| Home - Human Nature Review | What's new | Search | Feedback |

Darwin and the Genre of Biography

Robert M Young

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of studies of the genre of biography. In embarking on this project I have been aided by the generosity of Gillian Beer, Ralph Colp, Jr., John Durant, Elaine Jordan, Ludi Jordanova, Jim Moore, and Jean Radford.

The subject of most of the essays in this volume has been the work of artists and scientists. Such work tells us about mutual influence and about ways in which science and fiction are embedded in culture. But I want to turn here away from what is often called "primary" work, to a literary form that is concerned with the creators of that work. Biography is, after all, a literary genre. Looking at the way this genre chooses to see great artists and scientists reveals perhaps more clearly than the original works themselves how implicated in the culture of its time each work is. Biography historicizes. Its language can make no pretense to the timelessness too often attributed to both art and science. Watching how biography actually approaches a writer can tell us a great deal not only about how science reflects its own historical moment, its own personal sources, but about how much our understanding of and our esteem for science are determined by the culture of the moment. In particular, I want here to consider how biography has treated Charles Darwin, and the significance of its omissions and emphases. Equally important, I want to suggest that biography does not merely fill in the "background" of the scientist's life, but also provides the materials that take us to the center of the scientific enterprise itself and cast an unexpected light on its scientificity. The literary form is not to be isolated from the scientific content: both are irresistably cultural.

First, some reflections on the genre. Biography-whatever else it is -is about contingencies and is predicated on the historicity of its subject matter. It concedes, as part of the basic characteristics of the genre, issues which are in some quarters very controversial indeed. Philosophy and science make claims toward dealing in ahistorical necessities and, if not in all versions of the philosophy of science, in universal truths.

Biography is also about an individual; that is its only relatively uncontroversial defining characteristic. To say more is to plunge into a murky and rapidly expanding debate. What can we know? Are we confined to her or his own memoirs? Are we to trust self-perception? How do we evaluate the judgment of loved ones, friends, enemies? In these matters critical acumen is all. Do we have access to the subject's inner life? What counts as evidence? Can/should we attempt to analyze motivations deeper than conscious, attested intentions?

People who become the subject of biography are usually famous or notorious-as statesmen, warriors, writers, inventors, scientists, captains of industry, artists, campaigners, criminals. The biographer normally attempts to shed light on the publicly known-the claims to fame-of the subject. The most characteristic connections, then, are between the public and the private-the origins, inspirations, costs, lapses, vicissitudes of fame or notoriety. I do not write in ignorance of other kinds of biographies-those of "ordinary" people, those which exploit oral and social history which do not conform to the above, for example, the works of Studs Terkel and Ronald Fraser's Blood of Spain. But my comments are aimed at classical biography and make no pretense of canvassing all biography. My interest here is in the biographies of scientists, especially Darwin.

We have, then, the private, perhaps intimate, account of the great or notorious man or woman and his/her achievements/crimes. What of the times? Here I arrive at my own reason for embarking on the study of biography. My model is a humanistic Marxist one of human action and the production of knowledge. It asserts that what happens in history is rather like a "resolution of forces" diagram in physics. Where we find a given object is a net result of the direction and magnitude of the forces acting upon it. This model is not rich enough, of course, since human action includes many poorly understood levels of motivation, so we must include latent forces and reaction formations based on forgotten, repressed, or dimly remembered values and beliefs. I make my task even more daunting by embracing a psychoanalytic view of human motivation, whereby the subject has very little access to the sources of her or his thoughts and actions. So-the model of resolution of forces has to be seen as part of a multilayered process which is not really amenable to simple representation.

To complete my sketch of the bank of interrelated problems which I want to crank up to the genre of biography and then to the case of Darwin, I must turn to the question which vexes the historian of ideas and, most acutely, the historian of scientific ideas. It is the question of determinations. It is argued in many quarters and assumed in many others that if we can explain an idea purely in terms of its connection to other ideas, we have no need for additional explanatory factors, whether these be intimately personal forces or large-scale historical ones or both, i.e., historical forces acting on and mediated through the personal.

Historians-and of them especially historians of science-of my acquaintance are very leery of psychohistorical explanations of individual or epochal phenomena. I do not accept their embargo, though I do share many of their doubts. I find it no more congenial to "read off" Newton's discoveries and theories from Frank Manuel's speculations about his unconscious in A Portrait of Isaac Newton than to read them off from Boris Hessen's vulgar Marxist "The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's ‘Principia."' But instead of wishing a plague on both their houses, I want to find a way of making both of their enterprises more sophistited and then integrating them into a single account. A tall order, I know, but the only one that conforins to my own experience of life, including my life as a historian of science.

How then can we pose the problem of biography? Leon Edel says that the central aim of biography "is to relate the life lived to the particular achievement-to tell the life story of a man or woman whose uniquess makes him or her a valid biographical subject." I'd say this draws circle too narrowly and disarticulates the subject from wider historical determinations, which are just as important for a writer, be it HenryJames or George Eliot, as for a thinker, e.g., William James, or a scientist. My own short version is: how does the individual bear, mediate, and integrate the individual, intellectual, cultural, ideological, socioeconomic forces which constitute the labor process of her or his production of what interests us about that person, be it knowledge, art, policy, heroism, great good or evil? To include the concept of the labor process is to invoke another model which overlaps the Marxist and psychoanalytic ones. Or rather it is a matrix for them, since the terms of reference of labor process theory offer a very accommodating framework for laying bare the elements and connections or articulations of any product having a use value, whether theory, therapy, thing, act, fact, artifact, policy, treatise, essay, or scientific paper.

