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DarwinDarwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist
by Adrian Desmond, James Moore


by Robert M. Young

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset. People often say ‘critique’ when they mean criticism - and swingeing criticism, at that. What I mean by critique is the evaluative assessment of terms of reference, assumptions, point of view, framework of ideas. Criticism should take the object on its own terms. Critique evaluates those terms. In this essay I am aiming to mount a critique of narrative biography and some associated approaches by means of taking a close look at a book which I am particularly well-equipped to evaluate.

Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore is a tour de force, a prodigious feat of scholarship and compilation. It reads well. As far as my own knowledge takes me, it contains no blunders, no howlers, no crudities. According to the covers of the hardback and paperback editions, its authors are recognised as ‘two of the leading authorities of Darwin’s life and thought’, and the book is ‘a majestic work of narrative and a lucid explanation... one of the major biographies of recent years’. Much of what I have to say seeks to bring under scrutiny two of those terms of praise: ‘majestic’ and ‘narrative’. My reading of the book makes both problematic.

I suppose I am an obvious candidate for the assignment to think about biography with this as my case study. I have written extensively on the great debate on man’s place in nature, as well as essays on ‘Darwin and the Genre of Biography’ (Young, 1987) and on ‘Biography: The Basic Discipline for a Human Science’(Young, 1988). I have also known one of the authors, Jim Moore, for a long time, and my copy is inscribed, ‘To Bob - for inspiration, guidance, and friendship’. All of this bodes well for a cosy essay in mutual and self-congratulation.

I must confess, however, that as I read the 667 pages of text my most oft-recurring thought was that I had nothing to say - not nothing of consequence but nothing at all. Then I recalled that this is not a characteristic mental state for me to be in. I’m not known for being bereft of opinions, and I began to wonder how it could be. It was then that my mind slowly began to work. I was abetted in this by recalling that an esteemed colleague, Maureen McNeil, had held forth on the book at a meeting of the Science as Culture editorial board. So I rang her and said , ‘For God’s sake, what was it you said about that book?’ She couldn’t remember but promised to send me a crib, which (with characteristic conscientiousness) she produced over the weekend.

Actually, I had dimly remembered her main point, which is that one should always be suspicious of the smooth surface of narrative writing. It’s like the smooth surface of water: you can never be sure how deep it is. And unless something is floating around in it or it stinks or both, you can’t be sure how pure it is, either. I could weave her notes into my own account, but part of my thesis is that more of the works - the labour process of scholarship - should show. So here they are. I’ll take up some of her points but want to table them all. I am writing as though I was addressing a workshop of historians, so here are some materials for us to craft:


'Notes on Desmond and Moore, Darwin

'Tensions around the cult of this personality-- I would want to reflect about the relationship between the project of getting to the essence of Darwin and that of understanding the social and political shaping of science:

- The Positive reaction to this book suggests that it has become acceptable to refer to the social and political shaping of science. It seems that most of the points that D and M make about Darwin's ideas as products of his time and social grouping are not new (already made by BY and others). Why is such a social and political reading more acceptable in this biographical form?

- Great ideas whatever their dubious origins remain great ideas and nothing detracts from them. This is a study of the making of "genius", not a study of the making of science. Thus, it is more difficult to draw out any implications in relationship to science today.

- Referring to the appearance of Darwin's Notebooks, the authors comment: "We now know more about the piecemeal, day-to-day development of Darwin's evolutionary views than about any other scientific theory in history. But then we need to; no other has been so shattering." (p. xix) Do we need to know more about the "piecemeal development of Darwin's evolutionary views"? The book feeds on and feeds into the preoccupation with this man ("the Darwin industry").

- Illness and neurosis are taken as manifestations of Darwin's angst about his controversial ideas, etc. This "embodiment" of social and political controversy might be worthy of reflection-- how does it work, why is it more acceptable to readers than other representations of such ideas?


'Popularity of biographies and autobiographies-- These have been the best sellers in the last few years in Britain. This particular biography was featured as a "Christmas" sales book last year, with billboards at tube stations, etc. featuring its cover. It seems that this can join the list with other non-scientific biographies of Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, etc. that have been very popular in recent years.


'Comparing projects-- It might be interesting to think of the comparison between Donna Haraway's Primate Visions and this book. The former has been received much more ambiguously (with some hostile reviews). In addition, I think that the attempt to look at the making of science through a complex exploration of the history and social constitution of a field is in marked contrast to seeing it through the biography of a great scientific hero. The former conveys the socially constructed nature of science-- highlighting the plurality of determinations-- in a far more sophisticated, if difficult, way. In contrast, the biographical orientation (even when socially contextualised) countervails this. There are many other contrasts that could be drawn out here.


'Naturalising the narrative-- I was struck by how the historiographical substructure disappears in this book. I have only read a few of the chapters, so I can't be sure on this. However, it seems that their references to secondary sources appear only in the notes. There seem to be no direct references to other scholars (by name), possibly not any quotations from them (?), etc. in the text. This creates the illusion of a direct relationship between Darwin and the biographers-- naturalising their account and rendering it definitive. (Sort of the antithesis of the Goddard approach to movie-making-- not showing the labour process!)


