Darwin’s Simulacrum

I see dead people. And you can too. The museums are full of them, reanimated in a shamanistic glow funded by real estate developer Jack Rudin or Target or whichever oligarchical consortium rules your city state.

When we visit the clearing in the gentrified jungle we hope we might at least be blessed with a vision of an ancestral shade nominally more illuminating than what’s projected by the man behind the tree line.

Three years ago I attended the Charles Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In a country where 40% of the population polled think evolution patently false and another 20% are unsure, the show proved a triumph. Despite friends’ complaints about its length, the exhibit, expertly curated by Niles Eldredge of punctuated equilibrium fame, encapsulated Darwin, his ideas, and many of their immediate implications in an easily understandable way.

There I was–cynic turned fetishist–thrilled to see Darwin’s pistol and Bible from his circumnavigation aboard HMS Beagle. Although he spent considerable time ashore, there is great appeal in summoning a young Darwin, before his health broke, astride a deck hauling himself from one intellectual port to another, from amateur enthusiast to professional naturalist. He had much help, of course, but on an autodidact’s schedule, at one and the same time a relaxed and fevered pace. In an irony still relevant today, his successes would render him the last of the artisan naturalists.

Back in England years later–never again to leave–Darwin continued his voyage. His post-Beagle notebooks lay out the very bones of a century and a half’s evolutionary biology to follow: natural selection, animal behavior, ecological genetics, human origins, systematics and phylogeography. The jottings attest to the stunning power of his mind.

One after another the pieces of paper burn with an indomitable human spirit. In resurrecting Darwin we animate ourselves. I melted with the possibilities. Given a chance, the human mind, with all its faults and failures, possesses the capacity to solve the most puzzling of riddles in spite of itself. In one exhibit case, Darwin’s rough phylogenetic tree, the first ever, encapsulates as never before descent, diversity and extinction. In a personal revelation, even the way the letters at the tips of the tree are arranged serendipitously reproduces many of the basic relationships among the human herpesvirus-8 subtypes I’ve studied.

Darwin’s intellectual descendants have since fleshed out many of the man’s ideas by means that would have both shocked and delighted him: DNA, viruses, genetic engineering, remote sensing, industrial computing, multivariate and nonparametric statistics, and the organismic diversity still daily discovered (and destroyed). But these offerings to the ancestor are wrapped in a hagiography that denies Darwin his humanity and, remarkably, encumbers our present efforts to solve riddles despite ourselves.

What did the simulacrum miss? In arriving at self-evident truths, Darwin–by acts both unconscious and corrupt–naturalized a particular Victorian capitalism as the way nature works. It isn’t just a matter of being caught in his era, dissolved in its assumptions and metaphors. Others disagreed with him even then (while very much admiring what he had accomplished). As noted by John Bellamy Foster, Karl Marx appreciated the verve with which Darwin capped the materialist revolution already long underway against the clergy. But Marx, laughing, delivered a devastating line on the Origins of Species, “Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society.”

For some, Marx’s verb might connotate a deliberate conspiracy. Not at all. Darwin arrived upon the new nature by a combination of a cruise around the world courtesy of the British navy on imperial survey, a critical mass of data (his own included), a population thinking he helped found, and–the piece modern evolutionary biologists still can’t assimilate–the convergent political interests of a rising capitalist class of which Darwin, the man, was a part.

In their brilliant and empathetic landmark 1991 biography–since followed by Janet Browne’s series–Adrian Desmond and James Moore offer chapter and verse connecting Darwin’s life to the bourgeois rebellion his work helped champion.

A post-Beagle Darwin was professionally ambitious as any postdoc scheming today. He publicly kissed the rings of the don naturalists he scorned in private, a quiet friction no less heated than the open hostility of their more radical opponents:

Darwin became more and more frustrated by an arrogant theology…Yet he was desperate to earn the respect of his scientific elders. His double life became more nerve-racking as the months passed setting off an inner turmoil. What if they saw through his false face? He took so much pleasure in unravelling the enigmas of natural history, but his thoughts were becoming dangerous, his brooding masochistic. The pandemonium in his mind made a subtle and complex counterpoint to the public turmoil in urban Britain. (The country was now deep in an economic depression, and ahead lay the grimmest five years in the nineteenth century, with massive unemployment, starvation and riot.) What he was mooting was disreputable in Anglican eyes, and socially subversive (p 237).