There is nothing very grand about a labor process perspective, except that it gives one pause to consider in a fairly orderly way what is being made-what use value-and by what process of purposive human labor, employing what raw materials and with what tools. Raw materials, means of production, purposive activity to produce a use value: these are the terms of reference for thinking about what a biographical subject does and to what end(s). Each element of the analysis should have bearing upon it the direct, indirect, and epochal connections or articulations which influence it and give it the significance it has in the work of the subject. In my experience, drawing diagrams with arrows of different thickness, and with lots of questions and puzzles, helps a lot. So I make lists and jot things down on lots and lots of pieces of paper which can be shuffled until one can hope to see the repetitions and intuit the patterns.

One more preliminary. It relates to our attempts to bring together the sort of determinations to which I have so far only alluded. Purists in the historiography of scientific figures seek to cut their heroes off from any more determinations than are absolutely necessary. Their goal is to celebrate genius, to praise the essence of greatness embodied in an extraordinary individual. "More influences" is thought somehow to mean "less greatness." My own approach is less faithful to the heroine or hero, more promiscuous, if you will, certainly more fully historical.

I'd argue that the more plausible candidates for influences contributing to the behavior that we seek to illuminate, the better. I argue, that is, for multiple causation and overdetermination. By this I do not mean that the biographer should shovel influences into the text and reach for, e.g., biorhythms and astrology. Rather, I mean that all plausible candidates for being influential should be mentioned, critically evaluated, weighed and given their due in the light of the biographer's conclusions. I find Peter Gay quite judicious on this subject: "As discoverers and documentors of over-determination, psychoanalysts and historians, each in their own manner, are allies in the struggle against reductionism, against naive and crude monocausal explanations."[1]

Over-determination is in fact nothing more than the sensible recognition that a variety of causes-a variety, not infinity-enters into the making of all historical events, and that each ingredient in historical experience can be counted on to have a variety-not infinity-of functions.... Seek complexity, the historian and the psychoanalyst can say in unison, seek complexity and tame it. (p. 187) I'd add that it helps to let others know (in notes, if not in the text) about the roads not taken.

Charles Darwin is a very unpromising case study for my attempt to address the problems raised above. True, he was a great man who wrote a lot of books and a lot of letters. Many people wrote about him and to him. There are nearly 14,000 items and 1,800 correspondents involved in the collection which is now in process of publication. His ideas were also greatly noticed in a rich, multifaceted, and multilayered periodical press. He also had recurring, debilitating disorders for decades, suggesting medical and/or psychoanalytic interrelations with his work. He wrote an autobiography (until recently, bowdlerized), and great efforts have been made to preserve and make accessible his notebooks, letters, drafts, and other memorabilia which are of use to biographers.

Why, then, unpromising? First, he was a reticent man. While he spoke of personal matters, he was discreet about intimate ones, e.g., his views on his most private life and on religion. Second, his theory was a very basic and a very general one. By that I mean that historical conjunctions are not as likely to be on the surface as they are, for example, with respect to a theory in social science, the articulations of which are easier to trace to movements of thought and socioeconomic factors in the period.

Third, although he was educated at Edinburgh and Cambridge, spent fifty-five months on a 37,000-mile voyage around the world, and lived in Shrewsbury and London until September 1842, he then took himself to Down in Kent and hardly stirred until he died forty years later. Even Marat, though in his tub, was in the thick of the French revolutionary events in Paris. Proust also comes to mind: mobility and getting out and about are not essential to being a man of one's time, or interesting, as the Inman Diary shows, nor do they preclude being a "great man."

Against these seriously discouraging factors we must place the attractiveness of the prize. The theory of evolution by natural selection-what we mean by "Darwinism"-is the theory which links humanity to the rest of living nature and living nature to the rest of the conditions of existence on earth. It provides the quintessence of historicity. It is the fundament. If we can link the most basic theory of historicity to the historicity of science and these to the historicity of Darwin, we will, in a way, have found the mother lode.

It would not be inaccurate to say that Darwin has been ill served by his biographers, but it would be unilluminating. My experience is that there is no good biography of any of the figures I would most like to understand "in the round" or as a totality-Newton, Darwin, Marx, George Eliot, Freud, Edison, Willie Nelson. The subjects, of course, are daunting, as are the problems of exposition and interpretation of their leading ideas. There are also many specialists on various aspects of the work of each, waiting to pounce, making one cautious. Howls at various reductionisms come readily to their throats. Better, easier to be subtle on a smaller canvas.

