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History of Science

It really is a small world...

Charles Darwin - Darwin and the Barnacle - Fossils, Finches and Fuegians

Marsha Richmond admires the industry of the 'Darwin industry'

Twenty years ago, in the introduction to the path-breaking anthology The Darwinian Heritage (1983), David Kohn challenged scholars in the burgeoning field of Darwin studies to alter their research aims. Speaking to the growing community soon labelled the "Darwin industry", Kohn urged less particularist attention on Darwin and more of a focus on the Victorian scientific community, with the aim of making "greater sense of why Darwin's science took its characteristic shape".

At first glance, it would appear the authors of the three books under review ignored Kohn's admonition. Certainly they retain Darwin as their central focus. Yet on closer examination, we can see that, despite their continued exploration of aspects of Darwin's intellectual development, each also illustrates a measured maturity in contemporary Darwin studies that meets or even exceeds Kohn's directive. Indeed, the historical contextualisation provided by these works both explains the shape of Darwin's scientific endeavours and reveals important aspects about the role of science in Victorian society. But they do more: they indicate a new direction in Darwin studies, one well integrated with methodological developments in other fields. Their interdisciplinary approach towards understanding Darwin and his place in, and impact on, Victorian society not only places them prominently among the best contemporary work in the history of science, but also within the general literature on science and society.

In Fossils, Finches and Fuegians , Richard Darwin Keynes provides a delightful account of the Beagle voyage, described by Darwin as "by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career".

Keynes, a former professor of physiology at Cambridge University, is well qualified to undertake this task. He has devoted years to the study of his great-grandfather's South American adventures. As he relates, he first became interested in this topic in 1968 during a visit to South America, when he chanced on a collection of pencil drawings and watercolours by Conrad Martens, official artist on the Beagle . After returning to England, Keynes consulted his godmother, Nora Barlow, "the true founder of what is often known nowadays as the Darwin Industry", who encouraged him to catalogue all of Martens' extant drawings. This work resulted in the compilation of pictures and accounts published in The Beagle Record (1979).

In 1988, following in Barlow's footsteps, he brought out a new edition of Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary . In 2000, after many years of painstaking work, Keynes published the beautifully edited volume Charles Darwin's Zoology Notes and Specimen Lists from HMS Beagle , an annotated transcription of manuscripts held in the Darwin Archive in Cambridge.

Keynes' expertise as one of the foremost scholars on this important period of Darwin's life is quite evident in Fossils, Finches and Fuegians , a popular reconstruction and account of the Beagle voyage. From start to finish, Keynes couples an accurate historical account of Darwin's daily activities and scientific work with a lively prose style that brings to life all the adventure and excitement as well as drudgery of the voyage.

This book is no mere recitation of Darwin's own account in his diaries or his published two-volume Journal of Researches . It draws on all the extant published and unpublished source materials on Darwin (including the zoology notes, diary and correspondence) and recent secondary works. It is liberally illustrated, including maps and an extensive collection of contemporary images from the voyage (with colour plates of Martens' landscapes and John Gould's birds, and line drawings by Martens, Augustus Earle, Syms Covington and Philip Gidley King). Keynes adds other photographs and drawings of organisms or locales that help bring to life the narrative of the voyage.

Keynes lays out a carefully constructed and comprehensive profile of Darwin's research interests and experiences during his voyage. Following a chronological format, Keynes' use of multiple source materials in constructing his narrative provides a particularly rich, composite picture of events. For example, in discussing explorations off the coast of Argentina in 1832, Keynes mentions Darwin's finding of a remarkable toad at Bahia Blanca and again at Maldonado. Darwin's letters and zoological notes mentioning this find include allusions to Milton's Paradise Lost , which, Keynes notes, Darwin "always kept with him" on the voyage. But he has also tracked down an 1885 comment by Emma Darwin, in a letter to William written three years after Darwin's death, that mentions this toad: "`I am reading your father's Journal after a long gap - it makes me feel so happy as if I was going with him; only I want to ask him so many questions. The real man comes out constantly, e.g. thinking to give a toad in a dry place in Rio Plata 'quite a treat' by taking it to a pond & nearly drowning it'." In short, this "biography" of Darwin's Beagle experiences will amuse and enlighten general readers and seasoned scholars of this period, who may well gain new insight into the multiple meanings of the voyage for Darwin and Victorian science.