Yet he distanced himself from the radical materialists whose ideas he had much in common but which earned his elders’ censure,

[Surgeon William] Lawrence was a republican whose scientific rhetoric achieved a pyrotechnical brilliance. He had been forced to resign his post at the College of Surgeons and recant his views after a vicious attack in the Tory Quarterly Review. The Quarterly execrated his materialist explanations of man and mind. The Court of Chancery ruled his Lectures on Man blasphemous, which destroyed its copyright…Six pauper presses pirated the offending book, keeping it continuously in print for decades…Darwin only had to stare at this shabby tome (which he was currently using) to see the fate awaiting him. He was no atheist, nor would he countenance being hijacked by sleazy fanatics. Lawrence was a reminder of how one’s good name could be dragged through the mud (p. 253).

To avoid such a fate, Darwin took to censoring himself,

He began devising ways of camouflaging his materialism. Don’t mention it, he admonished himself, talk only of inherited mental behavior: ‘To avoid stating how far, I believe, in Materialism,’ he scrawled in a rush, ‘say only the emotions[,] instincts[,] degrees of talent, which are heredetary [sic] are so because brain of child resemble[s], parent stock.’ He was learning to guard his words (p. 259).

It was a monstrous struggle he dealt with for decades, one that probably presented as the intestinal ills he suffered the rest of his life,

He was a closet evolutionist besides. This was the heart of the matter. His Anglican friends were quelling the rioters, some of whom were armed with transmutation and godless sciences. Owen and Forbes were holding the line [against the Chartists] and protecting his privileges. But wouldn’t they condemn him as a fifth-columnist if they uncovered his secret? When he had cried ‘the fabric falls!’ ten years before, he did not have this sort of insurrection in mind. Anyhow, he had been a tyro then, speculating privately. Now he was squire, a family man, a member of the geological elite. For all his theory’s middle-class Malthusian core, and its capitalistic roots, he could still be a branded a traitor by the Tory diehards (p. 354).

To protect himself Darwin willfully condoned others’ public professional beheading. Among them, his own former teacher Robert Grant, from whom a young Darwin first learned to really see nature on the hikes they shared, from whom he learned how to ask scientific questions, with whom he collaborated on studies of molluscs and sea-mats, from whom he learned about continental theories of evolution proscribed in Britain, that provincial island empire,

The irony was complete. Darwin–from his Secretary’s chair–watched the polite company convene to bury Grant’s fossil heresy. Here he sat, a silent witness, before Sedgewick, Buckland, and the rest, most of them Oxbridge-educated, many Anglican divines, all loathing Lamarckism. Yet even as he watched the spectacle unfold, he was hatching his own evolutionary scheme. True, he had outgrown Grant’s nonsense… [But] what was he thinking as Grant was trounced? Did his heart bleed hearing Grant’s spirited defence? Probably not, for he was out of sympathy with the ultra-radical, and he went off to dine with the ‘elite’ at the Crown and Anchor tavern that night, as they gloated over their victory (p. 275).

In his muteness Darwin helped throw his former colleague under the horse and buggy, a tradition still widely practiced in evolutionary biology today albeit with more modern buses.

Darwin’s behavior puts something of an ominous light on the deal later struck in 1858 letting him share immediate credit with Alfred Russel Wallace for the theory of natural selection. While sick in the Spice Islands a feverish Wallace scripted out a theory of selection he mailed to his correspondent Darwin. A shocked Darwin, working in secret for 20 years on something similar, handed over Wallace’s work to his friends, botanist Joseph Hooker and geologist Charles Lyell. Hooker and Lyell hastily arranged, without conferring with Wallace, to have manuscripts by Wallace and Darwin read together into the record at the Linnean Society in London.

The deal has always bothered me. It isn’t that I think Wallace deserved credit alone–Darwin’s version is better substantiated–but rather I’m piqued by the old boy network, an accumulated class advantage Darwin could rely on to protect him from the consequences of his own cowardice. Darwin had shielded himself, and his petty personal ambitions, from Anglican retribution, going so far as helping hang fellow evolutionists, but now wanted the kind credit of discovery someone who had the guts to openly speak out about it plainly deserved instead.

One could reasonably argue his secrecy was the only way Darwin could work on–and substantiate–such a theory for so long in this kind of England. I think that a fair contention (and also open to rebuttal). But let us no longer entertain illusions of guileless innocence on the part of a boyish Darwin. That he allowed his proxies to conduct his Machiavellian affairs, however generous he was to Wallace himself, makes Darwin no less conniving.


