The creation of evolution

Updated Wednesday, 18th November 2009
What drove Darwin? Biographer Jim Moore shared his insights with the Breaking Science team

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Why is Charles Darwin commonly held up as the father of the theory of evolution? Ben Valsler spoke to Darwin biographer Jim Moore, and he began by asking him what drove Darwin to formulate the concept of evolution in the face of what was, initially, profound religious and political hostility to his ideas.

Jim Moore: Darwin was driven by different things at different times, just like all of us. He was complex; he changed; he became more conservative generally speaking as he got older, but if you mean what drove Darwin to become an evolutionist, one has to say it has to be something as powerful as the forces that were ranged against evolutionists.

When Darwin is less than 30 years old, he comes back from travelling around the world – most of it was on land, not at sea – but he gets home, and within weeks, probably a few months, he’s become an evolutionist. Why does he do that? It’s a bad career move, and in our new book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and I say that that powerful drive that overcame the social stigma of being an evolutionist was Darwin’s radical belief in the unity of all life.

That common descent unites every species, the human race as well as all races of animals and plants, and that leads him to a powerful image that was part of the ideological foundations of the anti-slavery movement. The notion of a family tree of humanity for traditional Christians rooted in Adam and Eve as the father and mother of humankind. Darwin takes it a step further and unites everyone and says that it’s our arrogance to believe that we’re not related to animals; it’s the arrogance of the slaveholder lording over his slaves whom he likes to regard as another species.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin. Image: Jupiterimages Corporation.


Ben Valsler: This may well have been the driving force but still, it was a long time before he published. It was a long time before these ideas actually made it out there. Was there a tempering force as well that made him look for all the right evidence and made him make sure he could prove this before he would publish?

Jim: Darwin kept his thoughts to himself to begin with. He was in the process of becoming involved in the Royal Society as secretary of the Geological Society of London. He was welcomed to the inner sanctum of elite natural history. His sponsors were Cambridge clergymen, professors; he had a grant from the Whig Chancellor of the Exchequer, a huge amount of money to publish his Beagle research. He was a young man on the make. He was pushing all the right buttons, he was going all the right places, and yet he carried this terrible secret in his private notebooks. He needed a theory, and he began calling his speculations ‘my theory.’

That was his project, ‘my theory,’ and towards the end of 1838 he works out what we now call natural selection. By 1839, when he’s getting married and having children, he’s developed that, and he knows within three years – he leaves London, he takes shelter in the countryside – he knows he’s onto something really big. It’s going to change the course of the history of science if he can convince people.

Now, at that stage you don’t go public. You take every precaution that’s necessary to convince people beforehand that what you carry with you is true. It’s not disreputable; it’s the answer to the mystery of the diversity of life on earth.

So, he commits himself for the next 17 years, that’s sort of 20 years in all since he devises natural selection, to answering in advance every conceivable objection that the heavyweights of science in his day could bring against what he’s doing, and that leads him into huge research projects. And finally he gets around to putting pen to paper and he plans a huge book, maybe a half million words in three volumes which no one would read, and in the middle of all of that, you know, he gets outed by this guy named Wallace, everyone knows this story, Darwin has to condense his work into something which he entitles On the Origin of Species.

Ben: Do you think the pressure of having these other younger researchers formulating very, very similar theories based on very similar principles, Wallace was looking at series of islands much like Darwin had, do you think this forced him to make some concessions in his work?

Jim: Darwin was not aware that Wallace was working on a theory, until the paper arrived in June 1858. Darwin felt safe in his non-competitive ecological niche as a theoriser of evolution. He knew that all the other theorisers were discredited or spoke ill of. He wasn’t like them. He wasn’t telling anybody what he was like. He still believed he had an inside track on natural selection.

Now, what did he do with that theory once he knew that Wallace was onto the same thing? He believed Wallace was onto the same thing. Darwin read the paper in haste; we can all see now that they are not talking about the same thing in the same way – Wallace rejects the selection analogy for example. Absolutely basic analogy with domestic animal breeding, Wallace absolutely rejects it, always rejects it. So there’s a fundamental difference between Darwin and Wallace to begin with.

I can’t see that Darwin gives up anything. I’d have to think about it for a while before I gave you a technical answer, but it seems to be that what Wallace says and does over the next 10 to 15 years makes Darwin more attached to what he always thought. Wallace did push him hard, and Darwin said once, “It terrifies me to disagree with you,” and that was public hyperbolae, but this unprepossessing sort of guy, who left school when he was 13, he didn’t go to Cambridge. I mean he would have, Wallace would have joined The Open University and he’d have got a fine PhD, had there been an Open University in 1840.

This was an incredibly bright and underused talent, you know, and Darwin knew that. You know, they were socially chalk and cheese, and yet this guy was dorking him, and Darwin took preventative measures, hedging about his theories to make sure, obvious example is sexual selection, Darwin is so goaded by Wallace, because Wallace doesn’t believe that male competition and female choice causes sexual dimorphism in nature.

Darwin expands his work on sexual selection so two thirds of his book, on ‘The Descent of Man’, and Selection in Relation to Sex is the rest of the title, two thirds of that book is about birds and bees and pigeons and furry mammals before he ever gets to humans. Typical Darwin, he has to do the whole panoply of nature to prove that sexual selection is right and (brackets) Wallace is wrong.

Ben: And finally, what was it about Darwin that means that he stands out now? There were other people researching similar things that may not have hit exactly the same theory, but Darwin really was the man that stands out as being the father of evolution.

Jim: Evolution needs a father, as Steve Jones would say. Newton is pictured by Blake’s geometer outside the British library on Euston Road - unfairly perhaps. You think of Einstein. You think of Einstein as a brain, you know. You might think of Freud as being something really slippery. But Darwin’s a grandpa! He has a beard. He has a big family. He’s wealthy. He lives in the country. He’s contented. He cut the image of what it was like to be a gentleman of science in his day, and he still does.

Darwin is cuddly. Apart from the fact that this old man is not reliable with children because he teaches them falsehoods, some people say, this old gent is like anybody’s grandpa. You could really warm to the guy.

Now I’ve studied Darwin for many, many, many years, and I’m not particularly enamoured of him. The more I’ve got to know him, I suppose the more I’ve got to know anybody, the less I’ve been enamoured of him.

Listen to the whole programme, originally broadcast on BBC Radio Five Live, March 2009.

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