'Dramatisation of the narrative-- Some of the episodes in Darwin's life are written-up almost as if they were to be read as radio plays. (The chapter in the funeral is a case in point, and derived, no doubt, from Jim's earlier broadcast on the anniversary of D's death.) I think this merits some reflection: it certainly contributes to the liveliness of the writing and is a plus. However, it may have negative sides as well-- distracting the reader from other aspects of the account, intensifying the cult of the personality, etc., etc.


'What is new here? -- If there is nothing substantially new in their interpretation of Darwin, do D and M provide any further insights about science more generally? The belief in progress is clearly embedded in the account (references to Darwin's "dogged, jogging path to the theory of natural selection-- the central plank of biology today" p. x, etc.). There is a tension between the presentation of the sources of these ideas and the celebration of the drama (and neuroses) of Darwin's life. It seems as if the latter can be dismissed as the necessary caldron for creativity given the dramatic, enchanted tone of the project.


'Fixed meaning of Darwin in British culture-- The authors suggest, particularly in the last few chapters, that Darwin became a key figure for a particular social grouping in Britain in the C19. Has the meaning and significance of Darwin changed since then? See E. P. Thompson's "The Peculiarities of the English" in The Poverty of Theory for some reflection on the significance of "Darwin" to English culture broadly.

MM, November 1992'

Having shared Maureen’s notes, I’ll add my own in the same spirit. The style of the biography is florid, quaint, arch, knowing. The effect of referring to all members of Darwin’s family by their first names and colleagues by their surnames recalls the sort of visiting American who is over-familiar, but one is too polite to admit to the pompous desire to be Mr or Dr or Professor for a couple of goes. But, beyond that, it’s cute and domesticates the narrative. A tone and level of exposition are set which preclude statements like this (which I have made up but believe to be true and important): ‘Darwin’s theory is the single most important conceptualisation in the natural and human sciences. It binds together the history of the earth, the history of life and humankind in a single framework of ideas: gradual modification, chance or contingency, secularism and the historicity of all that is. It stands alongside the three other great theories which dethrone human presumption. We are not at the centre of the universe; we are determined by economic, social and ideological forces which we little understand and over which we have practically no control; we do not have access to the greater proportion of the motivations which shape our behaviour and our relationships with others. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is the most basic of the four, and those of the other three - Copernicus, Marx and Freud - can be said to be held together, at the deepest theoretical level, by the fundamental assumptions of evolutionism.’ It’s not that we have none of this. They do tell us at the end of the preface that ‘More than any other modern thinker - even Freud or Marx - this affable old-world naturalist from the minor Shropshire gentry has transformed the way we see ourselves on the planet’ (p. xxi). But they never write at this level again. Instead, the emphasis is squarely on the affable, the naturalist, the gentry.

Carrying on in this vein of regret, we are deprived of the sweep of the history of ideas. There is nothing of Heraclitus and Parminides (i.e., the history if ideas of change and permanence in the world), Locke and Kant (contingency and 'the given' in the theory of knowledge), the Great Chain of Being (the all-embracing theory which preceded Darwin’s). We are treated to practically none of the key quotations from the ideas of the great precursors and contributors to the nineteenth century debate on evolution and man’s place in nature: Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Lyell, Malthus, Chambers, Spencer, or of Lord Kelvin, Mivart, Romanes. What of the authors of Essays and Reviews - the so-called ‘septem contra Christum’, who caused as great a stir - if not a greater one - in the press that year for their unorthodoxy than Darwin did for his (Temple et al., 1860)? While it is true that two were successfully prosecuted in the ecclesiastical courts, another, Frederick Temple, became Archbishop of Canterbury (mind you, he withdrew his essay from subsequent editions).

The boundaries of debates on natural causation are narrowly drawn by. For example, with respect to the uniformity of nature, as it arose as an issue in geology, the names the pre-eminent geologists, James Hutton and John Playfair are conspicuously absent from Desmond and Moore’s biography, and the standard works on the history of geology by Hooykaas (1963), Rudwick (1972, 1985) and Porter (1977) are not in the bibliography. Yet Darwin pondered these issues throughout the voyage of ‘The Beagle’ and in his notebooks. Uniformitarian geology and the time scale it posited provided the foundation of his own belief in slow changes being able to account for the history of life: ‘present causes in their present intensities’. He carried volume one of Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33) with him and received volume two in Montevideo. They were his bible, and volume two posed the question of the origin of species in clear, stark terms. We get some of Lyell but none of the great sweep of the history of ideas about natural causation and the uniformity of nature.

