Table of Contents
Also by Steve Jones
The Language of the Genes
In the Blood
Almost Like a Whale
Y: The Descent of Men
The Single Helix
Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise
Published by Hachette Digital 2008
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To R. C. Simpson, who first taught me biology
THE DARWIN ARCHIPELAGO
Charles Darwin, as every schoolchild knows, saw the finches of the Galapagos in the years he spent there while employed as official naturalist on HMS
. Each island had its own species, and Darwin soon worked out that they shared descent from a common ancestor; that they were a product of evolution. On his return to England he at once published his theory in his book
Origin of the Species
, which went on to prove that men had descended from chimpanzees. Nature, red in tooth and claw, had used the survival of the fittest to weed out the imperfect and, with
at the top of the evolutionary tree, had achieved her desired end. Racked by guilt at replacing the doctrines of the Church with a joyless vision of man as a shaven primate in an amoral universe, Charles Darwin retired into obscurity. He repented his blasphemy on his deathbed and was buried as a venerable and almost forgotten savant whose work - like that of so many famous scientists - had been completed while he was still a young man.
That is an entire parody of the truth. Darwin was not a hired biologist but paid for his own trip as gentleman-companion to the
’s captain. He spent but five weeks of the five-year voyage in the Galapagos, with just half the time passed on shore, on only four of the dozen or so members of the group. He had little interest in his collection of finches and lumped their corpses together as a jumbled mass without even making a note of where they came from. Many of the famous birds live on several islands rather than one. Two decades passed before the publication of
The Origin of Species
(in which the word ‘evolution’ does not appear) and in that time its author wrote several substantial books. The phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’ is not his but was invented by the philosopher Herbert Spencer to summarise the notion of natural selection, the central element of evolutionary theory. The bloody fangs and fingernails of Mother Nature were themselves thought up by Tennyson a decade earlier not as a philosophy of life but in memory of the death of a friend. Evolution has no end in view and men do not descend from chimps, although the two share a common ancestor (an idea not explored by Darwin for a dozen years after
). The Church soon accommodated his ideas, which, as most clerics realised, have no relevance to religion and the deathbed conversion is a simple falsehood, even if the great naturalist was buried in Westminster Abbey, where he still lies, trampled by tourists.
The most widespread error is to assume that the
voyage marked the end of Charles Darwin’s scientific career. In fact, in the four decades that remained to him after he came home from the wilds in 1836, Captain Fitzroy’s gentleman-companion worked as hard as or harder than he had as a young man. He soon purchased Down House, south of London, in the eponymous village (whose name gained a terminal ‘e’ at the insistence of the Post Office, a rule that Darwin ignored).
At first he saw the place as dull and unattractive enough, but before long the house was transformed, with the help of his considerable fortune, into a grand but comfortable mansion. Its owner settled in the land of his birth and never left again: uxorious, paternal and reluctant to leave his extensive garden except on forays to test his theories and, now and again, to search for better health. As he wrote, with some satisfaction, many years after moving in: ‘Few persons can have lived a more retired life than we have done . . . My life goes on like clock-work and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it.’ So settled was he that he described his profession as ‘farmer’ in the Bagshawe’s
of the time. Great Britain was the first and last of the forty islands he visited and the patriarch of Downe studied its natural history in far more detail than he had that of anywhere else. His own county of Kent - the Garden of England - was as much, or more, a place of discovery than had been the jungles of the Amazon or the stark cinders of the Galapagos. The British Isles were where Charles Darwin built his reputation.
This book is about the disregarded Darwin, the most illustrious figure in biology, and about his years of work on the plants, animals and people that make their home in the land of his birth.
The Origin of Species
is, without doubt, the most famous book in science. It celebrates its hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary in 2009, which marks in addition the author’s bicentenary.
