Your RDA of Irony

Infamy or Obscurity

November 24th

What was Charles Darwin writing? It had been five years since he had mesmerized Victorian Society with his latest revelation on the life of barnacles: “A Monograph on the Fossil Balanidæ and Verrucidæ of Great Britain.” Yes, it was a hard act to follow, the public was insatiable and Darwin himself was daunted by the prospect. But, after four treatises on barnacles, the critics were starting to dismiss Darwin as a one-subclass-of-crustaceans hack. That hurt.

He did have some notes from a sea voyage that he had taken 20 years earlier, and he had long pondered his observations of the wildlife of the Galapagos. That was it! Darwin would write a cookbook of finch recipes. The Galapagos natives had dozens of ways to prepare the bird, and the cuisine varied from island to island. In fact, he was amazed by the number and disparity of recipes; how and why did they originate? Darwin concluded that there was a scientific explanation for the evolution of all cuisines: an evolutionary process called “nutritional selection.” And so Darwin presented his theory in “On The Origin of Spices.”

(By no coincidence, the daguerreotypes of the prepared dishes would showcase the tableware of a certain British manufacturer. But that flagrant product placement was the least that the grandson of Josiah Wedgwood could do for his trust fund.)

Unfortunately, the publisher rejected Darwin’s manuscript explaining “The English public has never been interested in food, but we do love an animal story. Perhaps if you rewrote your work with an emphasis on the finches–and without eating the more likable ones–I am sure that you can do for those plucky little fellows what you have done for barnacles.”

So adapting his work to the publisher’s whims, (How else can a writer survive?) Charles Darwin wrote “Origin Twist: The Evolutionary Adventures of Phineas Finch.”

All right, it did not quite happen that way…although the gentle Mr. Darwin might have found it a more congenial approach to introduce evolution to Victorian society. Darwin had no delusions as to the public reaction to “On The Origin of Species”: the outrage, the personal attacks and the less than flattering caricatures in Punch. At least, the Church of England could not burn him at the stake. In fact, the dread of the ensuing controversy had deterred Darwin for many years from publishing his research on evolution. He probably hoped to avoid it altogether, keeping evolution a secret among the scientific community.

Yes, Darwin did not discover evolution; he merely divulged it. By the 19th century, science had becoming increasingly skeptical of the Bible’s explanation for Creation. If nothing else, the growing variety of fossils was raising doubts and questions. Geologists discovered fish skeletons in rock layers on mountains. Genesis did not explain that. Biologists were finding ample evident of extinct species. Had Adam killed them all or had the animals drown in Noah’s Flood? But science preferred to regard the accumulating data as anecdotes on a ribald topic that would only shock the public.

If evolution was science’s dirty secret, then Charles Darwin was–to put it a Sixties’ context–the kid with the best collection of Playboys. With his studies on geology, British barnacles and the wildlife of the Galapagos, he was the acknowledged expert on “you-know-what.” Among his scientist friends, he was even sharing his theory of an underlying principle of (not to be said aloud) evolution. Of course, he knew and dreaded the reaction if his theory ever began public. Natural selection was tantamount to denying God’s precise blueprint of Creation. Darwin was an affable man of fragile health, so he lacked both the temperament and the strength for controversy. To avoid the uproar, he was quite content to keep his theory a secret among friends. It remained so for more than ten years until 1856, when Darwin found himself forced to choose between infamy and obscurity.

That year, Darwin learned that a young British naturalist in Borneo had arrived at a theory of evolution based on a natural selection of the fittest member of a species. This unexpected rival, Alfred Russell Wallace, could not have known of Darwin’s long-standing but secret theory; the two men did not frequent the same drawing rooms. However, using the same empirical perspective, Wallace simply had arrived at the same conclusion as Darwin. Furthermore, being young and unestablished, Wallace was not the least reticent about being the center of controversy. He contacted the British scientific societies about his proposed paper on evolution, and that news reached Darwin.

Even then, Darwin was loathe to react and risk any uproar. He first wanted to see what Wallace actually had to say. Ironically, within a year, he knew. Wallace had written to him with an outline of his ideas. In his communications with the scientific community, Wallace had been told of Darwin’s expertise in evolution. So, looking for guidance, the chicken wrote to the fox. In fairness to Darwin, he never discouraged or disparaged Wallace; he analyzed his rival’s work with a remarkable and laudable objectivity. Wallace actually appreciated Darwin’s help and continued the correspondence, never realizing that he had goaded Darwin into writing his own work on the subject.

Evolution was no longer going to be a secret. Darwin had long hoped to avoid the controversy, but he would be damned if Wallace’s research would take precedence over his. Resigned to the infamy, Charles Darwin finally published his findings, “On The Origin of Species”, on November 24, 1859.

As for Wallace’s barely remembered role in history, “survival of the fittest” apparently applies to scientists, too.

  1. Cindy Starks says:

    I knew all along that Darwin was a scoundrel. I never did like his theories, either. I’ll take Adam and Noah and the lot, or is that Lot? Anyway, I refuse to let Darwin make a monkey out of me.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      And as a further demonstration of your principles, you will refuse any gifts from Wedgwood! (Thank goodness Darwin wasn’t related to the Tiffanys or Cartiers).


  2. Hal Vincent says:

    Eugene, great article but I commiserate with any fairly young ladies who received unwanted attention e.g. “door knocking” etc. from Barnacle Bill. So I must politely disagree with your seemingly dismissive attitude toward Darwin’s peerless barnacle research. After all, being a mollusk clinging upside down for dear life to the bottom of a ship is a hull of a life.

  3. kathy says:

    i thought he had a change of mind later,k

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