The sociology of knowledge is present in the sense that political and historical movements are juxtaposed and causally related to Darwin’s life and ideas, but the exposition of the debates in the book are not rich and textured enough. This is especially true of the periodical literature. I missed its density and complexity, its richness, its sheer exuberance. It could be said that there are really only three positions developed in any detail, Whigs, Tories, Radicals. They wave the flag at the outset, saying, ‘Ours is a defiantly social portrait’ (p. xx). Yet the society they portray with any sense of evocation is narrowly drawn around the Darwin family and his associates. I say this with great regret, because I think the absence of a truly social and social-intellectual history is a legitimate criticism of my own work, and I deferentially expected Desmond and Moore to provide it. They do provide more than I have but far from enough. Once again, they tell us that ‘his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start - "Darwinism" was always intended to explain human society’ (p. xxi). Yes, yes, but show us the links. We get more from the Germans than the British. Why not quote Walter Bagehot, Herbert Spencer, William Graham (see Young, 1971), all of whom spanned society and nature?

I also wanted more about intellectual and cultural movements - more about Edward Aveling, about George Eliot, Herbert Spencer and George Henry Lewes. Their lives and writings had evolution as their ontology and spread across science, philosophy, cosmology and the novel. What were the positions on determinism and materialism? How did the brain fit in?. Key texts and issues around psychology and the nervous system are absent, although they bore crucially on the descent of man. Owen, Huxley and the Hippocampus minor get such short shrift that someone unacquainted with that debate would not understand what was at issue and how it ranked in the controversies of the period. A whole cerebral structure was omitted by Owen to make the leap between apes and men unbridgeable by gradualism. He cooked the books. We hear of the lifelong vendetta against him for this, but little of the actual controversy (which my good friend Charlie Gross (1992) has recently re-told). What about the great and fundamental debate over naturalism versus the defenders of Biblical literalism? What about Darwin’s impact on The Encyclopedia Britannica, where the article on ‘Deluge’ was huge in the eighth edition (completed 1860) and vanished in the ninth, in which ‘Evolution’ had pride of place.

Putting all this together, I found it all too domesticated. It isn’t grand enough. It is not magisterial.

My next criticism is that - in an important sense - it isn’t whiggish enough. This may surprise you, and I expect some to disagree. When we are told about pangenesis (Darwin's unsuccessful attempt to provide what we would call a theory of the mechanism of inheritance, a genetics), we ought to be told something about why swamping of one change or spontaneous mutation would occur in the mass of a large population. It’s a paint-pot theory - one drop of white in a gallon of black gives you a gallon of black: the variation gets swamped. We don’t actually have to put this anachronistically and say that his theory of the mechanism of inheritance failed to be particulate and had no concept of dominant and recessive, but we could be told what did eventually sort this matter out. We could also be told much more clearly how Darwin compromised all over the place about whether or not natural selection was the or a mechanism (actually he had no mechanism - hence his cobbled theory of pangenesis) and the increasing role he assigned to other causes. This is a striking bit of fudging, diplomatic compromise and loss of nerve on his part and is extremely interesting from the point of view of the historical sociology of knowledge We could surely get a hint that as evolution triumphed as a general idea, its claim to causal explanation in an specific sense became less and less credible, until it was more or less lost as an issue. It is not that these things are not present at all (see, e.g., pp. 642, 646); their meaning and anguish are absent.

All of this, it seems to me, is sacrificed to the seamless cloth, the smooth surface of the narrative. But it all pales into insignificance as compared with their culpable silence about scholarly debates about Darwin and all sorts of other issues in the period. I’ll start with an easy one. No one knows why Darwin was ill for most of his adult life. Desmond and Moore are meticulous and often moving in their descriptions of his symptoms, ones Darwin summed up to a new medical adviser as ‘Age 56-57. - For twenty-five years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying[,] dying sensations or half-faint. & copious and very palid urine. Now vomiting & every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears, treading on air & vision. focus & black dots[,] Air fatigues, specially risky, brings on the Head symptoms[,] nervousness when E[mma]. leaves me...’ (p. 531). Rarely do three pages go by without their mentioning symptoms. It is perfectly obvious to them that all of this is psychosomatic and caused by anxiety about the challenge he is mounting to orthodox opinion. The correlation are frequent and quite explicit. For example, in a period from late 1863 until spring 1864 ‘Darwin was spreadeagled every day on a sofa, "steadily going downhill", wishing he were dead on one, wanting "to live and do a little more work" the next. Visitors were banned, friends and pilgrim freethinkers put off. Harley Street doctors came and went with vials of urine. Nothing worked; nobody could find anything wrong with his "brain or heart". He sank lower, unable to walk 100 yards to the hot-house, unable even to cope with The Times, and Emma had to move on to "trashy" novels. He vomited after every meal, and several times nightly - at one point for twenty-seven days in a row. Washed out and wiped out, he hoped he could "crawl a little uphill again" or, if not, that "my life may be very short"’ (p. 519). Or again, ‘He was not totally well; the slightest flurry could floor him. In October ten minutes with the Lyells gave him "an awful day of vomiting" and her felt "confined to a living grave." showing how much he still resented Lyell’s failure to support transmutation’ (p. 524). No one would ever guess from reading this biography that there is a relatively large literature on this subject and that Chaga’s disease, hyperventilation and other hypotheses have been developed in detail and hotly debated. Indeed, there are at least two excellent monographs on this - Ralph Colp’s (1977), whose line Desmond and Moore follow, and John Bowlby’s (1990), which they ignore. Neither of these names appears in the text or index. Indeed, I could not find the names of any Darwin scholars in the index, though particular connections are scrupulously acknowledged in the notes. Even so, there are no discursive notes about academic disputes.