The usual way of dealing with this problem is to be prudent. Tell the life; avoid excurses into motivation. Also tell the ideas and the well-attested influences and reception and reaction to reception and current evaluations. Sketch the times, as setting. Do not try to integrate. The result is unadventurous but reliable, accurate but, I think, desiccated. Gordon Haight's George Eliot is my own model of this genre: sound, reliable, useful, the standard source. Other biographies are at the extreme of being frankly gossip, while still others are avowedly expositions of ideas, set in a life. Home Life with Herbert Spencer, by his housekeepers, is my favorite at one extreme-quaint gossip-while Ronald Clark's The Survival of Charles Darwin: A Biography of a Man and an Idea is an extreme case of the latter. Indeed, half of the book is about the fate of his ideas after Darwin died. A recent reviewer of Clark's book rightly concludes: "There is still no good biography of him."[2]

Whatever other silences there are in Darwin's biography, there are two or three "nonscientific" conceptions which unequivocally connect him to leading philosophical, socioeconomic, and racial (we'd now call them "Social Darwinist',) ideas of his time. I am referring to the pro-found influence of the natural theology of William Paley on Darwin's ideas of adaptation, of Thomas Robert Malthus, principle of population and the survival of the fittest on the rank ordering of people - the "races" of the earth. As Marx and Engels rightly observed in more than one place, he was deeply a man of his time.

Engels wrote in 1862, "It is remarkable how Darwin recognises among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, 'inventions' and the Malthusian 'struggle for existence." [3] He later said, "Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind, and especially on his country-men, when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom."[4]

Fortunately, there is a study of Darwin's biographers which is helpful - at least in showing what has not been done: Frederick Churchill's "Darwin and the Historians." [5] There is also, I am glad to say, one study which lays out the desiderata of a full-fledged biography: James Moore's meticulous analysis "Darwin of Down: The Evolutionist as Squarson-Naturalist," [6] to which I shall revert.

Darwin's creative process has been subjected to most searching scrutiny from three related perspectives. Howard Gruber has devoted a highly regarded and meticulously detailed study to his creative process per se. Sydney Smith, Peter Vorzimmer, Sandra Herbert, Silvan Schweber, David Kohn, and I, among others, have pondered and minutely reconstructed the texture of his theory building. The third aspect of his creative process is the wider intellectual and ideological resonances of his basic concept-natural selection-which made Darwin's theory the one which converted evolutionism from a widely held form of speculation to the foundation of modern biological science. This topic is closely related to the analogy between the artificial selection of breeders and what happens in nature. The articulations of his thinking have been considered in greatest detail with respect to Malthus' theory of population and Paley's theory of adaptation within natural theology. This domain has been passionately fought over by Sir Gavin de Beer, Vorzimmer, Herbert, Le Mahieu, Bowler, Ospovat, Mayr, and numerous commentators.

Of course, none of the above is a strictly empirical matter, since there are powerful historiographic and ideological reasons for Darwin-or any other scientific thinker-to be articulated with or disarticulated from such blatantly "nonscientific" affiliations. The two most eminent working scientists in this debate, Sir Gavin de Beer and Ernst Mayr, have (I think it is fair to say) expressed righteous indignation to the point of fulmination on this point, while Michael Ghisehn can be said to have bitten one or two people. However powerfully the eminent biologist-historians have pressed their claim to separate Darwin from these key influences, the consensus among scholars who have worked through the manuscript and notebook materials has supported those who would link up Darwin with the ideological currents of his time rather than those who would split him off from them.

Until one grasps just how much hangs on these connections, it could be argued that a surprising amount of printers' ink has been spilled in coupling, uncoupling, recoupling Darwin with and from the urgent debates in theology, political economy, and the philosophy of humanity and society of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Putting it another way, Darwin has been washed again and again by those who would cleanse him of ideological pollutants.

Since I have been accused of being one of the most persistent polluters (one critic wrote of my writings, "as a dog returns to his vomit, Young . . ."), I am particularly relieved that the writings of the most meticulous students of the Darwin manuscripts and the most fairminded of the reviewers of the literature have finally supported the position I share with those who would see Darwin as enmeshed in a tight web of social, cultural, and ideological determinations. I am thinking, in particular, of the conclusions of David Kohn in his "Theories to Work By: Rejected Theories, Reproduction and Darwin's Path to Natural Selection," a most persuasive study which concludes that my argument linking Darwin closely at the crucial point of his discovery of the mechanism of natural selection to Malthus' work on human population and misery is "nearly definitive."[7] The most recent overview of the whole question, "How Did Darwin Arrive at His Theory?" by David Oldroyd [8] is equally clear about the close connection between Darwin's thinking and the wider debate on nature's niggardliness which centered on Malthusianism.

