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The Darwin legend

Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Michael Joseph, £20, pp 808.

‘BIOGRAPHERS,’ SIGMUND FREUD once wrote, ‘are fixated on their hero in a quite particular way.’ They choose that hero in the first place, he suggested, because they feel a strong affection for him, and their work is in consequence almost bound to be an exercise in idealisation.

Darwin, like Freud himself, has repeatedly been a victim of such idealisation and one of the most refreshing features of this new biography is that the authors announce at the outset their intention to challenge the ‘bloodless’ versions of Darwin which are currently on offer. Like good Darwinians, Adrian Desmond and James Moore decline to view their subject as a specimen plucked from his natural environment and preserved in the glass case of intellectual history. Instead they plant Darwin back in the rich and complex earth of nineteenth-century English society. They then set out to write the natural history both of Darwin himself and the habitat in which he grew up and in which his ideas bore fruit.  

At its best the book conveys an impression of a teeming abundance which is constantly threatened by predatory conflict. Moore and Desmond are particularly good at bringing to life the Machiavellian power-struggles which took place among nineteenth-century natural historians, and in guiding the reader through the maze of evolutionary theorising which became more complex as the century progressed. The portrait of Darwin’s Cambridge, where the sexual life of undergraduates was policed by prurient proctors, and their intellectual life by equally prurient theologians, is itself a small masterpiece. 

The political and personal contexts of Darwin’s ideas are also carefully drawn. The overall result is a convincing portrait of a scientist of genius whose every intellectual step was constrained by his anxiety to preserve his respectability as a Whig gentleman and to avoid being identified with the revolutionary agitators he himself abhorred.  

Yet although this massive and often fascinating book succeeds on a number of levels, its final verdict on Darwin is muffled and disappointingly timid. In the introduction to the book the two authors boldly promise that they will ‘pose the awkward questions’. Yet no sooner have these same authors ushered themselves into the presence of the great man than they become critically tongue-tied, as if overawed by the majesty of their subject. 

One of the many disjunctions in Darwin’s thought which they fail to explore is the huge disparity in intellectual quality between his work on species, and his reflections on human society. So long as Darwin focused his attention on the world of animals and plants he showed himself as a scientist of unparalleled sensitivity, imagination and theoretical acuteness. He was above all immensely tolerant of the rich complexity of the natural world, and almost entirely free of the metaphysical arrogance that ‘disdains to dwell upon particulars’ which Bacon identified as the enemy of science and objective truth. 

But if we turn from The Origin of Species to consider the pronouncements on human nature which Darwin included in The Descent of Man we will be struck not only by a drastic impoverishment in the quality of the arguments which are advanced but also by an equally drastic fall in the quantity of data which Darwin is prepared to consider. In his role as a naturalist Darwin regularly drew upon an extraordinary wealth of evidence. He had become, as he put it ‘a complete millionaire in odd and curious little facts’. ‘I am like Croesus,’ he said on another occasion, ‘overwhelmed with my riches in facts.’ Yet in his writings on human society and human history the millionaire suddenly becomes a pauper who, with only a few pennies of evidence in his pockets, fills them with prejudices instead.       

Again and again in The Descent of Man theories are used not as hypotheses but as pathways to conduct the reader across abysses of missing evidence. Again and again conclusions hastily reached are laid one upon another in order that the habits and beliefs of Victorian society may be enclosed within the safe stronghold of science. Unconsciously, it would seem, Darwin feels himself driven to fortify with falsity the very ramparts of orthodoxy which he has attacked with truth. 

On a number of occasions the authors touch upon the most genuinely radical and subversive of all Darwin’s intellectual attitudes, his ‘shockingly relative outlook’. ‘It is absurd,’ wrote Darwin in his notebook, ‘to talk of one animal being higher than another. We consider those, where the intellectual faculties most developed, as highest. - A bee doubtless would [use] instincts [as a criterion]’. As a succinct expression of Darwin’s evolutionary philosophy this rivals the most precious of all his precepts: ‘Never use the words higher and lower.’ His biographers correctly observe that ‘In his bee’s eye view man was no longer the crown of creation.’ But what they refrain from observing is that Darwin repeatedly perpetrated in his writings about human nature and society the very absurdities he so expertly dissected in his notes about species. Thus he talked not only of the ‘exalted’ status of the ‘higher’ animals but also of the manner in which ‘man’ with his ‘god-like intellect’ had ‘risen ... to the very summit of the organic scale.’  