I could list twenty scholarly controversies which are not allowed to break the surface of the narrative. Darwin scholars will not be surprised to hear that the two which interest me most are the role of the analogy between artificial and natural selection and the role of Malthusian population theory in the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The first of these bears on whether or not science is anthropomorphic, and the second on whether or not it can be separated from ideology. As it happens, Desmond and Moore agree with me on both of these matters, but I am still affronted that they give no hint that these are controversial, deeply controversial, matters, on which whole historiographies and philosophies of science have been made to hang. We are so immersed in Malthusianism in this book that it is inconceivable that Darwin breathed any other atmosphere. There are purple passages to this effect at pages 264, 267, 268, 283, 394, 413 (where I stopped counting), just as my position on the analogy between artificial and natural selection is presented as incontestable at pages 274 and 457. Indeed, Darwin said of this analogy, 'It is a beautiful part of my theory, that domesticated races of organisms are made by precisely the same means as species - but [the] latter far more perfectly and infinitely slower' (Darwin 1987, p. 316).

The crucially related topic of the problematic philosophical aspects of the fact that what Darwin called his explanation for evolution was a metaphor - natural selection - also gets little conceptual attention. I maintain that this matter has important consequences for all of science and all of thought, just as the role of the metaphors of ‘affinity’ in chemistry and ‘gravitas’ in physics do. But, as I have already said twice, Desmond and Moore seem curiously uninterested in the deep philosophical issues raised in the great debate on nineteenth-century naturalism. In this their writing is rather like the work of another noted and prolific narrative historian, Roy Porter. It’s all there, plenty of industry, nicely laid out, admirable and even, in its way, enviable. But they don’t seem to be burning to figure anything out. Nothing seems to hang on it. It is fine and dandy but not passionate or soulful.

Since they agree with me on these crucial issues, you may think me ungrateful for dwelling on them, but if you did you would miss the essence of real vindication. It is to see the (philosophical) philistines smitten - the patronising Gavin de Beers, Sydney Smiths, Ernst Mayrs (all admirable in many vocations, but historiography is not among them), and Michael Ghiselin, who once referred to my penchant for returning to this matter as like ‘a dog who returns to his own vomit’. Then there is the nice, careful, pedantic Swedish philosopher of science, Ingemar Bohlin, (1991) who cannot and will not see that if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, swims like a duck, shits and pees and fucks like a duck and water rolls off its back like a duck’s, it’s a duck, even if some person who thinks he’s cleverer than Darwin says this doesn’t deal with the problem of interspecific versus intraspecific competition. Well, Darwin made the analogy between artificial and natural selection, the metaphor of natural selection and the Malthusian mechanism central in his notebooks (1987), his pencil sketch, his 1844 sketch (Darwin and Wallace, 1958), the big Natural Selection book (1975), the Origin, (1859), his subsequent books - the longest on domestication (1968) - and his letters and autobiography (1985- ; 1958. It is, of course, conceivable that he is not in the best position to judge, but I doubt it very much, indeed. It’s rather like saying Newton was wrong about the role of hermetical and alchemical ideas in his thought or that the Pope is not a Catholic or that the bear does not shit in the woods..

I think Darwin knew what he was about and that these connections embed him in an anthropomorphism about nature and in ideological determinations of philosophies of nature, life and human nature, just as surely as Luca Brazzi sleeps with the fish. I have said these things as clearly as I can, most accessibly in an essay on ‘Darwin’s Metaphor and the Philosophy of Science’ (1993). If theirs is such a defiantly social history, why on earth are these gutsy guys silent about all the historiographic issues which have been conducted around Darwin? I suggest that the answer is that they want to be respectable at least as much as Darwin did.

Michael Neve (no mean stylist and no mean seeker after respectability, either) has put all this very powerfully in referring to the political question, ‘the claim that Darwin’s theory is a naturalised version of political economy, specifically an economic theory of the early Victorian period, above all, that of Malthus. Pessimistic, dark of hue and highly influential in England, Malthus laid down his weary tune: we are too many. And because we are too many, a law-like act of selecting out will endlessly carry on, a "principle of population" where nature is now conceived as profligate and a Great Selector. Some of the best students of Darwin, and the best critics of Darwinism, have given their academic lives to insisting that it is an act of intellectual dishonour not to accord Darwinism the context of Malthusian demographics (no Victorian would have seen it any other way), that not to do so robs the theory of evolution by means of natural selection of its historical force, its engine, its power, its black heart.