Finally, once it was established that Darwin's concept of natural selection was fundamentally Malthusian, the remaining issue over which scholars were in doubt was the extent to which Darwin relied on the analogy between that humanocentric concept of nature and actual human selection in the work of breeders, pigeon fanciers, and others. Vigorous attempts have been made to uncouple Darwin's mechanism of evolution from this analogy, but another careful study, L. T. Evans' "Darwin's Use of the Analogy between Artificial and Natural Selection," convincingly answers the critics on that score.[9]

These issues are of considerable interest. When Darwin says that he always thought his ideas came half out of Sir Charles Lyell's brain and that he hasn't sufficiently stressed this, no one is troubled. This is because the entire surface of Lyell's geological writings is strictly scientific (which is not to say that his assumptions were any less culturally constituted than those of other thinkers). Lyell claimed that only causes now in operation, and in their present intensities, could be invoked to explain the historical changes in the earth and, by extension, plant and animal life. This geological uniformitarianisin set the pace and scale for Darwin's theorizing. But we find advocates of a restricted range of influences on a great scientist seeking to explain away Darwin's statement that Paley's Evidences of Christianity and his Natural Theology were profoundly influential on him as an undergraduate, and the following quotations at the beginning of On the Origin of Species:

But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws. (Whewell: Bridgewater Treatise)

The only distinct meaning of the word "natural,, is stated, fixed, or settled; since what is natural as much requires and presupposes an intelligent agent to render it so, i.e., to effect it continually or at stated times, as what is supernatural or miraculous does to effect it for once. (Butler: Analogy of Revealed Religion [added to 2d ed.])

To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both. (Bacon: Advancement of Learning)

These theological connections threaten their vision of a neat science/ theology break and undermine their attempt to divorce a great scientist (Mayr says "the greatest,") from metaphysical assumptions. This is the sort of evidence which can begin to make sense of otherwise selfcontradictory statements like Churchill's: "We have found at the roots of his atheism the remnants of a natural theology which nourished his scientific inventions . . ." (p. 68).

Similarly, the same positivists seek to explain away Malthus' role in Darwin's eureka moment. I say positivists advisedly, since it is a definition of positivism that its advocates attempt to separate scientific facts and theories from the matrix of values, meanings, and historical determinations in which they are embedded and from and by which they are constituted.

The Darwin-Malthus connection is now firmly established and acknowledged by afi reputable scholars. It is possible to trace the connection throughout his writings.10 He is quite straightforward in his autobiography:

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and, being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it had once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it.[11]

In his working notebooks for September and October of 1838, we can find the moment of discovery laid out before our eyes, complete with phrases, dashes, the enthusiasm imprinted on the page.

[Sept] 28th. We ought to be far from wondering of changes in numbers of species, from small changes in nature of locality. Even the energetic language of Decandolle does not convey the warring of the species as inference from Malthus-increase of brutes must be prevented solely by positive checks, excepting that famine may stop desire. -in nature production does not increase, whilst no check prevail, but the positive check of famine and consequently death. I do not doubt every one till he thinks deeply has assumed that increase of animals exactly proportionate to the number that can live.-. . .

Population is increase at geometrical ratio in FAR SHORTER time than 25 years-yet until the one sentence of Malthus no one clearly perceived the great check amongst men.-there is spring, like food used for other purposes as wheat for making brandy-Even a few years plenty, makes population in man increase & an ordinary crop causes a dearth. take Europe on an average every species must have some number killed year with year by hawks by cold &c.-even one species of hawk decreasing in number must affect instantaneously all the rest.-The final cause of all this wedging, must be to sort out proper structure, and adapt it to change.-to do that for form, which Malthus shows is the final effect (by means however of volition) of this populousness on the energy of man. One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones.

In another passage he quotes Malthus at some length and concludes, "this applies to one species-I would apply it not only to population & depopulation, but extermination and production of new forms."[12]

Lest this be thought an esoteric dispute, it is worth spelling out the wider issues it bears upon. As I have said, hero-worshiping biographies of scientists set out to celebrate genius and to confine influences to inspiration and to ideas and discoveries inside the scientific community. A decontextualized approach to science is relaxed only to include personal history plus the influence of scientific discoveries and ideas. To show that a scientist's most basic ideas were centrally influenced by the very sorts of conceptions that are abrogated by those who would treat science as above contending social forces, and who claim that scientific developments are neutral, is to bring biography into the growing body of studies which place science inside culture, inside society, inside the ideological and socioeconomic forces which shape the rest of the social world.

Science has, of course, always been inside society, but the way it has been written about has systematically obscured the determinations which constitute its presuppositions, priorities, patronage, and its privileged position. Biographies of scientists have followed suit. Victorian lives and letters were discreet and hagiographic. When, in 1918, Lytton Strachey set out to replace iconology with iconoclastic exposé, the nearest he got to science was that grand hysteric, the lady of the lamp and handmaiden to medicine, Florence Nightingale. The "warts and all" school of biography has yet to penetrate to the scientific hero or heroine, although Phyllis Grosskurth's fine biography Melanie Klein is a notable pioneering work in this respect. [13]

There is also a literary and historiographic reason for being interested in the Darwin/Malthus/Paley question. It bears on a vexing biographical question: how do epochal causes act through individuals? It appears to me that they do so in three ways. First, through influences-Paley, Lyell, and Malthus, in the case of Darwin-which can be located more or less clearly. The history of ideas becomes, thereby, a clear, direct, and relatively indisputable helpmate to the biographer. Second, through the social and class location of the subject. Third, through historically specific factors which influence the subject's inner life. I shall dwell here on the role of social and class location and return below to psychohistory. James Moore's study, noted above, is, in my view, a superb achievement in locating Darwin. His position as something akin to a "squire/parson," his patronage, his role in good works, were consistent with his more general ideas, which were finally unsubversive, though troubling. Thanks to Moore, we really do know Darwin's social location and how ideology acted as a material force in the way he lived his beliefs.