To remember that
alone would be as foolish as to celebrate Shakespeare just as the author of
The great naturalist’s lifelong labours generated an archipelago of information; a set of connected observations that together form a harmonious whole. He wrote six million words in nineteen published works, hundreds of scientific papers and innumerable letters, fourteen thousand of which survive. Although - because of the famous note from Alfred Russel Wallace that bounced him into writing
The Origin -
he never finished his
, his ‘big species book’, much of its planned contents appeared as a series of separate volumes throughout his lifetime. Biology emerged from that gargantuan effort as a unitary subject, linked by Charles Darwin’s grand idea of common ancestry, of evolution. The volumes that poured from his comfortable study were guidebooks that made sense of a whole new science. They allowed its students to navigate what had, before his day, been an uncharted labyrinth of shoals, reefs and remote islets of apparently unrelated facts.
itself was in truth no more than a prologue to the great man’s career. It is as much a work of reportage as it is of research. Most of his other publications are, in contrast, based on his own observations and experiments and explore, with his trademark enthusiasm, what appear at first sight to be almost unrelated aspects of the natural world. Darwin’s domestic works, as they might be called, are, in order of appearance and with titles somewhat truncated:
(in four volumes),
Orchids and Insects
Variation under Domestication
The Descent of Man
Expression of the Emotions
Cross and Self-Fertilisation
Forms of Flowers
Movement in Plants
Formation of Vegetable Mould by Earthworms. The Origin
has but a single illustration, but most of the others are filled with line drawings, engravings and plates, almost five hundred altogether (and some find a place in the present pages).
The Expression of the Emotions
was one of the very first scientific books to be illustrated with photographs.
His literary oeuvre was aimed at a wide audience and is set out in good, plain Victorian prose. He wrote to Thomas Henry Huxley in 1865 that ‘I sometimes think that general and popular Treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work.’ Charles Darwin was the first popular science writer - and his publisher appreciated as much for he gave
equal billing with Samuel Smiles’s quintessentially Victorian work
, which appeared on the same day. The author himself realised the public’s interest in his work for he was one of the first among that dubious breed of scribblers to negotiate a pre-publication cash advance before settling down at his desk. Unlike most of his intellectual descendants, Darwin’s command of foreign languages was good enough to allow him to pick up some of the atrocities committed on his manuscripts by their translators and he spent much time anguishing about quite what French or German phrase best approximated to his central notion of ‘natural selection’.
Here I attempt to bring his lesser-known writings up to date for the modern age and to place the world’s pre-eminent biologist firmly in the context of his native land. His literary canon makes sense only when considered as a whole. At first sight its subjects seem almost disconnected - earthworms, inbreeding, barnacles, plant hormones, domestication, insect-eating plants and the expressions of joy or despair in dogs, apes and men - but in truth all share a theme: the power of small means, given time, to produce gigantic ends. Fond family man as he was, he saw no gulf between the powers that had made his wife and children and those at work elsewhere. His concerns about the risks of marrying his cousin were tested with experiments on flowers. In the same way, an interest in the emotions of animals led to a comparison of the expressions of his infant son with those of dogs and apes. Different as his children might be from such humble creatures, all had emerged through the action of the same biological forces; through evolution, or ‘descent with modification’. The notion, and his willingness to apply it to ourselves, outraged some of his fellows. It leaves many people uncomfortable today.
Biology has plenty of heroes but Charles Darwin is unique, for he was a pioneer in so many of its branches. He became a better scientist as he grew older for he began to test ideas with his own hands-on research, much of it far ahead of its time, rather than collating the results of others, brilliant as the synthesis might be; as he said later in life, ‘I am like a gambler, & love a wild experiment.’
A good portion of the educated public has heard of
The Voyage of the Beagle
but his other works are almost unknown. Most biologists are familiar with at least some of them for each volume is a milestone in their profession. The
epic founded modern soil science,
saw the dawn of comparative psychology while
Cross and Self-Fertilisation
Forms of Flowers
were each an attempt to understand the origin of sex. The experiments described in
Movement in Plants
gave the first clue to the existence of hormones (although the word had not been invented and their discovery in animals had to wait thirty years). Their author also wrote on carnivorous plants, on the links between insects and orchids, and on the origin of our domestic plants and animals (and there he grappled with the nature of heredity, and almost got it right, with talk of crosses between round and wrinkled peas). Even his four books on barnacles, obscure as they appear, are important, for they showed that juvenile forms reveal more about relatedness than do adults and that bodies as complicated as our own are built on a simple plan. For barnacles and all other creatures his mechanism of natural selection generates organs of impressive perfection not by design but by tinkering with whatever raw material is available.