Darwin’s materialism-that-shall-not-be-spoken conflicted with his class identity. England, however, was changing out from underneath itself. It was evolving. The Industrial Revolution had placed the bourgeois in the economic driver’s seat. Via the liberal wing of the Whig party they maneuvered for an attendant political power, to be wrenched from the hands of the aristocracy and the clergy who until then long ruled,

Darwin’s biological initiative matched advanced Whig social thinking. This is what made it compelling. At last he had a mechanism that was compatible with the competitive, free-trading ideals of the ultra-Whigs. The transmutation at the base of his theory would still be loathed by many. But the Malthusian superstructure struck an emotionally satisfying chord; and open struggle with no hand-outs to the losers was the Whig way, and no poor-law commissioner could have bettered Darwin’s view. He had broken with the radical hooligans who loathed Malthus. Like the Whig grandees–safe, immune, their own world characterized by noblesse oblige–Darwin was living on a family fortune, and thrusting a bitter competition on a starving world for its own good. From now on he could appeal to a better class of audience–to the rising industrialists, free-traders, and Dissenting professionals (p. 267).

He could shed the red evolutionists he had for years corresponded with,

visionaries who see life marching inexorably upward, powered from below [and who] denounce the props of an old static society: priestly privilege, wage exploitation, and the workhouses [and the] million socialists…castigating marriage, capitalism, and the fat, corrupt Established Church…[the] Radical Christians…who condemn the ‘fornicating’ Church…in bed with the State… [who viewed] the science of life–biology–…ruined, prostituted, turned into a Creationist citadel by the clergy (p xvii).
But in divorcing himself from the reds for reasons of personal and political expediency, Darwin–and baby evolutionary biology itself–would leave behind a source of invigoration, inspiration and innovation that anticipated the bourgeois in their materialism by many decades. In that vein, we should view Alfred Russel Wallace, a scion of the socialists’ Halls of Science and in the Malaysian archipelago in the first place collecting skins as a way of earning a living, as one of a number of radical entries in the race to a satisfactory mechanism for evolution. I think the discipline need now better assimilate the reasons why Wallace and the political radicals from whom he sprang share the winner’s laurel.

In cutting off his epistemological fellow travelers, Darwin dispossessed his newborn of a parent with much to offer to the child’s subsequent development. Marx and Engels would look down into the pram and recognize the “basis in natural science for the class struggle in history”, but would also see the way Darwin heedlessly confounded a particular and passing expansive stage of capitalism for all of nature. It’s a realization the science has missed out on since.

We are also living with the consequences of the estrangement in forums farther removed. Darwin’s was a model with political dividends, instantly replacing clerical authority with an Anglican moralization based in the statistics of production rather than on a deterministic, and very busy, God. As many must now recognize in an era of banker bailouts, it was also an application in which no one, not even the rich, could believe in deed, if not in word, once its punishments were applied beyond the poorest,

And English society will stay vital and progressive only through unimpeded competition. The sickly and degenerate deserve to be scythed down, [Darwin] believed, even as he sent subscriptions to the Downe charities to maintain his own paternal order and worried about his sons’ in-bred ailments. He decried ‘primogeniture for destroying Natural Selection’ even as he had Lubbock set up his eldest William in the banking business (p. 522).

Today evolutionary biology, the most historical of sciences outside cosmology and geology, refuses to grapple with the implications of the social origins of Darwin’s natural selection outside its struggle with religion, that old punching bag. Sins of omission are as telling as those of commission: the underlying presumptions of evolutionary biology’s economic bases are still very much in operation even as they are largely forgotten by evolutionists. The inscience continues to impede the field’s advance.

So what! one hears the reply. What’s the bottom line? Does the omission refute natural selection? As if a full denouncement–an indefensible stance–is the only critique permitted! The answer is neoclassical selection misses much of evolution’s story, something Darwin himself, if not his disciples, acknowledged. We will explore the details, including those Darwin didn’t catch, in the months to come.

In noting Darwin’s cowardice and conventionality in the face of his singular courage and acuity, we rescue the man from his simulacrum, a coffin in part his own making, in part our own. We respect the ancestors best when we interrogate them. We show that we take what they did seriously when we offer them not burning incense but cross questions. On his better days of the dead Darwin will appreciate both the sentiment and practice whatever the damage to his reputation.


3 Responses to “Darwin’s Simulacrum”

  1. Dick Levins Says:

    Glorious! I’m forwarding it to friends in Cuba.

  2. […] social origins of Darwin’s natural selection are explored in “Darwin’s Simulacrum” by rgwallace at Farming Pathogens. While not going so far as creationists to say that Darwin stole […]

  3. […] Engels,Anti-Dühring (New York: International Publishers, 1970); Rob Wallace, “Darwin’s Simulacrum,” Farming Pathogens blog, August 10, 2009, […]

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