Darwin’s Delay

Portrait of the naturalist as a brilliant writer.

In 2009, On theOrigin of Species will be 150 years old. On Feb. 12, 2009, its author would have turned 200. * Dozens of new books will be published to mark this double anniversary, and at last, Darwin the writer will receive the attention he deserves. Darwin the scientist is beyond famous. Darwin the scribbler is comparatively obscure. But I think he should be a hero for everyone who tries and tries again to put words on paper.

I first read Darwin’s Origin back in 1990, before a trip to the Galapagos. At the time, the pleasure of reading the book—as opposed to reading about the book—felt almost like a private discovery. Darwin was not celebrated for his prose. The only Darwin fans I knew were biologists. A British literary critic, Gillian Beer, had examined his influence on Victorian novelists in her book Darwin’s Plots. An American literary critic, Stanley Edgar Hyman, had praised Darwin as an imaginative writer in his own right (along with Marx, Fraser, and Freud) in a book called The Tangled Bank. But there was much more to say, and it seemed to me that no one ever said it.

That’s changing now, and Darwin fans bump into each other more often—like tourists in the Galapagos. In 2005, for instance, E.O. Wilson and James D. Watson collided when they each published a massive Darwin reader, both of which include the complete texts of Darwin’s four greatest books: The Voyage of the H. M. S. Beagle (1845); On the Origin of Species (1859); The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871); and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Wilson and Watson also use the same epigraph—the sentence in which Darwin, with infinite tact and reluctance, spells out the one point in his argument he knew would shock his readers most: “that man with all his noble qualities … still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Darwin had known that to be true as early as 1837, one year after the Beagle voyage. But he did not declare it until TheDescent, in 1871, a delay of 34 years.

“Darwin’s Delay is by now nearly as famous as Hamlet’s,” Adam Gopnik wrote last fall in The New Yorker in a long and brilliant essay in praise of “Charles Darwin, natural novelist.” Gopnik examines the immense skill with which Darwin moves and persuades, and he explains how much it took out of Darwin to say what he said. In Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography, Janet Browne, the pre-eminent biographer of Darwin, provides an account not just of that masterpiece but of a wonderful, miserable writer as well.

Suppose there are a dozen stages in the life of a great writer. For every one of them, Darwin is not only representative, he is monumental—sometimes inspiring, sometimes hugely comforting, always larger than life.

Lost Youth. Darwin’s father and grandfather were both rich, successful doctors. But Darwin wasn’t much of a student. He dropped out of medical school, and then spent most of his time at Cambridge hunting or wandering around the woods, collecting beetles. His father—an overbearing man who weighed 300 pounds—cried, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

The Wanderjahr. When the chance came for Charles to sail around the world on the Beagle, a surveying ship, his father did not want to let him go. Why pile wandering on wandering? Fortunately, Robert Darwin changed his mind. Although Charles was sick as a dog from his first day at sea to his last, no young writer ever had a better Wanderjahr, and no one ever left a better record of one. Some of the best features of his style—his charm, curiosity, excitement, and sincerity—are right there on the first page of the journal of his voyage, in the entry of Jan. 16, 1832, the day the Beagle landed for the first time, in the Cape de Verd Islands. “The scene, as beheld through the hazy atmosphere of this climate, is one of the greatest interest,” Darwin writes; “if, indeed, a person, fresh from the sea, and who has just walked, for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees, can be a judge of any thing but his own happiness.”

The Great Idea. The wander-year lasted five years. Soon after, Darwin arrived at the greatest idea of his life. It was also the greatest idea of his century. It has been called the greatest idea of all time. In its light, everything he had seen in his circumnavigation of the world suffered a sea change into something rich and strange. Darwin began scribbling in secret notebooks. He endured what he called “mental riot.”

Sitzfleisch. Robert Oppenheimer once observed that a physicist needs not only inspiration but also sitzfleisch—the ability to keep one’s flesh sitting in a chair. Writers need the same gift, and Darwin was a hero of sitzfleisch. Even his patience was larger than life. His motto was, “It’s dogged as does it.” After his big idea, he spent 20 years sitting at his desk, in the bosom of his growing family, working out his theory and its implications.

Troubles. He was as sick at his desk as he had been at sea. He came down with everything from nausea and palpitations of the heart to boils. It may have been the anxiety of his secret work that destroyed his health. He hated controversy and knew that his views would bring him so much of it that he might be disgraced. He and his wife, Emma, also suffered the deaths of several of their children, including their favorite daughter, Annie.

Procrastination. Almost as famous as Hamlet’s.

Competition. In June 1858, Darwin got a letter from a young naturalist expounding on Darwin’s great idea: evolution by natural selection. “I never saw a more striking coincidence,” Darwin wrote to a friend and mentor, the great geologist Charles Lyell. Lyell and a few other friends arranged for a paper of Darwin’s and a paper of Alfred Russel Wallace’s to be read together the next month at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London. Then Darwin began to scribble his masterpiece at last.

Agony. “There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put at first my statement and proposition in a wrong or awkward form,” he lamented years later in his Autobiography. Writing the Origin was more than the usual torture. “I am becoming as weak as a child,” he complained to one of his best friends, “miserably unwell & shattered.”

Breakthrough. Though it came with so much effort, he wrote the Origin in a single year. For a writer, it was his wonder-year, as Browne says, “the traveler at last approaching his goal.”

Voice. “His voice was in turn dazzling, persuasive, friendly, humble and dark,” Browne writes. At still other turns it was “mild in the extreme.” But even the mildest passages are dramatic, reined in, serving as they do a ferociously shocking and revolutionary view of life.

Controversy. Again monumental, of course: the greatest controversy of his century. Even some of his best friends could not agree with him. Charles Lyell told Thomas Henry Huxley that he “could not go the whole orang.”

Fame. After the Origin was published, Darwin wrote as many as 500 letters a year. He became to the 19th century what Newton had been to the 18th century and Einstein would be in the 20th—the epitome of wisdom, the smartest man alive. “Towards the end of his life,” Browne writes, “it could almost be said that the Origin of Species devoured Darwin.”

Influence. It has been said that no writer since the time the Hebrew Scriptures were inscribed has had an influence more profound. “At the deepest, most satisfying symbolic level,” Browne writes, “Darwin replaced the ancient imagery of the tree of knowledge, the tree of life, with something similar. His tree was time. It was history. It was knowledge. It was life. But it was not divine.”

Correction, May 3, 2007: An earlier version of this article miscalculated the upcoming anniversaries of Charles Darwin and his book, On the Origin of Species. In 2009, Origin will turn 150; Darwin would have been 200. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)