What Darwin Said/Wrote on His 50th Birthday.

[cross posted at So Simple A Beginning, where a group of us are reading The Origin together.]

Happy Birthday, Charles!  A day or two —  or four late.

With that out of the way, what happened on the great day?  Not quite now, nor then, not 200 years ago, but rather, on Feb. 12, 1859, the day Darwin turned fifty?

That birthday, of course, came nine months before he published the book that is the reason for the odd bit of hullabaloo you may have noticed around the web (and bricks-and-mortar “reality”) as well.

The answer, from Charles’ perspective?

Not much good …

…and the reason for Darwin’s discomfort?

That same, dominating, seemingly terrifying book.

Here’s what Charles Darwin wrote to his cousin, William Darwin Fox, from Moor Park, the water-cure establishment to which he had retreated to secure relief from his persistent stomach troubles:

I have been extra bad of late, with the old severe vomiting rather often & much distressing swimming of the head.

Now, as Darwin points out, this is an old complaint, a re-eruption of the distressing symptoms that he had first experienced in Chile during the voyage of the Beagle. As such, this is mere incident, part of the fabric of a life often lived in great discomfort.

But with Darwin, it never does to ignore the  mind-body connection.  Consider the sequence:  on 18 June, 1858, Darwin received the famous parcel from Alfred Russel Wallace, naturalizing in the Malay archipelago (now Indonesia), which included the younger man’s sketch of a theory that described the mutability of species through a selection mechanism very close to Darwin’s own ideas about natural selection.

Darwin had some hints of Wallace’s interests before, both through Wallace’s published work and in correspondence between the two, but this, coming in the midst of his own attempt to distill a the work of a decade and more into a write up on the species problem, came as a terrible blow.

His friends famously rallied him:  presenting both Wallace’s paper and some of Darwin’s unpublished work to the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858 — thus establishing Darwin’s joint priority with Wallace, and laying the ground for Darwin to claim pride of place if he could only present the first fully developed argument for the ideas that he and Wallace had broached…

…which is why, from the summer of 1858 through the autumn 1859  publication of what became On the Origin of Species, Darwin was hard at work, extracting from his proposed much longer work what he called “an abstract” of the larger argument.  It was that effort, much more than any birthday, even so canonically fraught a milestone as the two-score-and-tenth, that consumed Darwin.  Certainly, he had no doubt as to the source of his physical distress:

My abstract is the cause, I believe of the main part of the ills to which my flesh is heir…

At first reading, this line  plays to those who retail the conventional account of Darwin as deeply fearful of the dreadful secrets he was about to reveal in The Origin. It’s easy to leap to the conclusion that the man who wrote of confessing to a murder early on in his consideration of the species problem might break under the stress of going public with his conclusions.  And it is true that Darwin did play his cards close to his vest for years, and that he was determined, at the least, not to go widely public with his thinking until he felt his arguments were ironclad.

What then of the long-running argument that Darwin’s illness was not psychological, not a trick played on his unfortunate body by his  conflicted mind?  The most common diagnosis of an infectious cause of  Darwin’s gastric symptoms is that of Chagas disease, which is supported by the fact that Darwin wrote in his journal of the voyage of the Beagle that, one night while naturalizing in Chile,

“I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca (Vinchuca), a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body. Before sucking they are quite thin but afterwards they become round and bloated with blood.”

The Benchuca bug is the insect carrier of  Chagas disease, and the fact that this illness produces many of the symptoms that Darwin endured, plus this gold-standard report of encountering its vector persuaded a number of high profile Darwinists to entertain the suggestion after it was proposed in 1959 by Dr. Saul Adler, a tropical medicine specialist.  Among them — Ernst Mayr, writing in the introduction to the Harvard University Press facsimile of the first edition of The Origin of Species I’m using for this project.

There are, though, serious problems with the diagnosis, not least that Darwin lived a long life characterized by a lessening of the symptoms that seemed to strike at moments of greatest stress with remarkable regularity.  Writing more recently than Mayr, many Darwin experts have come to see the search for a specific point-source of Darwin’s illness to be a mug’s game.  Here is Janet Browne on the subject in Charles Darwin:  Voyaging.

...he only recorded being bitten by benchucas some months after this illness [his collapse on the way from Santiago to Valparaiso in 1834]…and that incident was not followed by any of the fever typical of sleeping sickness [Chagas] infectionsChagas disease was endemic in Chile and the characteristic symptoms of infection…would not have gone unremarked…Yet there was no serious sugggestion that a South American disease could be to blame [for Darwin’s post-Beagle illnesses], although once or twice in extreme old age Darwin attributed his breakdown in health to this Valparaiso attack.  (Voyaging, pp. 279-280).

Browne goes on to suggest that “sour new-made wine seems as good areason as any for disorders in Chile,” while noting that the purgatives he was prescribed for his symptoms “would have incapacitated the hardiest.”

In the end, without exhuming Darwin and being fortunate enough to retrieve enough biological material to run retrospective diagnostics, it is likely that the question of exactly what laid Darwin low on his fiftieth birthday (and all the other times) will remain unsolvable in any absolute sense.  There doesn’t even have to be a single cause, nor an exclusively physical or psychological account.

Still, it is important to pay attention to what Darwin himself tells us.  No man or woman may be a perfect witness to their own state of being, but at least Charles was first on the scene.  He knew, or thought he did, what ailed him: his abstract was making him sick.

But for all the evidence — and there is plenty — of  Darwin’s doubts and even genuine fear of public ridicule or worse in the 1840s, it does not follow that Darwin in the late 1850s, already working on his much longer version of the story he compressed within The Origin of Species, was vomiting up terror at his presumption.

It is always a risky game to psychoanalyze from a distance.  But we do have direct testimony here:  when pressed, not by disapproving public opinion but by the threat of professional eclipse, Darwin turned out to be eager, even swift to write up  his ideas for as wide an audience as he could reach.

It seems to me that Darwin himself gives us a simpler explanation for his manuscript’s role in his illness.  In essence, he had been working too hard.

And in that context, his letter to Fox betrays a hint of relief, and the prospect of better days to come, given that “I have only two more chapters & to correct all, & then I shall be a comparatively free man.” Even better, Darwin told his cousin, his peers were falling into line.  “I have had the great satisfaction of converting Hooker & I believe Huxley & I think Lyell is much staggered.”

This does not sound to me like a man cowering before the enormity of what he was about to do.  This is someone who, when not retching into the bucket by his bed, is getting used to the scale of his achievement.

You go, Charles.  Happy 200th, yet again.

Images:  Charles Darwin at 51.  According to the son of Charles Darwin, Francis Darwin, this portait is by Messrs. Maull and Fox, ; he writes that “the date of the photograph is probably 1854; it is, however, impossible to be certain on this point, the books of Messrs. Maull and Fox having been destroyed by fire.”  Other sources date the photograph from 1859 or 1860.

Map of Alfred Russell Wallace’s travels from his book The Malay Archipelago, 1869.

Explore posts in the same categories: Darwin, evolution, History of Science, Uncategorized

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