Charles Darwin: A Portrait

by Geoffrey West
[Yale University Press, $3.00]
GEOFFREY WEST has used admirable judgment in sifting out the available Darwiniana and in reconstituting a new Life, reinterpreting it for our own time. He has taken to heart G. J. Romanes’s dictum that in Darwin’s case the first duty of a biographer is ‘to render some idea, not of what he did, but of what he was.’ Moreover, he first approached his subject with no preliminary knowledge other than the taken-for-granted notion that Darwin was ‘a rather more than usually “typical Victorian,” ’ thus ensuring a freshness of vision conducive to being just to it. That he is superbly just is a fact that needs to be stressed.
It was Voltaire who said that in order to reform a child one ought to begin with its grandmother. Similarly Mr. West has the idea that in order to tell the story of the evolution of an evolutionist it would be best to begin with his grandfather. Quite apart from the fact that Erasmus Darwin was something of a character, fit indeed to put into a novel, he was also, it may he said without stretching the point, the first of the Darwinians. The first law of organic nature was, he said, ‘Eat or be eaten!’ — a slogan that was surely a forerunner of ‘ the survival of the fittest.’ He saw even the plants engaged in ‘vegetable war.’ With such perceptions of ' the struggle for existence ’ and premonitions of ‘natural selection’ in the grandfather Erasmus, Charles came honestly by his predispositions to investigate the mystery of natural phenomena. And, prophetically enough, when Charles was born the preacher took for his text ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.’
Yet in his educational years Charles was to prove a handful to his father, Robert, a physician of note even as Erasmus was before him. Charles had no inclination for medicine and wasted good years at Edinburgh in finding this out. Then he was sent to Cambridge to become a clergyman. Here raged the fever of ‘bug-hunting,’ and with enthusiasm Charles joined the contest to see who could boast the greatest number of varieties.
From this idle pastime to the startling offer to go adventuring on the Beagle as a naturalist runs a series of accidents that in the looking backward reads strangely like appointed destiny. The five! years of wandering round the world in the tiny shell, with intermittent fits of seasickness which were to affect his health, are an epic of endurance. They are also a voyage of discovery and self-discovery. Mr. West describes the subjective moods of Darwin with admirable skill. You read the man’s story, as it were, from the inside; and you find it hard, even impossible, to dissociate the man from his work — they are indeed one.
As for the rest, it is a story of Charles as husband, father, and friend, as almost perpetual invalid, as a timid soul reluctant yet ultimately driven to fling his bomb into complacent Victorian parlors. To-day both Stalin and Hitler claim Darwin for their own, though here and there are voices which affirm that the ‘fittest’ are those who would rule by love rather than by brute force. To these modern reactions Mr. West devotes his final excellent chapter.