By the most meticulous research in local archives and in other areas which historians of science would be likely to ignore or pass by, Moore has greatly illuminated who Darwin was. That is, he has shown how Darwin actually conducted his domestic and local life with respect to matters which are greatly controverted by historians of ideas. This is particularly true of his deep respect for the role of the established church in the community, an institution to which he contributed time, energy, and funds-all of which were greatly valued by the community at Down.

Darwin's secure place inside the Victorian bourgeoisie is given further support by the fact that he is buried in Westminster Abbey. When Darwin died on 19 April 1882, having had several heart attacks in the first few weeks of the year, his family intended to bury him at Down. However, three days later, twenty members of Parliament, including Sir John Lubbock, later Lord Avebury, and Henry C. Bannerman, a future prime minister, wrote to the dean of Westminster, "We hope that you will not think we are taking a liberty if we venture to suggest that it would be acceptable to a very large nurnber of our fellow-countrymen of all classes and opinions that our illustrious countryman, Mr. Darwin, should be buried in Westminster Abbey". And so it came to pass, five days later that Darwin was buried a few feet from, the grave of Newton. His pallbearers included the past, present, and future presidents of the Royal Society, two dukes and an earl. An anthem had been especially composed for the occasion by the Abbey organist and included the words:"Happy is the man who finds wisdom and getteth understanding"[14]

In case it be thought that Darwin's burial betokens only greatness, not acceptability (as with Byron), here are some excerpts from, the Times of 26 April. Of the body, they said, "the Abbey needed it more than it needed the Abbey." Looking at the matter more broadly, the Times said,


By evey title which can claim a corner in that sacred earth, the body of Charles Darwin should be there. Conquerors lie there, who have added rich and vast territories to their native empire. Charles Darwin has, perhaps, borne the fiat of science farther, certainly he has planted its standard more deeply, than any Englishman since Newton. He has done more than extend the boundaries of science; he has established new centres where annexations of fresh and fruitful truths are continually to be made. The Abbey has its orators and Ministers who have convinced reluctant senates and swayed nations. Not one of them all has wielded, a power over men and their intelligences more complete than that which for the last twenty three years has emanated from a simple country house in Kent. [15]


It is also worth recalling that Frederick Temple, one of the supporters of scientific naturalism in the wider debate which embraced both Essays Reviews and On the Origin of Species, went on to become archbishop of Canterbury. He saw no conflict between evolutionism and Christianity. Darwin was no iconoclast.

We have most to go on in Darwin's case with respect to the influences on and articulations of his ideas, because he was so scrupulous in recording his labor process, his enthusiasms, his reading (including voracious of consumption of biographies), and the very passages in the writing of others which struck him-passages conveniently excised from his notebooks for inclusion in his great work, Natural Selection, of which On the Origin of Species was a précis, and repeatedly recalled in his correspondence. But in order to see we must look, and not rule out important areas of influence because of a narrowly positivist conception of how scientific ideas get conceived. Approaching such ideas via the genre of biography helps us to keep our noses to the right ground.

Other epochal causes are much less easy to take into account. Another way hagiographers and positivists try to keep Darwin pure is by attempting to make a sharp separation between Darwin the scientist, on the one hand, and the racist and ideological extrapolations of the so-called Social Darwinists, on the other. There are even those who would argue (not altogether unconvincingly) that the Social Darwinists weren't Social Darwinists at all in the popular sense of "the devil take the hindmost."[16] But the most cursory reading of Darwin's works, early, middle and late, shows just how much he was a man of his time in seeing races in competitive and hierarchical relations and in connecting such generalizations to justifications for a wealthy leisured class in the Victorian world.

If we define Social Darwinism as the application of the concepts of "struggle for existence" and "survival of the fittest" to humanity-that is, if we explain social phenomena in terms of competition and conflict and consider these to have a progressive tendency - then Darwin was a Social Darwinist root and branch.[17] Here are some representative passages from the book in which he applied evolutionism to humanity, The Descent of Man:

But the inheritance of property by itself is very far from an evil; for without the accumulation of capital the arts could not progress; and it is chiefly through their power that the civilised races have extended and are now everywhere extending their range, so as to take the place of the lower races.[18]

There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people, are the results of natural selection; for the more energetic, restless, and courageous men from all parts of Europe have emigrated during the last ten or twelve generations to that great country, and have there succeeded best. (p. 142)

Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence consequent upon his rapid multiplication; and if he is to advance still higher, it is to be feared that he must remain subject to a severe struggle. Otherwise he would sink into indolence, and the more gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted. Hence our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils, must not be greatly diminished by any means. There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding the best and rearing the largest number of offspring. (p. 618)

I do not quote these passages to pillory Darwin, ahistorically. How odd it would be if Darwin completely transcended his time and place in the world and in society. He was kind and compassionate toward Indians in South America and toward peasants in his own village. He abhorred human bondage. But this did not elevate him above a contemporary British sense of how races and nations rise and fall in history, or from extolling the benefits of the class system in his own time and place. It would not be necessary to stress this if his admirers had not set out to disarticulate and dehistoricize him in this area, as in others.