Darwin’s reckless and profoundly unscientific use of such metaphors, and his unthinking embrace of social orthodoxies, were far from being trivial or benign. Whereas, in his work on species, he acquits himself as an empirical scientist of genius, in his writings about human nature he emerges – and this is the most difficult crux in all intellectual history to seize imaginatively – as both a pseudo-scientist and a racialist. 

The pseudo-scientific status of Darwin’s pronouncements on human nature is a matter of debate. His racialism, however, is a matter of fact. For he did not hesitate to apply to the problems of race the hierarchical thinking he had ruled out in relation to species. He talked without embarrassment about ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ races. In The Descent of Man he looked forward with equanimity, and even with a degree of scientific approval, to the day when the ‘civilised’ races of man would ‘exterminate and replace’ the ‘savage races throughout the world.’ 

If ever there was an occasion for posing awkward questions then this is it. Desmond and Moore, however, seem quite unable to face up to the enormity of the ideas which Darwin, at his most extreme, actually endorsed. Although they mention the problem of racial extermination at several points in their book, and even concede that it was ‘written into the equation from the start’, they handle the entire question with an extraordinary moral blandness. At the same time they repeatedly reassure their readers and themselves that Darwin was opposed to slavery, that he was ‘kind’ and that ‘for everyone his gentleness was overwhelming’. They even quote Ernst Haeckel’s description of Darwin’s ‘tender and friendly eyes’, and recount how Darwin, who had ‘seldom seen a more pleasant, cordial and frank man’, handed on ‘freedom’s flame’ to his German disciple. They omit to mention that Haeckel was one of the most significant intellectual precursors of National Socialist race-science and that his writings played a part in shaping Hitler’s philosophy of history. Before long the torch which Darwin handed to the most important of his followers would be used to help light the ovens of Auschwitz. 

It would be wrong to suggest that the many gaps and silences in this book are the result of cold calculation or intellectual dishonesty. For to put forward any such view would be to underestimate the power of the sacred legend which has come to be associated with the greatest of all modern scientists. 

No sooner had Darwin died in 1882 than The Times canonised him. Not only did it applaud the decision to bury him in Westminster Abbey beneath the monument to Newton but it offered a novel interpretation of the choice of burial-site. Far from the Abbey conferring honour upon Darwin, it suggested that the body of this hallowed scientist would give the Abbey ‘an increased sanctity, a new cause for reverence’.        

The view of Darwin which The Times propagated on his death was not entirely new. For, like Freud and many other intellectual revolutionaries, Darwin had carefully superintended the construction of the legend through which he wished to be remembered. Desperate to be loved, he had cultivated the friendship both of the naturalists whose theories he had discarded and of the clerics whose faith he was busy undermining. As he sent out advanced copies of the Origin he was genuinely afraid that he would be rejected for ever. ‘Lord, how savage you will be,’ he wrote to the palaeontologist Hugh Falconer, ‘ you will long to crucify me alive.’  

When T. H. Huxley hailed his revolutionary book as a ‘Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism’ Darwin was overjoyed. But he preferred not to be seen firing the gun himself. As Huxley fought for Darwin’s ‘gospel’ in London, smiting the ‘Amelkites’ who opposed it, and as Ernst Haeckel evangelised even more militantly on his behalf in Germany, Darwin stayed behind the lines at his home in Downe, Kent.  

Here he patiently tended the climbing plants on which he was experimenting, was kind to his wife, affectionate to his children and administered charity to the poor of the parish. Little wonder that on his death the Queen’s chief Chaplain-in-Ordinary discerned in Mr Darwin’s moderation and patient scholarship ‘that charity which is the essence of the true spirit of Christ’. 

Wrapped in the mysterious folds of the legend which he himself had helped to weave, Darwin has managed to remain an enigma for more than a century. The problem with this most recent portrait of him is that, rather than radically challenging the legend, it modifies it only in order to continue it.

