(Published version: https://doi.org/10.1017/S000708741300023X)
Such was the splendour of 2009 for Darwin scholars that even now, four years after that double birthday (Darwin’s 200th and the Origin‘s 150th), there are important publications still awaiting a first review. Among them are Charles Darwin’s Notebooks from the Voyage of the ‘Beagle’ and Charles Darwin’s Shorter Publications 1829–1883. Both are from Cambridge University Press; both are hefty, handsomely produced and meticulously edited; and both are the work, alone or in collaboration, of John van Wyhe, whose Darwin Online website (http://darwin-online.org.uk) has become not just an indispensable tool for specialists but a bar-raising illustration of what digital resources in the history of science can be and can do.
True to the site’s democratizing ethic, Van Wyhe has made available there, freely accessible to all, something close to the entire contents of these expensive volumes. Even so, the hard copy lends itself to leafing and leaping in ways that some readers, at least, will cherish. To take the Beagle notebooks edition first, what Van Wyhe and Gordon Chancellor (who initiated and hugely advanced the project in the 1980s) present are full transcriptions, with helpful introductions and annotations, of the notebooks – fifteen in all – that Darwin took with him on his excursions on land during the 1831–1836 voyage. Previously published only in extracts, and filled with his on-the-spot jottings and drawings, these field notebooks offer fascinating glimpses of the young Darwin in the round and, especially in some Humboldtian sublimity-of-nature moments, in the raw. At the end of his first notebook, begun in Cape de Verde, off the coast of Africa ([85b], p. 31), we read,
Nothing quite so lyrical can be found in the other volume, comprising Darwin’s many scientific papers, his letters to the correspondence columns of newspapers and periodicals, and other published miscellanea. Overlap with Paul Barrett’s 1977 edition of these materials is, as one would expect, substantial, but far from complete, with Van Wyhe’s edition containing over seventy additional items, plus some corrections and supplements to Barrett’s work, and more copious annotations throughout than Barrett attempted. A lot of what is new here, such as the list from 1829 of insects captured by Darwin in England and Wales when he was a student at Cambridge, will not force any major changes of mind about his life and thought. But cumulatively it all serves to reveal him in vivid and varied detail as, in the words of Janet Browne and Jim Secord from their foreword, ‘a regular and spirited contributor to Victorian natural history’ (p. xvii) – a dimension scarcely visible in his best-known books. And there are some nice surprises. I appreciated learning, for example, that ‘A biographical sketch of an infant’ (1877) was translated into Armenian in 1914 (by whom? and why?); and ‘Darwin’s reply to a vegetarian’ (1880), which is not in Barrett’s edition, is a gem, at once informative and noncommittal as to whether the theory of evolution favours vegetarianism or not. On Darwin Online, one can read a scan of the original, from the Herald of Health and Journal of Physical Culture. The Shorter Publications gives just the text, in the uniform format used throughout, but with a typically diligent endnote – also replicated online – about the correspondent in Switzerland who provoked Darwin’s reply, its first appearance in a German-language journal, and so forth. Online versions will suffice for most purposes, I imagine. But the volume is well worth seeking out nevertheless.
Beyond the confines of Darwin scholarship, meanwhile, his achievement is inspiring historical studies of a bracingly different sort and scale. Another book from Cambridge University Press, Edmund Russell’s Evolutionary History, is a manifesto for an approach to human history that does not treat it in the ordinary way, as starting where the history studied by evolutionary biologists stops. The ‘evolutionary historians’ of Russell’s vision will dedicate themselves to tracing the impact of humans on the evolutionary trajectories of non-human species and vice versa. This vision is not, of course, wholly new, and Russell – whose earlier writings meshed environmental history with history of science and technology – acknowledges predecessors including Jared Diamond and Alfred Crosby. But uniting history and biology to understand life on Earth (to quote Evolutionary History‘s subtitle) is not yet the business of an identifiable field. Russell means his short book to usher that into being, and to this end offers an unusual combination of basic tuition, case studies and calls to arms, presented in an informal style but backed up by extensive reading.
Is evolutionary history for you? Consider Darwin again, and what you might teach if asked to give an undergraduate lecture course on him. There are some attractive standard solutions to the problem of organizing such a course. But with a head full of Russell, you might become a little more adventurous, in ways that some of your students would likely find exciting. Say you start them off – for you have a head full of Van Wyhe too – near the end, with the aged Darwin’s reply to that vegetarian in 1880, on the view that it is offbeat enough to hold their interest while still being representative of the sort of thing that occupied the celebrity sage. From this single, striking episode you could build up for your students a composite picture of the man, his ideas and his world, while at the same time exemplifying those ideas (and so helping the students really get them, and get their importance) to show how that man, and those ideas, and that world, came to be as they were at that moment in history. Take, as an entry point, the epistolary culture to which Darwin belonged. By degrees, you could reveal his voluminous correspondence as not just a product of Victorian social and technological history but, ultimately, a by-product of the Neolithic agricultural revolution – that period thousands of years before when human efforts at domesticating plant and animal species began to yield surpluses, enabling the emergence of complex civilization, including, for record keeping, systems of writing. And you could then, having extended the time horizon of your lecture vertiginously far into the past, bring it back to the Victorian era by noting how Darwin argued for his theory of natural selection by way of an analogy with just those human domestication efforts, including ancient records of them, but also their many and advancing forms in his imperial, industrializing Britain.
That would probably be plenty for a first lecture. From a Russellian perspective, however, the pedagogic potential of the 1880 reply would be far from exhausted. Going microbiographical, you might proceed, say, to address Darwin’s wretched health, which placed such severe restrictions on his time for correspondence, and structured his writing life generally. One of the best supported of recent retrospective diagnoses of Darwin’s illness is lactose intolerance – itself, Darwinian biology teaches (as Russell summarizes), the upshot of a mutation in a milk-digestion gene that went to fixation in post-Neolithic human groups who made a habit of drinking milk from cattle that were increasingly bred for that specialization. Or, going macrobiographical, you could illuminate the many ties that bind natural-selection theory to the Industrial Revolution (some picked up on, famously, by Karl Marx – a key figure for Darwin’s vegetarian correspondent, the German socialist publisher Karl Höchberg). Russell’s most compelling chapter aims to show how much industrialization depended on the arrival in eighteenth-century Lancashire mills, via the ports of Liverpool, of the long-fibred varieties of cotton that had evolved, for reasons not yet well understood, only in the New World.
Such an enterprise will not, of course, be to everyone’s taste. But even those repelled by the thought of mixing science into their history of science could probably do with some reflection on why they think that way, and whether there are losses as well as gains in maintaining so firm a segregation. For those purposes, as well as for the more creative and constructive ones that Russell hopes to see, his Evolutionary History is inspiring company.