Rebecca Stott's Darwin and the Barnacle focuses on one particular organism Darwin discovered while on the Beagle voyage - his chance discovery in January 1835 on a beach on the isle of Chiloe of an unusual conch shell riddled with tiny holes. Examining the fruits of his day's catch under the microscope, he discovered in the shell's orifices a tiny, aberrant barnacle unlike any other he had either seen or read about in zoological texts. As Stott recounts: "He didn't know it at this point, but this barnacle, soon to be nicknamed Mr Arthrobalanus, would not be finished with him for a further 20 years. This was an encounter on a beach with a creature too small to see with the naked eye that would lead to eight years of meticulous dissection and observation of every known barnacle - fossil and living - in the world and to four published volumes with hundreds of pages of analysis."

Darwin's extended preoccupation with barnacle anatomy and taxonomy, spanning the years between publication of the Beagle scientific monographs and On the Origin of Species , has long been an enigma to scholars. Why, in short, would Darwin have delayed publishing his theory of evolution, first evidenced in notebook jottings made soon after his return home in 1836 and sketched out more fully in a manuscript of 1842, to dedicate himself instead to a comprehensive study of such lowly and seemingly unimportant organisms as barnacles, more properly known as the cirripedia ? The few historians who have analysed this problem have pointed to Darwin's earlier fascination with marine invertebrates while a student at Edinburgh and particularly their modes of generation, an interest that was enhanced through encountering myriad strange sea creatures while on the Beagle voyage. His expertise and interest were particularly fortuitous given zoologists' current attempt to understand the place of invertebrates in the animal kingdom. Since barnacles were anomalous - seemingly sharing similarities with both molluscs and crustaceans - Darwin may have decided to pursue their classification both to satisfy his curiosity as well as to heed his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker's advice to establish his taxonomic credentials before publishing his evolutionary views.

Darwin and the Barnacle (according to the jacket) is "the story of one tiny creature and history's most spectacular scientific breakthrough". It is also is a clever, insightful, even playful addition to Darwin scholarship. Stott, a professor of English specialising in Victorian literature and science, brings a fresh approach to explaining "Why barnacles?" - creating a biography focused on a single facet of Darwin's scientific work, a kind of intellectual "dissection", if you will, of Darwin's pre- Origin obsession with understanding the meaning of generation.

This is a fascinating story indeed. Using barnacles as "model organisms" served multiple functions. Darwin's four monographs on fossil and living barnacles made important contributions to contemporary taxonomy, recognised by his 1853 receipt of the prestigious Royal Medal of the Royal Society of London. Thomas Henry Huxley particularly lauded his use of microscopical analysis to make out the stages of larval development in barnacles. In Darwin's hands, armed with his ideas about descent with modification, the new methodology of using development to indicate genealogical relationships took on particular meaning. As Stott notes: "What was newly exciting to Darwin was that his species theory was now leading him, directing his questions; and it was like pushing at open doors." Little wonder that on completing the last barnacle monograph in 1854, Darwin immediately turned to his species book. Stott's book fills in the critical gap in explaining the importance of Darwin's curious "interlude" between the Beagle and the Origin : "What has he achieved, he wonders now, in bringing light to this small corner of the living world? He has produced a definitive monograph, he knows - probably one that will continue to be used by cirripedologists long after his death.

The books are unique, the sum of all barnacle knowledge; they have pushed out the frontiers of the known world. But what have they done for him? Who is he now that he has finished the barnacle labours? A changed man without doubt. He thinks differently, reasons differently. Classifying the barnacles has given him new skills, language and understanding; they have sharpened his mind and his comprehension of theoretical principles in zoology, embryology and homology in particular; they have forced him to confront and solve problems of nomenclature; they have made him a skilled dissector... More than anything, they have enabled him to ruminate over his species theory and strengthen his grasp of natural and sexual selection."