Darwin, like many biographies, is much more than a work of research. It is a labour of love. Partly because of this, it does convey a sense of abundant life together with a wealth of information for which one cannot but be grateful. But love is blind, and Freud was right, at least about biographers.

In their unspoken reverence for the Darwin of legend, Adrian Desmond and James Moore have produced an exercise in idealisation which, because it is more complex, more subtle and more persuasive than the ‘bloodless’ biographies it replaces, is even more misleading.

 A shorter version of this review was published in The Tablet in 1991

* NOTE, added 11 October 2008: The view that Ernst Haeckel should be regarded as one of the precursors of National Socialism was argued influentially by Daniel Gasman in his The Scientific Origins of National Socialism: Social Darwinism in Ernst Haeckel and the German Monist League (1971). Gasman’s argument has been criticised by a number of historians and recently Robert J Richards has gone further by seeking to break the link between Haeckel and Hitler almost entirely. This he does in his intellectual biography of Haeckel, T
he Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought which was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement by P D Smith on 25 July 2008.

Richards’s book helps to establish what other historians had already urged – namely that Gasman’s account of Haeckel’s anti-semitism was exaggerated and that some evidence which pointed in the opposite direction has simply disappeared from his version of history. But this is not to say that Richards’s larger argument is persuasive.

The really regrettable feature of his book is not so much his treatment of Gasman as his misrepresentation of an altogether more nuanced historian, Richard Weikart. There is much in Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (2004) that still needs debate. There is, for example, not a single reference in his book to a thinker without whose legacy it is difficult to imagine that the racial policies of the Third Reich could ever have been instigated – Martin Luther.

At the same time, while focusing on the role of Darwinism in undermining the sacredness of life, Weikart – who writes from a Christian perspective – seems not to recognise that the eschatological fantasies of Christianity played an even more radical (and ancient) role in de-valuing human life.

Such omissions weaken but do not negate his argument. For he goes out of his way to make it clear that nothing he writes about Darwinism and Hitler is intended to exclude other factors from what he consistently represents as a complex and many-stranded chain of causality. In view of this, perhaps the most astonishing of Richards’s claims is his suggestion that Weikart puts foward a ‘monocausal analysis’ of the rise of Hitler. Richards’s accusation is based on a travesty of the truth. It is all the less excusable given that his claim, first made some two years ago, had already been eloquently and adequately rebutted by Weikart himself. Richards appears simply to have ignored this rebuttal which bespeaks negligence at the very least.

In the text of his book he adds a new misrepresentation. He does so by writing of the historians he criticises (who include Weikart): ‘They have ignored the many other nineteenth-century artists, scientists and philosophers – Beethoven, Humboldt, Nietzsche – who had been recruited into the party by Nazi writers and propagandists.’ Once again Richards’s claim is simply untrue. Weikart’s book contains a number of references to Nietzsche, including a fascinating section (pp. 45-9) in which he argues that Nietzsche was himself influenced by some of the very Darwinian arguments he ostensibly opposed.’ Whether Weikart is right or wrong about this is not the point. The fact is that he is very far from ignoring Nietzsche’s influence.

Although he is careful to distance himself from Gasman’s arguments, Weikart has more references in his book to Haeckel than to Darwin and considered entitling it ‘From Haeckel to Hitler’. The quality of his arguments has been recognised by a number of distinguished historians. The book carries the following endorsement from Richard Evans, for example:

Richard Weikart’s outstanding book shows in sober and convincing detail how Darwinist thinkers in Germany had developed an amoral attitude to human society by the time of the First World War, in which the supposed good of the race was applied as the sole criterion of public policy and ‘racial hygiene’. Without over-simplifying the lines that connected this body of thought to Hitler, he demonstrates with chilling clarity how policies such as infanticide, assisted suicide, marriage prohibitions and much else were being proposed for those considered racially or eugenically inferior by a variety of Darwinist writers and scientists, providing Hitler and the Nazis with a scientific justification for the policies they pursued once they came to power.

Given his evident determination to rehabilitate Haeckel at almost any cost, it is perhaps understandable that Robert Richards omits to mention this assessment of an opposing argument by one of the most distinguished historians of National Socialism.



© Richard Webster, 2002 / 2008
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