I have said there were three ways in which epochal causes act through individuals and have discussed two of them. The third way is illuminated by psychohistorical studies done by someone who knows what he or she is doing-a Ralph Colp on Darwin or a Frank Manuel on Newton, though not a Sudhir Kakar on F. W. Taylor, Anne Jardim on Henry Ford, or Freud on Michelangelo. I would expect greater illumination of psychopathology than I would of achievements, but this is often a false distinction, for example, in the interesting psychobiographies of Van Gogh, Luther, and Malcolm X. I am persuaded by Colp's argument that the price Darwin paid for his profoundly unsettling ideas was not a social one but a series of psychosomatic disorders. [19]

We are, then, able to discern much of the social location of Darwin by patient research into parish and family records, correspondence, and knowledge of ambient social and cultural history. We are least well off with respect to the unconscious processes, partly for the obvious reasons that we do not have the subject on the couch as a patient and no amount of research will provide the requisite free associations. In some cases, of course, we do have a lot to go on from people's writings, e.g.. Proust, Kafka, and Emily Dickinson. We can still try. As Ellmann says (paraphrasing Freud), "where obscurity was hypothesis shall be."[20] But in Darwin's case, though remarkable and admirable efforts have been made, we are still faced with his reticence, celebrated in Geoffrey West's conclusion: "The Darwin the world knows is the whole Darwin." [21] Mind you, there are all those letters being catalogued and printed, and much more will be discernible on all these fronts in the coming years.

If we reflect on the particular disputed influences and settings, the results add up to a reevaluation of one of the most influential figures in the history of thought. Everyone will have her or his own list, e.g., Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Gödel, Wiener, Turing. Each brought science to bear on human pretension. Each removed a reason for being humanocentric because of some law or laws that constrain humankind.

But if we look closely-biographically closely-at the man who brought all of life, including humanity, within the domain of natural law, decisively shattering (so the story goes) a theological account of species change, of human origins, human nature, and human destiny, what do we find? We find political economy, ideology, natural theology, anthropomorphism at the heart of the concept of natural selection his explanatory mechanism-and a deep accommodation with theism in his theory and in his own social location and practice. We find, to put it most polemically, theism and humanism at the heart of the science of life, humanity, and mind. I cannot claim to be a close student of many of the figures in the pantheon listed above. In the cases of Marx and Freud, however, I can make some claim of having made comparable careful studies. In those cases I would argue just as strongly for anthropomorphism and humanism at the basis of their views of the world and the place of humanity in it. From the little I know of recent Newtonian studies, I think that there a similar claim could be made. Once again, such studies depend on a fully textured and fully articulated set of biographical inquiries.

As I now see things, biography is not an adjunct to the serious business of understanding nature, human nature, and history. Rather, if we believe that labor is neither nature nor culture but their matrix and that the concept of a person is ontologically prior to those of mind and body, then, by analogy, biography is neither finally personal nor historical but the crucible in which we can forge the best understanding of those forces.



1. Peter Gay, Freud for Historians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 75-76.

2. Ralph H. Colp, Jr., "The Survival of Charles Darwin," American Journal of Psychiatry 142 (1985): 1507.

3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress, 1965), p. 128.

4. Frederick Engels, The Dialectics of Nature (1873-86), 3d ed. (Moscow: Progress, 1964), pp. 35-36.

5. Frederick B. Churchill, "Darwin and the Historians," in R. J. Berry, ed., Charles Darwin: A Commemoration, 1882-1982 (London: Academic Press, 1982), pp. 45-68.

6. James Moore, "Darwin of Down: The Evolutionist as Squarson-Naturalist," in David Kohn, ed., The Darwinian Heritage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 435-81.

7. David Kohn, "Theories to Work By: Rejected Theories, Reproduction and Darwin's Path to Natural Selection," Studies in the History of Biology 4 (1980): 142.

8. David R. Oldroyd, "How Did Darwin Arrive at His Theory? The Secondary Literature to 1982," History of Science 22 (1984):325-74.

9. L. T. Evans, "Darwin's Use of the Analogy between Artificial and Natural Selection," Journal of the History of Biology 17 (1984): 113-40.

10. See Robert M. Young, Darwin's Metaphor: Nature' sPlace in Victorian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 39-44.

11. Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, with original omissions restored, ed. Nora Barlow (London: Collins, 1958), p. 120.

12. Sir Gavin de Beer et al., eds., "Darwin's Notebooks on Transmutation of Species," Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Historical Series 3, no. 5 (1967): 162-63.

13. Phyllis Grosskurth, Melanie Klein: Her World and Her Work (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986).

14. Ronald W. Clark, The Survival of Charles Darwin: A Biography of a Man and an Idea (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984), pp. 196-97.

15. Quoted in James R. Moore, "Charles Darwin Lies in Westminster Abbey," Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society 17 (1982): 110-11.

16. Robert C. Bannister, Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979).

17. See John C. Greene, "Darwin as a Social Evolutionist," Journal of the History of Biology 10 (1977):1-27; and Robert M. Young, "Darwinism Is Social," in Darwinian Heritage, especially pp. 618-21.

18. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), 2d ed. (London: Murray, 1874), p. 135.

