Charles Darwin, natural novelist

Adam Gopnik writes: Darwin’s Delay is by now nearly as famous as Hamlet’s, and involves a similar cast of characters: a family ghost, an unhappy lover, and a lot of men digging up old bones. Although it ends with vindication and fame, rather than with slaughter and self-knowledge, it was resolved by language, too — by inner soliloquy forcing itself out into the world, except that in this case the inner voice had the certainties and the outer one the hesitations.

The delay set in between Darwin’s first intimations of his Great Idea, the idea of evolution by natural selection, in the eighteen-thirties (he was already toying with it during his famous voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle), and the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” in 1859. By legend, the two events were in the long run one: Darwin saw the adapted beaks of his many finches, brooded on what they meant, came up with a theory, sought evidence for it, and was prodded into print at last by an unwelcome letter from an obscure naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace, who had managed to arrive at the same idea.

It seems to have been more complicated than that. One reason Darwin spent so long getting ready to write his masterpiece without getting it written was that he knew what it would mean for faith and life, and, as Janet Browne’s now standard biography makes plain, he was frightened about being attacked by the powerful and the bigoted. Darwin was not a brave man — had the Inquisition been in place in Britain, he never would have published — but he wasn’t a humble man or a cautious thinker, either. He sensed that his account would end any intellectually credible idea of divine creation, and he wanted to break belief without harming the believer, particularly his wife, Emma, whom he loved devotedly and with whom he had shared, before he sat down to write, a private tragedy that seemed tolerable to her only through faith. The problem he faced was also a rhetorical one: how to say something that had never been said before in a way that made it sound like something everybody had always known — how to make an idea potentially scary and subversive sound as sane and straightforward as he believed it to be.

He did it, and doing it was, in some part, a triumph of style. Darwin is the one indisputably great scientist whose scientific work is still read by amateurs. [Continue reading…]

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