‘Needless to say, [Neve continues,] this conflict over the status of political economy within Darwin’s work has been a mighty one, and is unlikely to cease. For those who see him as a great natural historian, the political reading is an insult, a form of slur, written out of political ambition and ignorance. For students of Darwin, the attempt to write the political economy out of the theory is a deliberate attempt to make a contestable theory irrefutable, to make it triumphant by disguising its context and its darker purpose: to do with attitudes to poverty, to the weak, to the unsuccessful and how to define, humiliate and segregate them. Over here, in the potting-shed, the Darwin of the mysteries of cross-fertilization in the vegetable kingdom. And over here, the, yes, shy, but absolutely determined proponent of competition, free trade, imperialism and sexual inequality. Charlie and his chocolate factory, or Darwin the bourgeois, Kentish hog?’ (Times Litt. Suppl. 13 Sept. 1991, p. 3). How I wish Darwin’s biographers could convey the moral and political issues with that force! Neve also points out that Desmond and Moore ‘are ungenerous to other workers in the field, both in omissions from their bibliography and in the text itself’ (Ibid.). This, too, is a fair cop, and since he is so assiduous a scholar, it delights me to come so well out of his rhetoric.

Why does all this matter? The answer, as Maureen McNeil rightly says, is Donna Haraway, whose truly magisterial books stand as an indictment to the authors of Darwin. Primate Visions (1989) and Simians, Cyborgs and Women (1991) are as indigestible, lumpy and cussed as Desmond and Moore are smooth and go down like a bedtime story. You may say that their radical chic is no more or less fashionable than her postmodern chic, but I think there is a crucial difference. She is puzzled about things and gives us the means of production, shows us the labour process and baptises herself by total immersion in determinations (I’ve heard it said of her, as it has been said of Baptists, that the trouble is that she just wasn’t held under long enough.) No scientist will ever knit his or her brow over Desmond and Moore’s Darwin. Scientists hate Donna Haraway. Her books will not be given to pupils at the prize giving ceremonies where scientists speak wisely and make no mention of the factionalism and hustling for funds and priority that characterise their labour process and social relations. Haraway shows that science is politics. As it happens, Desmond and Moore show it, too, in their writing about the X Club’s machinations, but they do not even hint that the history of science and biography itself are politics, too. Why not? They want to be definitive. And that’s reactionary.

I’ll spare you my extended thoughts about Donna Haraway, which I have written up in an essay entitled ‘Science, Ideology and Donna Haraway’ (1992b), but I assure you that they show I can be as full of praise as I am here focusing on critique. Let me make a couple of analogies. I am a great admirer of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987, 1991). In fact, I published it when no other intellectual publisher in the English-speaking world would take the risk, and I have been fully vindicated by the awards heaped on the book (altruistically, of course, as, indeed, I have been for publishing Donna Haraway, who has also received richly-deserved awards). Volume one (of a projected five) is all about historiography. Volume two is all about evidence, as the others will be. As a result of the great stir caused by Bernal’s book, he was invited to write an epitome, which he duly did. When we saw the first draft, we were utterly dismayed. He had written it as a narrative - a textbook for people all over the world. It could even be characterised as a ‘P C’ textbook. I am sure he did not intend this, but in omitting the historiographic argument, he simply substituted one orthodoxy for another. Having opened up - you might say having rent - the received historiography of the ancient world and argued powerfully for the historicity of ‘the classical’, he closed it, trying to leave no seam apparent, and served up his ‘modified ancient model’ as positive science. The book has been meticulously re-written to make sure the works show again.

Here is another analogy - the film ‘War Games’ (1983) It professes to be anti-war. A military computer is programmed to be impervious to human countermands under certain conditions, conditions which accidentally come to pass. We are all saved by a teenage computer hacker who outwits the computer by playing a clever game with it. Manifest lesson? Keep computers subordinate to people. But that’s not the latent message, which is that smart-ass computer hacking kids can outwit anybody and any computer, so why not grow up to be a computer boffin? Where can we do that with the best toys? Go to work for the military. The analogy is that whatever the preface says, if the text goes with the grain of the prevailing culture, that’s the book’s message, so it’s a safe bet for the Book of the Month Club and to take one willing author to an academic address exalted in the firmament, while the other remains reclusive.

As was noted in the obituaries, Darwin was never knighted (see pp. 488, 646, 668), while Lyell, who never properly embraced human evolution, was. So was Joseph Hooker, who, though a Darwinian, never wrote for a popular audience. I think Desmond and Moore should have written their biography as a narrative, alright, but they should have interwoven into it the historiographic, philosophical, political, ideological issues which make this story interesting, then and now. New Yorker writers do this all the time. Donna Haraway does it best.

That’s my book report. You might expect that I would have included a section on Darwin as a subject for psychobiography. I will have to disappoint you. I have read quite a lot of the literature on psychoanalytic biography and psychohistory and am bound to say that I feel profoundly sceptical about these two related genres. When I accepted the invitation to write about the book I hoped I would make the time to have a feast of psychobiographical reading. I have only managed a couple of courses. In particular, I’ve had a look at some key programmatic statements and critiques, beginning with William Langer’s presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1957, in which he advocated greater use of psychoanalysis in historical research. With commendable cheerleading zeal, he called it ‘The Next Assignment’. I found his plea for greater recognition of the role of irrational forces in history unexceptionable but was not moved by his other examples - of psychobiography and of the Black Death. In 1971, there was a symposium on ‘The Methodology of Psychoanalytic Biography’ at the American Psychoanalytic Association, which John Gedo summarized (1972). In the same year John Mack wrote an impressive critical review article on ‘Psychoanalysis and Historical Biography’ (1971), in which he argued all the obvious things: it’s a risky business and doesn’t absolve one from doing one’s historical homework, which he proceeds to make painfully clear in little essays on psychobiographies of Woodrow Wilson, James Forrestal, Luther, Gandhi, Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers.