19. Ralph H. Colp, Jr., To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).

20. Richard Ellmann, "Freud and Literary Biography," in Peregrine Horden, ed., Freud and the Humanities (London: Duckworth, 1985), p. 69.

21. Geoffrey West, Charles Danvin: A Portrait (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1938), p. x.


Aaron, Daniel, ed. The Inman Diary: A Public and Private Confession. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Bannister, Robert C. Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979.

Baron, Samuel H., and Pletsch, Carl, eds. Introspection in Biography: The Biographer's Quest for Self-Awareness. London: Analytic Press, 1985.

Bowler, Peter J. "Malthus, Darwin and the Concept of Struggle." Journal of the History of Ideas 37 (1976): 631-50.

Brent, Peter. Charles Darwin: "A Man of Enlarged Curiosity." London: Heinemann, 1981.

Burkhardt, Frederick, et al., eds. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Vol. 1: 1821-1836. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Caro, Robert A. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

Churchill, Frederick B. "Darwin and the Historian." In R. J. Berry, ed., Charles Darwin: A Commemoration, 1882-1982, pp. 45-68. London: Academic Press, 1982.

Clark, Ronald W. The Survival of Charles Darwin: A Biography of a Man and an Idea. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984.

Collier, Peter, and Horowitz, David. The Kennedys. London: Secker & Warburg, 1984.

Colp, Ralph H., Jr. "Notes on Charles Darwin's Autobiography." Journal of the History of Biology 18 (1985): 357-401.

Colp, Ralph H., Jr. "The Survival of Charles Darwin." American Journal of Psychiatry 142 (1985): 1507.

Colp, Ralph H., Jr. To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Darwin, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, with original omissions restored. Ed. Nora Barlow. London: Collins, 1958.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). 2d ed. London: Murray, 1874.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Species in the Struggle for Life (1859). Facsimile reprint. New York: Atheneum, 1967; 6th ed. London: Murray, 1872.

Darwin, Francis, ed. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. 3d ed. 3 vols. London: Murray, 1887.

Darwin, Francis, and Seward, A. C., eds. More Letters of Charles Darwin. 2 Vols. London: Murray, 1903.

de Beer, Sir Gavin. Charles Darwin. London: Nelson, 1963.

de Beer, Sir Gavin. "The Evolution of Charles Darwin." New York Review of Books, 17 December 1970, pp. 31-35.

de Beer, Sir Gavin, et al., eds. "Darwin's Notebooks on Transmutation of Species." Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Historical Series 2, nos. 2-6 (1960-61); and 3, no. 5 (1967).

Drosnin, Michael. Citizen Hughes. London: Hutchinson, 1985.

Edel, Leon. "Biography and the SexuaI Revolution-Why Curiosity Is No Longer Vulgar." New York Times Book Review, 24 November 1985, pp. 13-14.

Ellegard, A. Darwin and the General Reader: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution in the British Periodical Press, 1859-1872. Göteborg: Universitets Arsskrift, 1958.

Ellmann, Richard. "Freud and Literary Biography." In Peregrine Horden, ed., Freud and the Humanities, pp, 58-74. London: Duckworth, 1985.

Engels, Frederick. The Dialectics of Nature (1873-86). 3d ed. Moscow: Progress, 1964.

Erikson, Eric. Young Man Luther. London: Faber, 1972.

Evans, L. T. "Darwin's Use of the Analogy between Artificial and Natural Selection." Journal of the History of Biology 17 (1984): 113-40.

Finney, Brian. The Inner I: British Literary Autobiography of the Twentieth Century. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.

Fraser, Ronald. Blood of Spain: The Experience of Civil War, 1936-39. London: Allen Lane, 1979.

Gay, Peter. Freud for Historians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Ghiselin, M. T. The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Ghiselin, M. T. The Triumph of Darwinian Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Greene, John C. "Darwin as a Social Evolutionist." Journal of the History of Biology 10 (1977): 1-27.

Grosskurth, Phyllis. Melanie Klein: Her World and Her Work. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986.

Gruber, Howard E. Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativity. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Gruber, Howard E. "Going the Limit: Toward the Construction of Darwin's Theory." In The Darwinian Heritage, pp. 9-34.

Gruber, Howard E. "History and Creative Work: From the Most Ordinary to the Most Exalted." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 19 (1983): 4-14.

Haight, C. S. George Eliot: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Herbert, Sandra. "The Place of Man in the Development of Darwin's Theory of Transmutation." Parts 1 and 2. Journal of the History of Biology 7 (1974): 217-58; 10 (1977): 155-227.

Hessen, Boris. "The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's 'Principia."' In N. I. Bukharin et al., eds., Science at the Crossroads, pp. 147-212. 1931; rpt. London: Cass, 1971.

Hodges, Andrew. Alan Turing: The Enigma. London: Burnett Books, 1983.

Holmes, Richard. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1985.

Jardim, Anne. The First Henry Ford: A Study in Personality and Business Leadership. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970.

Josephson, Matthew. Edison: A Biography. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961.

Kakar, Sudhir. Frederick Taylor: A Study in Personality and Innovation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970.

Kapp, Yvonne. Eleanor Marx. 2 vols. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1972, 1976.

