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Darwin’s Origin of Species — Some Historical Reflections 160 Years Later

Michael Flannery

Origin of Species

Popular science writer David Quammen speaks for many when he calls Darwin “central,” and “iconic,” with a “brilliant mind” (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin). His academic counterpart, Keith Thomson, professor emeritus of natural history at Oxford University, regards Darwin as “intense, self-absorbed, brilliant,” a well-born elite with an “acute intelligence” and a “dogged perseverance” (The Young Charles Darwin). Darwin’s leading biographer, Janet Browne, admits that Origin created a sensation its first day of publication, selling out its initial print run, ultimately making him “revered for his achievement and personal character, the very model of what a man of science should be” (Darwin’s Origin of Species). Sitting here 160 years to the day later — the 1st edition of Origin rolled off John Murray’s London press on November 24, 1859 — I wondered about a book and its author so thoroughly cloaked in unanimous hyperbole. Is it deserved? Let’s take a closer look.

A Closer Look

Surely the “iconic” status of Origin could never have been predicted by either Darwin or his publisher. Murray did think it would sell well, but personally he thought the book was absurd. Nevertheless, Origin not only sold well, it sold phenomenally — and it still does. This is all the more astonishing since one would never have guessed this by any indicator of the intellectual prowess of its author. Darwin’s exceptional gift as a rhetorician masked a less than shining intellect in other respects. 

Gertrude Himmelfarb acknowledges Darwin’s adroitness in presenting his argument. Instead of presenting facts, Darwin mounted an argument that offered a “logic of possibility” (Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, p. 334). Certain facts, of course, were presented, but then Darwin inflated the implications of those facts by rather adroitly promoting them into possibilities and then into probabilities; when a difficulty became too great to explain away he appealed to our ignorance of nature, sometimes (as with the fossil record) giving instead a promissory note of future discovery. It was clever and crafty but “brilliant” is probably a word better reserved for genuine creative accomplishment. Coherent and masterful logical exposition should not be conflated with rhetorical sleight of hand. 

Paul Johnson’s brief critical biography, Darwin: Portrait of a Genius (2012), is most revealing in this regard. He uses “genius” in his title as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the ironic fact that Darwin, despite his ability at “stealthy self-promotion,” was a poor mathematician, a worse anthropologist, possessed limited foreign language skills, and was an awkward theoretician. While Johnson’s book is not flawless, he is surely correct on these points. He is also refreshingly honest in observing, “One has the feeling that Darwin was often inclined to avoid the hard cerebral activity of thinking through fundamental scientific principles, taking refuge in minute observations” (p. 122).

Unimpressive Scholarly Attributes

Darwin’s rather unimpressive scholarly attributes have been duly noted by Himmelfarb. Consider her painfully frank admission about Darwin’s excursion into the philosophy of morality in Descent of Man (1871):

Paying homage to the ‘many writers of consummate ability’ who had applied themselves to the problems of morality, he [Darwin] appended a list (not compiled by him) of twenty-six British philosophers whose names, he felt assured, would be familiar to all his readers — and that are today, quite as assuredly, entirely unknown. It is difficult to take seriously a discussion that had, as its most frequently cited moralist and philosopher, the historian William Lecky (p. 375).

It is fair to say that Darwin was not especially well read. This was, in part, due to his lack of facility with languages, a deficit to which he freely admitted in his Autobiography. For example, when he “read” a foreign author like Auguste Comte, who influenced him early on, it was not in the original French but through David Brewster’s review of Philosophie positive and Harriet Martineau’s translation of that work. 

Dull and Plodding

Darwin’s work was not illuminated with flashes of insight; his investigations are, on the whole, rather dull and plodding. And most of his more significant conclusions are either derivative or simply wrong. For example, Darwin’s central argument in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) that humans and animals bore remarkable affinities with one another was the resurrection of a presentation he had heard back in December 1826 by William Browne while a member of the Plinian Society in Edinburgh. Furthermore, his theories of sexual selection and his domestic breeding analogy with natural selection are now suspect: on the former, see Rosemary Jann, Michael G. Ritchie, and Tim Lewens; on the latter, see Bert Theunissen. 

How Has Darwin Endured?

Other points could be raised, but given those just presented here the question can be legitimately raised, how has Darwin endured? He has done so for two reasons, I think. First there is Darwin’s masterful rhetorical style. Again, Himmelfarb explains, “It was probably less the weight of the facts than the weight of the argument that was impressive. The reasoning was so subtle and complex as to flatter and disarm all but the most wary intelligence. Only upon close inspection do the faults of the theory emerge. And this close inspection, by the nature of the case, were rarely vouchsafed” (p. 350). 

But second, and perhaps more significant, there is the central truth revealed by Phillip Johnson: “The continual efforts to base a religion or ethical system upon evolution are not an aberration, and practically all the most prominent Darwinist writers have tried their hand at it. Darwinist evolution is an imaginative story about who we are and where we came from, which is to say it is a creation myth. As such it is an obvious starting point for speculation about how we ought to live and what we ought to value” (Darwin on Trial, p. 163). If that is the philosophical starting point, then the material starting point for all good secular humanists and materialists is the book that first presented this disarmingly slippery argument, Origin of Species. It is not a work of genius that compels belief by the sheer force of its logic; it is a book you have to want — at least at some level — to believe in the first place. 

So reflecting on Origin 160 years after the birth of Darwin’s “child” (his brand of transmutation), one is struck by seeing how a relatively ordinary intellect could construct such a highly regarded and long-lived book. How did he do it? The answer lies not in the argument itself but in his presenting a kind of argument that was at the right place at the right time. If it remains popular and widely believed it is simply because it has become such a comfortable deceit. 

For some additional thoughts on the 160th anniversary of Origin, see David Klinghoffer’s summary of a recent interview with molecular biologist Douglas Axe.

Photo: Mural portrait of Charles Darwin, Sidney Street, Sheffield cc-by-sa/2.0 © Neil Theasby via Geograph.