I’ve read lots of psychobiographies, lots on psychoanalytic biography and rather less psychohistory and don’t think I have anything interesting to say about them that hasn’t been said better elsewhere. As I have said elsewhere (1988), I can unequivocally recommend only one such work - Victor Wolfenstein’s The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution. (1981) I hope and pray that in making a film about him, Spike Lee finally created the conditions for that book’s getting its due recognition. Wolfenstein is a psychoanalyst, a Marxist and an historian and is unique in my reading in striking the right balance and achieving the right degree of integration between the inner world, thoroughly-researched social history and large-scale epochal forces.

I wish I could say something interesting about Darwin in this respect. I have a hunch that the psychosomatic theory of his illness is right and would hazard a guess that fear of Oedipal triumph and the problem of an unmourned mother are at the heart of his medical problems. But I have to confess that I am not very interested in Darwin’s personality, don’t find his homeliness particularly attractive (unlike his obituarists - see p. 676) and can see no interesting links between what little we can glean of his emotional life, on the one hand, and the particular research he undertook and the theories which he propounded, on the other. I read and reviewed Bowlby’s book and was struck by how arrogant it was and culpably out of touch with scholarship about Darwin’s theoretical work.

Having read quite a lot about psychosomatic disorders in the period - I’m thinking of those of Herbert Spencer (‘Two’, 1906) and Florence Nightingale (Woodham-Smith, 1951) - I’d love it if someone like Karl Figlio (1985) could help us understand the link between the work of such people and the history of fashions in symptoms. But I’m not the person to do it.

I suppose I was invited to speak about this book at a seminar in Cambridge, not just for old times’ sake or to beg me to resume the headship of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine (cider is my tipple, after all), but because you want me to say what I learned at summer camp since I was last asked. In the seventeen years since I left here, I have had one other opportunity to speak about that and offered, in ‘Life Among the Mediations: Labour, Groups, Breasts’ (1986), some elements of a psychosocial and psychosexual genetic epistemology. I emphasised the labour process of science, group processes and the primitive, developmental aspects of curiosity and cultural creativity. I am still at work in attempting to formulate the foundations of this approach to science and other ways of knowing, chipping away at the distinction between them and at the idea that different ways of knowing should be ranked hierarchically. Where I am at the moment may not be of interest to a seminar on biography, but I’ll sketch it just in case.

I have been trying to understand the idea of mental space and what enhances and restricts it, what gives it benign or virulent emotional tonality. In particular, I have become interested in three ideas: transitional phenomena, psychotic anxieties and projective identification. If I believed in scientistic analogies, I’d say that I believe these to be three fundamental particles of human nature. They are particularly interesting with respect to public spaces, including cultural spaces, and why we behave as we do in groups and institutions and between races and nations.

I feel rather daunted by the task of saying anything useful about these notions in a couple of thousand words, especially since I have churned out a string of papers and a monograph with tasty titles such as ‘Psychotic Anxieties are Normal’ (1991), ‘Benign and Virulent Projective Identification in Groups and Institutions’ (1992) and ‘Racism: projective identification and cultural processes’ (1993a; cf. 1988a). These have been written along the way to a book called Mental Space (forthcoming). Alongside all this I have made a stab at encompassing ‘The Culture of British Psychoanalysis’(1990), which John Forrester tells me isn’t authentic gossip, because I don’t name the names.

There is a connection between all this and biography. I’ll begin by saying that psychoanalysts and psychotherapists don’t behave any better than historians and philosophers. Indeed, rather like Grand Inquisitors and Stalinists, since they believe themselves to be in possession of superior insight, their behaviour is worse, because they can do nasty things in a higher cause. This is the Kampuchean defence of slaughter of one’s enemies. Having given us a ‘warts and all’ biography of Melanie Klein (1985), Phyllis Grosskurth has produced an account of Freud’s inner circle and the politics of psychoanalysis (1991) which details the appalling behaviour of the founders of psychoanalysis toward one another. It turns out that Ernest Jones was among the worst, which is presumably why his biography of Freud was so sanitised (1953-57).

The problem is how to tell the truth about what goes on in groups and institutions without arousing the suspicion that one is perversely, enviously and spitefully trying to show that great men and women are as depraved as oneself, something which I think has been done in psychoanalytic circles by Vincent Brome, Paul Roazen, and A. N. Other (whom I mustn’t name, lest he start bombarding me with letters again). One way is to realise that human nature is much more primitive and threatened than was spelled out by Freud and his daughter and their followers in ego psychology. If, as Melanie Klein and those who have developed her work claim (I’m thinking of Susan Isaacs, Joan Riviere, Wilfred Bion and Donald Meltzer in the study of development and individual psychopathology) unconscious phantasy is the basic mode of thinking throughout life, without which there is no secondary process or so-called rational thinking, then we are nearer the edge in our normal day-to-day and moment-to-moment inner world processes than the Enlightenment or the Victorians ever supposed.

