Dar­win as a four­some

Peter Cochrane

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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