ramblers, sharp-eyed, fit as fiddles and masters of their equipment, wielding guns, scalpels and sketching pencils, skewers and butterfly nets with great precision. They took tremendous risks, collecting in wild surf, on rock ledges or on cliff faces and in jungles of malaria and cannibals.
They gathered their specimens, obsessed by ideas and fired by imagination. They ‘‘ wrote up’’ in dimly lit cabins and ratty canvas tents. Each in his own way began to comprehend geological time and to postulate change in landmasses and species, change as fantastic as anything we now may call science fiction.
Here is another parallel story: the travels abroad and the journeys of the mind. Darwin’s Armada is rich with glimpses into the workings of the scientific imagination and the lateral influences of work in other spheres, notably Thomas Malthus on population. Darwin called Hooker, Huxley and Wallace his ‘‘ co-circum wanderers and fellow labourers’’. McCalman’s book takes this amiable summary a little further by suggesting that here was a collaboration that assisted at vital points in Darwin’s intellectual journey to the theory of natural selection. Peter Cochrane is a historian and the editor of Australian Greats ( Random House).
Sea change: Oswald Brierly’s depiction of the HMS Rattlesnake in the Louisiade Archipelago, near Papua New Guinea, in 1849. Naturalist Thomas Huxley, known as Darwin’s bulldog’, was aboard the vessel