World's Fair

I just posted an entry on Darwin’s status as a scientist, and wanted to tag on this brief run-down on some biography. (Although I’ll say right off that I’m *not* a historical Darwin scholar, and a lot of brilliant people are.)

First, Darwin is the most biographed scientist. Second, that means there are tons of good bios of him; and a whole lot more that are just awful. Third, they’ve changed focus over the years — so you can study the Darwin Bio industry itself as a site of research. His character is portrayed differently in the late 19th century, at the height of Victorian sensibility; it differs again in bios from the early 20th, when different social mores prevailed and a different scientific context was matching his work with new stuff, like in a Mendelian world; then you get your post-War bios; and then you get the recent ones, probably post-80s, which is again a whole new world of social and scientific values, but also a whole new world of historiographical skill and depth….


…And fourth, there are pretty much two “best bios” out there, from this most recent era, one by Janet Browne, actually in two volumes (and PZ, I saw, had a link to a recent magazine article by Browne, where she’s writing about the uncontroversial parts of the Origin, and the four main friends of Darwin who did all the promo work), the other by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. (Here’s a nice discussion of their book.) The Desmond and Moore bio is, in fact, and I’m not saying this to be a goon, because it sounds dumb to say, it’s a page-turner. A biography of Darwin as a page turner. It’s massive, most of them are, but fast-paced.

I said all of that to say this: here’s one very mini-bio I wrote about just one part of Darwin’s life, just before he went on his Beagle voyage, as a young 22-year-old. I repost this from it’s original site, over at McSweeneys, so I’ll make it all a block quote:

Little Charlie Darwin, God Bless Him

(Volume X of B.R. Cohen’s Annals of Science, 10/11/05)
– – – -

This is nuts. Darwin’s all famous now, right? His name comes up now and again. But before he was, he wasn’t. He was a confused, pimply, brash, confused, and also pimply kid. He got his real start on this snoopy-sounding HMS Beagle. Sailed around the world in the aftermath of a failed romance and a list of ups and downs, he did.

He’s 22. It’s the 1830s. Already dropped out of med school, already pissed off Dad, already decided to just suck it up and become a man of the cloth, get himself a real nice Anglican parish in the countryside. And he’s got this scheme: over summer break he and this guy Ramsay are gonna get a boat, sail down to the Canary Islands, do the fashionable thing for landed gentry, you know, botanizing, entomologizing, maybe geologizing. It’s big. It’s on. He’s up.

But comes time to get ready annnnd … Ramsay dies. The guy’s not yet 40, not too old. It’s a surprise death. The expedition, clearly, is off. He’s down.

Then, along about the same week, Darwin gets this letter from the dear Reverend Henslow, a professor friend from clergy school–Cambridge University, if you’ve heard of it–asking if he wants to go on this big expedition to South America. Set aside for a sec this weird young-man-with-old-men-for-friends thing. I don’t know what that was. But Henslow knows a guy who has a boat, a government commission, and this need for an upper-class assistant, someone to break the boredom with. The captain for sure isn’t hanging out with the crew, so jokes and biscuits with Charles oughta pass the time. Henslow put in the word for him. Does he want it? Charles says, Yes, sure, you gotta be kidding me with your perfect timing, I’d love to, just have to convince dear Father, since he’s paying. (Up again.)

Dad, actually, isn’t so keen on the idea. Big, fat, stern Robert Darwin gives a big fat no. He doesn’t want little Charlie flitting around aimlessly. So Charles sulks. A sulking 6-foot-tall 20-something Anglican in britches with tea stains. Wasn’t any better an image then than it is now. He’s down.

So he does the obvious and whines. First he gets Henslow to petition stern Father directly, to change his mind. But yeah, no. Nothing doing. Then he gets his uncle to weigh in. Uncle Jos sends a letter, tells his brother Papa Darwin it’s on the up and up, all very intelligently designed, which actually–wild–does the trick, and then, just like that, in a snap, it’s back on. He’s going to Tierra del Fuego. (Up!)

Oh. Not really. Yet.

The captain–his name’s FitzRoy–admits, Well, the job isn’t actually yours for the taking. I have this other guy in mind first, and haven’t heard back yet. I’d prefer the other guy, but you seem nice. Keep in touch, ‘K, kid? You’re ever in London, stop by and see me. (Down.)

After all that shit–Ramsay dead, Canary plans gone, the new offer, Dad shooting him down, Uncle Jos saving the day, leaps of joy, racing around and telling everyone, tearful farewells, buying up expedition gear, snacks, swimsuit, old People magazines–he comes to find out it isn’t a go. Hope nobody was “inconvenienced,” FitzRoy says. What a dick. (Way down.)

Darwin’s in London now. Just then there was a new king; everyone was festive. Except Charlie. With that cliched internal soundtrack of dejection–brushes on snare drum, an overwrought string section, you’ve heard it–we’ve got a motif of upper-class despair. Chin on chest, feet shuffling, snail’s-pace walk of shame through the city streets, streamers and party favors all around, but Charlie’s too self-absorbed in pangs of disappointment, the balloons raining down to mock his gloom. Rethinking it all. Why didn’t I get back to Fanny when she so wanted to hook up? Why did I spend all that time beetling instead? Who the hell beetles anyway? Come on, man, touring the countryside on vacation collecting rare varieties of insects? What was that? Fanny didn’t even care. What a freakin’ waste. Ooh, look at me, I can describe a beetle better than Linnaeus. Who even knows who Linnaeus is? I’m such a tool.

Avoiding light posts, revelers, chamber pots, he finds himself down by FitzRoy’s office. Walks in and FitzRoy says, Hey, so, uh, the other guy just left here like no more than five minutes ago. Seriously, five minutes ago. He doesn’t want it. He said no. You game? Job’s yours if you want it. We’re taking this refurbished boat, the Beagle, maybe hit the Galapagos, and you have to do some collecting and observing and sanity-making and don’t get seasick and don’t be a hero, and so yea or nay? We’re off as soon as soon is.

Heel-clicking leaps of joy this time and his heart is going like mad and yes he says yes I will. Yes.

Ergo, Darwinism.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    July 30, 2006

    A few years ago we did this for the (graduate history of science) Darwin class – collected and read as many biographies as possible. I focused on books targeted at kids and teens and there are quite a few of those as well.

  2. #2 John Lynch
    July 31, 2006

    I read the D&M biography when I was in graduate school (evol biol) and it turned me on to history of science. Now that I’m actually writing history, I think Browne’s work is a better study of Darwin himself, while D&M is better for Darwin within his time. Just my 20c.

  3. #3 Benjamin Cohen
    July 31, 2006

    Thanks John, for that comparison. That’s nice. I wonder if anyone else out there has read both (or all 3, as it were)? Would you say D&M have a social history of Darwin that uses his life as its narrative thread while Browne’s is an actual biography of Darwin the individual?

  4. #4 Alan X
    June 17, 2010

    Old thread, guess I’ll post anyway.

    The mini-bio of young Darwin rocked.

    I spit beer all over my computer when I read “Ooh, look at me, I can describe a beetle better than Linnaeus. Who even knows who Linnaeus is? I’m such a tool.”

    We use the tool line in lab all the time.

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