Kleinian ideas have been applied to groups and institutions by Wilfred Bion, Elliott Jaques, Isabel Menzies Lyth, Bob Hinshelwood, Gordon Lawrence and David Armstrong. They take the view that the interactions which occur in groups and institutions - a university department, a college or a charitable trust, to take some examples not at random - are exquisitely reminiscent of the ultimate threats to being which lead the baby to adopt a paranoid stance which splits violently between ‘them and me’ and projects unbearable and taboo parts of the self into others so that the nasty behaviour is evoked in the other, who can then be held accountable. (I shall never forget when a drunk at a tutorial party poked me in the eye and I turned up at the department only to learn that a conservative colleague, Michael Hoskin, was saying, ‘Bob’s been brawling again’. I haven’t hit anyone in or since that incident.) The classical studies in this genre of ‘group relations’ were done in a hospital and a factory, but recent work at, for example, the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and the Grubb Institute in London, applies these ideas to religious, business and educational institutions. The result is a far greater understanding of why these institutions create practices, appoint nerds and generate factions of the kind that everyone in this room knows perfectly well what I am talking about.

They pay-off for historians, biographers and people trying to understand why places which are supposed to be so nice turn out to be so nasty is that, as Darwin put it, we have ‘at last got a theory by which to work’ (Darwin, 1958, p. 120). If there is a theoretical framework, one can begin to tell the history of colleges, departments patrons and fields with some sophistication without being thought merely to be stirring shit. According to Bion, it is of the essence of group processes that crazy functioning will occur. According to Jaques and Menzies Lyth, institutions are inherently conservative for the good emotional reason that they are creating structures for the purpose of keeping psychotic anxieties at bay (see Young, 1992). In particular, institutions throw up leaders who live in projective identification, perpetually fending off schizophrenic breakdown . The people whose psychopathology leads them to struggle to commanding positions in institutions are, in their inner worlds, inhabiting the lower regions of the psychic digestive tract, the claustrum, just inside the anus. I have worked with and under such people in my academic career, in television and in the culture of psychoanalysis. A recent President of the International Psychoanalytic Association was elected by just twenty votes in an electorate of eight thousand. When it became known how close the election was likely to be, his supporters put it about that this opponent was an anti-Semite. Never mind that most of her relatives perished in the concentration camps: he won. My good friend Karl Figlio was temporarily deprived of his reason by such a person in Cambridge. The analyst who has written most wisely about such people is Donald Meltzer, and his book, The Claustrum (1992), is the last in a long line of intellectual productions which have confirmed well-understood folk psychology and has made it clear why we call those ambitious people who just have to have their way arseholes.

In my opinion, the understanding of the ubiquity of psychotic anxieties and the group processes and institutional arrangements they elicit can help to legitimate the telling of stories which - speaking for myself - one found so awful and the memories of the difficulties so painful, that one kept them to oneself. I think such stories should be told. There is a good one about the so-called Controversial Discussions at the London Institute of Psychoanalysis in the 1940s, between the Kleinians and the Freudians. A decade ago it was not to be spoken about. Since then there have been a number of illuminating articles and books touching on these events., and the relevant documents have just come out in paperback (King and Steiner, 1991). There is an analogous story to be told about personal, institutional and doctrinal rivalries over the Dead Sea Scrolls. The issue is nothing less than the character of Christ’s message - pacific or militant. I am certain that the same kinds of controversies occur in many institutions and fields. I can tell you some about the history and philosophy of science, e.g., why Jerzy Gudemin wasn’t confirmed as Editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science in the 1960s.

Is all this merely gossip? No, the Gudemin story illuminates the real politics of the nominal liberalism of Popperianism. The Freud-Klein controversy says a lot about two very different views of human nature and how their followers lived their beliefs. Recent events in Cambridge and London and Oxford academic politics in the history, philosophy and social studies of science and the history of medicine are similarly enlightening about the relations between political beliefs, ostensive beliefs and lived ones.

I have written in other essays most of what I want to say about Winnicott’s ideas of transitional objects and transitional phenomena (1989). All I’ll say here is that in my opinion the Kleinian notion of ‘reparation’ as the single explanatory concept for understanding cultural creativity will not do the whole job. Winnicott’s explorations of a ‘third zone’ which is neither subjective nor objective but partakes of both, has only begun to be applied to artistic and scientific creativity, as well as to the understanding of consumption and leisure. I believe that the exploration of this space will play an central role in an epistemology based on the phantasy of the mother’s body as the place in the inner world where all thinking takes place. This way of thinking makes a nonsense of the subject-object distinction of traditional epistemology.