Keegan, Robert T., and Gruber, Howard E. "Love, Death, and Continuity in Darwin's Thinking." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 19 (1983): 15-30.

Kohn, David. "Theories to Work By: Rejected Theories, Reproduction and Darwin's Path to Natural Selection." Studies in the History of Biology 4 (1980): 67-170.

Kohn, David, ed. The Darwinian Heritage. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Lahr, John. Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr (1969). New York: Limelight Editions, 1984.

LeMahieu, D. L. "Malthus and the Theology of Scarcity." Journal of the History of Ideas 40 (1979): 467-74.

Loewenberg, Peter. Decoding the Past: The Psychohistorical Approach. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology, being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation. 3 vols. London: Murray, 1830-33.

Mack, John E. "Psychoanalysis and Historical Biography." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 19 (1971): 143-79.

McLellan, David. Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. London: Macmillan, 1973.

Malthus, Thomas. An Essay on the Principle of Population. London: J. Johnson, 1798; 6th ed. 2 vols. London: Murray, 1826.

Manuel, Frank E. A Portrait of Isaac Newton. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Frederick. Selected Correspondence. Moscow: Progress, 1965.

Masters, Brian. Killing for Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen. London: Cape, 1985.

Mayhew, Henry. Mayhew's Characters. Selected from London Labour and the London Poor and edited by Peter Quennell. London: Spring Books, n.d.

Mayr, Ernst. The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Moore, James R. "Charles Darwin Lies inWestminster Abbey."Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society 17 (1982): 97-113.

Moore, James R. "Darwin of Down: The Evolutionist as Squarson-Naturalist." In The Darwinian Heritage, pp. 435-81.

Moore, James R. "Darwin's Genesis and Revelations." Isis 76 (1985): 570-80 [essay review on Darwin's correspondence].

Moore, James R. "1859 and All That: Remaking the Story of Evolution-and-Religion." In R. G. Chapman and C. T. Duval, eds., Charles Darwin, 1809-1882: A Centennial Commemorative, pp. 167-94, 361-63. Wellington, New Zealand: Nova Pacifica, 1982.

Oldroyd, David R. "How Did Darwin Arrive at His Theory? The Secondary Literature to 1982." History of Science 22 (1984): 325-74.

Ospovat, Dov. "Darwin after Malthus. " Journal of the History of Biology 12 (1979): 211-30.

Ospovat, Dov. The Development of Darwin's Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 1838-1859. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Pachter, Marc., ed. Telling Lives: The Biographer's Art. Washington, D.C.: New Republic Books/National Portrait Gallery, 1979.

Paley, William. Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802). London: Baynes, 1816,

Paley, William. The Works of William Paley. New ed. 7 vols. Rivington, etc., 1825.

Peterson, Linda H. Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

Rogers, James A. "Darwinism and Social Darwinism." Journal of the History of Ideas 33 (1972): 265-80.

Schweber, Sylvan. "The Origin of The Origin Revisited." Journal of the History of Biology 10 (1977): 229-316.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.

Smith, Sydney. "The Origin of' The Origin' as Discerned from Charles Darwin's Notebooks and His Annotations in the Books He Read between 1837 and 1842." Advancement of Science, no. 64 (1960), pp. 391-401.

Stone, Irving. Lust for Life. London: Bodley Head, 1975.

Stone, Irving. The Origin: A Biographical Novel of Charles Darwin. London: Cassell, 1980.

Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians (1918). London: Collins, 1959.

Sulloway, Frank J. Freud: Biologist of the Mind. London: Burnett Books, 1979.

Terkel, Studs. Working (1974). New York: Avon Books, 1975.

Troyat, Henri. Tolstoy (1965). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

"Two" [Anon]. Home Life with Herbert Spencer. Bristol: Arrowsmith, 1906.

Vorzimmer, Peter. "Darwin, Malthus and the Theory of Natural Selection." Journal of the History of Ideas 30 (1969): 527-42.

Wachhorst, Wyn. Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981.

West, Geoffrey. Charles Darwin: A Portrait. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1938.

Wolfenstein, Eugene V. The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Young, Robert M. "Darwinism Is Social." In The Darwinian Heritage, pp. 609-38.

Young, Robert M. Darwin's Metaphor: Nature's Place in Victorian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Young, Robert M. "Freud: Scientist or Humanist?" Delivered to University of Durham, Research Group for the History of the Humanities, 1985.

Young, Robert M. "How Societies Constitute Their Knowledge: Prolegomena to a Labour Process Perspective." Typescript, 1982.

Young, Robert M. "Is Nature a Labour Process?" In Les Levidow and R. M. Young, eds., Science, Technology and the Labour Process. 2: 206-32. London: Free Association Books, 1985.

Young, Robert M. "Life among the Mediations: Labour, Groups, Breasts." Paper delivered to Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, 1986.

Young, Robert M. "Science Is a Labour Process." Science for People, no. 43 (1979), pp. 31-37.

Young, Robert M. "Science Is Social Relations." Radical Science Journal, no. 5 (1977), pp. 65-129.


The Human Nature Review
© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

US -

Amazon.com logo

UK -

Amazon.co.uk logo

 | Human Nature | Books and Reviews | The Human Nature Daily Review | Search |