Stott, as this passage shows, writes beautifully, coupling historical accuracy and scientific clarity with literary verve. Referring to Darwin's expansive and impressive zoological booty collected on the voyage, for example, she likens Darwin to "a Baron Münchausen among naturalists": "He had stories to tell - some tall stories, like those of Baron Münchausen, and others that, like a detective, he had to finish, to trace their narratives through to completion. His task was to 'prove animals like plants; trace gradation between associated and non-associated animals - and the story will be complete'. Other zoologists back home, in the wake of John Vaughan Thompson's tall stories of barnacle metamorphosis as strange as the tales from Ovid, were clamouring for storytellers who would puzzle out such wondrous accounts. Facts were indeed proving stranger than fiction." This definitive account of Darwin and the barnacles will thus appeal to generalists and Darwinists alike.

Janet Browne's eagerly anticipated second part of her two-volume biography of Darwin, subtitled The Power of Place , displays many of the same elements that contribute to the success of Stott's and Keynes' books. She is a historian of science who was formerly an editor on the Darwin Correspondence Project, and she has published widely on Darwin. Browne couples her historical acumen with a lively and polished literary style, making her mammoth biography a truly delightful read. Picking up Darwin's life in 1858, Browne opens with a brief but perceptive discussion of the significant features of mid-century Victorian society, beginning: "If Charles Darwin had spent the first half of his life in the world of Jane Austen, he now stepped forward into the pages of Anthony Trollope." Against this she unfolds the multiple meanings that "place" holds for understanding Darwin's life. She notes his privileged place in the Victorian social setting as well as the scientific community. "In London, his friends were clever and influential, a cosmopolitan mix of university professors, authors, manufacturers, government officials, landowners, and politicians; here and there a baronet or a literary lady or two, a few old comrades from his time on the Beagle , and a clutch of intelligent nieces ready to discuss the latest concerts or exhibitions." She highlights the network of connections Darwin so adroitly exploited in the service of his science, without denying his particular brilliance. He was a person whose "mind teemed with ideas", and he had an insatiable curiosity and "dogged" determination to probe "every crevice of the evidence" in support of a beloved theory. Such characteristics, coupled with his accomplishments, explain the inordinate attention that has been bestowed on this man. "Much of the lasting fascination of Darwin's life story surely lies in the relationship between this prolific inner world of the mind and the private and public lives that he created for himself." Browne divides her treatment of Darwin between 1858 and his death in 1882 into three parts: author, experimenter and celebrity. The first examines the making and immediate reception of On the Origin of Species ; the second focuses on Darwin's post- Origin projects, most notably his research on selective adaptations in orchids and other plants and the publication of Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868). In the third section, covering events in Darwin's later life and the publication of The Descent of Man (1871), she switches to a primarily topical rather than chronological organisational scheme. This enables her to group otherwise-disparate elements and events that span multiple years - such as Darwin's persistent ill-health, his family life, his relationship with friends, collaborators, foreign disciples and opponents, and his scientific issues and interests - relatively seamlessly under such general rubrics as "Invalid" or "The burden of heredity". In this part, one discovers the significance "the power of place" holds for Darwin. Describing Darwin's seemingly pedestrian daily circuit around the Sandwalk, Browne alludes more generally to his location within the Victorian world of science, noting: "In this soothing routine, a sense of place became pre-eminent in Darwin's science. It shaped his identity as a thinker." She later returns to this theme in examining his study of earthworms. "Having exploited his garden, transformed his house into a factory for theories, and turned his growing children into facts, he now looked downwards, into the very earth he walked on. His science in this regard had come to be absolutely of the place, an expression of himself, of his personality and aspirations, now quite distinct from any comparable researches undertaken in biology by friends such as Huxley or Hooker."

Browne has sorted through a dizzying array of primary data and secondary scholarship to reconstruct a life of Darwin that seems not only credible but "right". Certainly one could correct a couple of facts, quibble with a few interpretations, and expand the index, but these are trivial points to raise about such an expansive and ambitious work. Taken together with its sister volume, Voyaging (1995), this biography is a magisterial scholarly and literary achievement.

From our present vantage point, all these books serve as a testament to the phenomenal accomplishments of recent Darwin scholarship. The sophisticated interdisciplinary syntheses reviewed here embrace the exploration of the cultural and social dimensions of science by focusing on the life and career of a pivotal 19th-century figure.

Marsha L. Richmond is associate professor of science and technology, Wayne State University, Michigan, US.

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume 2

Author - Janet Browne
ISBN - 0 224 04212 2
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £25.00
Pages - 591

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