Another element in the epistemology which is emerging from recent psychoanalytic thinking is the notion of projective identification, which Kleinians believe is the basis of all relationships in the inner and outer worlds, whether in knowledge or in the vicissitudes of human interaction. The ubiquity of the mechanism of splitting off parts of the self, projecting them into the world and learning from what has been elicited does not provide us with enough of a classification. We need to understand what makes some projections benign and the basis for understanding, friendship and love, while others - coupled with stereotyping and scapegoating - lead to factionalism, sectarianism, racism and virulent nationalism (Young, 1992). Harold Searles writes about the role of projecting into the external environment in psychotic processes and normal behaviour and the attempt to heal the damaged parent as the basis for the helping professions (Searles, 1960; Young, 1992b). Karl Figlio (1993) has taken this up and applied it to the concept of nature and to the environmental movement. I have applied projective identification to racism, in particular, to the decimation of the natives of America from 1492, where fourteen million inhabitants of the so-called New World were killed in the name of Christ during the subsequent forty years, followed by the death of two hundred million blacks in the slave trade and the killing or placing on reservations of the entire native American population in the last two centuries.

You may, once again, ask what has all this to do with biography. Well, it depends what you mean by biography. One idea which I have found most intriguing in my recent research is that the distinction between the individual and the group is not all that easy to hold onto. Notions of ‘the institution in the mind’ (Armstrong, 1991, 1992) from group relations research and of ‘the gang in the mind’ (Rosenfeld, 1971, 1987)from the study of borderline states and pathological organisations have led me to begin to re-think the whole problem of distinguishing the individual from the group and from institutions. Indeed, this issue is a venerable one in the application of psychoanalysis to historical phenomena. In 1930, Harold Laswell published a classic study, Psychopathology and Politics, in which he adapted the psychoanalytic idea of rationalisation (one of the ego’s mechanisms of defence against psychotic eruptions) to the public sphere: private motives are displaced onto public objects and then rationalised in terms of the public interest. But, as Wolfenstein points out (indeed, it is the key concept in his study of Malcolm X), ‘this is only half of the dialectic, since political interests are first reflected into the private sphere, then internalised as character structure, and only subsequently displaced again into the public realm’ (Wolfenstein, 1981, pp. ix-x). We have here a simple yet profound point about socialisation and the way ideological frames of reference become sedimented so deeply into the personality that they are experienced as second nature.

If I have kept track of the whereabouts of all the trumps, it also brings us full circle and takes the rest of the tricks for an appreciation of Darwin and Darwinism as a subtle accommodation within natural theology. Desmond and Moore never tell us about what was at issue in the great ‘conflict debate’ between science and religion which was occurring on the surface while this more ideologically adaptive process was occurring deeper within the culture. Their reticence on this matter is particularly odd, since it is the main subject of Moore earlier achievements (1979). But then their reticence on the political and ideological aspects of historiography is equally odd, since Desmond’s reputation has hitherto been as an fearless advocate of the radical perspective on nineteenth-century science (1989). The fact that Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey is surely remarkable, as Jim Moore was the second to point out (Moore, 1982).

By the time he was laid to rest there, honoured by ‘the greatest gathering of intellect that was ever brought together in our country’ (p. 672), it could be said that natural selection was ‘"by no means alien to the Christian religion" - not if it was rightly understood, with selection acting "under Divine intelligence" and governed by "the spiritual fitness of each man for life hereafter"’ (p. 671). ‘The Abbey service was to be a visible sign "of the reconciliation between Faith and Science"... The "new truths" of biology were "harmless", their discoverer a secular saint’ (Ibid.). The burial ‘proved that the scientists’ moral duty in furthering human evolution was best exercised in harmony with the old religious ideas "upon which the social fabric depends"’ (p. 674). The most emphatic lesson of Darwinism was ‘the gospel of infinite progress’ (p. 676). In his funeral sermon Dean Farrar said, ‘This man, on whom years of bigotry and ignorance poured out their scorn, has been called a materialist. I do not see in all his writings one trace of materialism. I read in every line the healthy, noble, well-balanced wonder of a spirit profoundly reverent, kindled into deepest admiration for the works of God’ (quoted in Darwin’s Metaphor, p. 15).The Times was perfectly candid and right to say of Darwin’s body that ‘The Abbey needed it more than it needed the Abbey’ (Ibid.).

Desmond and Moore are perfectly right to conclude that ‘Darwin had naturalised Creation and delivered human nature and human destiny’ into the hands of the new professionals (p. 667). I only wish they appeared to have a view on the deep meaning of what this bodes for nature, human nature and the grounding of hope in a secular world whose fragmentation nineteenth-century naturalism made possible. But to have done that they would have had to sacrifice their universal appeal, and perhaps some of their commercial success, and let the works and the political and ideological issues show and tell us where they stand on the political and cultural role of science. It appears, however, that they have taken to heart what Darwin said to his son George, not to break into print with opinions which might upset the powers that be. Indeed, they adopt it as the title of chapter 39: ‘...my advice is to pause, pause, pause’ (p. 603).

This is a revised version of a paper delivered to the History of Ideas Club, King’s College, Cambridge, November 1992. It was published in Science as Culture (no. 20) 4: 393-424, 1994.





Place of publication is London unless otherwise specified.


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© The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ.

email robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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