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Charles Darwin: A New Life.

Charles Darwin: A New Life

John Bowlby. Norton, $24.95. Bowlby's 500-page biography is not the first book to probe Charles Darwin's mysterious illness, which endured for 30 years or more. Authors and scholars have long speculated on the great man's "shivering, dying sensations, ringing in the ears" (to use Darwin's words), his heart palpitations, blurred vision, and hysterical crying fits. Nonetheless, there is something odd about Bowlby's posthumous work. He argues that Darwin's malady was psychological in origin. What, then, was its cause? That's where the oddness lies.

Darwin's malady began when he was 30 years old, shortly after he married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, a devoutly religious woman. At almost exactly the same time, Darwin began to read the theories of Lamarck and to speculate upon the "mutability of species," as the idea of evolution was then known.

On learning this, many people reasonably ask: Was Darwin's illness brought on by a conflict between religion and science? Or, perhaps, between his marriage and his work? Or between his own upbringing (he was expected to enter the church at one point) and the implications of the theory of evolution?

Darwin's notebooks reveal that at the very time his illness appeared, he was, as Bowlby writes, "keenly aware that the religious and political implications of his theories could prove dangerous--especially if his philosophical position turned out to be materialist, as he strongly suspected it would." In one notebook Darwin wrote: "Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy the interposition of the deity. More humble and I believe truer to consider him created from animals." In another revealing entry, Darwin recorded the need "to avoid stating how far I believe in Materialism."

Surprisingly enough, however, Bowlby relegates to an appendix the possibility that this may have caused Darwin's illness. He duly notes the "conflict between what were seen in Darwin's day to be the adverse religious consequences of evolution theory and Emma's religious beliefs," only to dismiss it in a paragraph. Bowlby does not even address the strong possibility that conflict within Darwin's own soul may have been the root of the problem.

As to the allegedly "scant evidence that [Emma] was troubled" by her husband's beliefs, here is what Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in her book, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, published in 1959: "It was only in his autobiography that Darwin gave free expression to his religious opinions. And it was when his son prepared to publish the autobiography in the Life and Letters that Emma Darwin revealed the true measure of her conventionality. Charles having succeeded in maintaining a modicum of discretion in his lifetime, she objected to having the floodgates of scandal opened after his death, and solemnly warned her son that unless he deleted some of the franker passages, her life would be made unendurably miserable." The son, Francis, "reluctantly agreed to the deletions out of respect for [his] mother's wishes."

These passages remained unpublished until 1958, when Nora Barlow, Darwin's granddaughter, published his autobiography in unexpurgated form. Among the deleted passages was the following gem from Darwin:

"I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true: for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."

As for the problem of evil, and the difficulty of squaring it with an omnipotent God: "It revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded." Himmelfarb dryly notes that Darwin "preferred a morality independent of religion and untainted by the moral defects of Christianity."

Darwin's cousin, Julia Wedgwood, remarked on the curious fact that his antagonism to religion increased "while all the apparent reasons for it were vanishing quantities.... He was far more sympathetic with religion when his books were considered wicked by the religious world than when (as was the case for some years before he died) the dignitaries of the Church were eager to pay him the highest honor."

Unfortunately, Bowlby manages to suppress almost all of this, paraphrasing Darwin's views on religion this way: "The Old Testament gave a manifestly false history of the world, and [Darwin] was shocked by the image of God as a revengeful tyrant." Bowlby then misleadingly summarizes Darwin's sentiments by saying, "Yet he was unwilling to move too far from tradition." As Himmelfarb suggests, the truth is that Darwin was actively antagonistic to religion, which in turn plainly dismayed his wife. This may well have churned up Darwin's stomach and given him many restless days and nights. But Bowlby seems to want to keep the lid on all this almost as much as Emma Darwin herself did.

Bowlby has his own theory to offer, a theory hit upon when the biographer learned that Darwin's mother had died when he was eight years old. As it happened, Bowlby discovered this datum when he was working on the psychological ill-effects that sometimes flow from childhood bereavement. (Bowlby, who died in 1990, was also the author of Personality and Mental Illness, Attachment and Loss, and The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds.) Sure enough, he discerned a similar etiology in Darwin's case. Darwin's illness, Bowlby concludes, was the result of repressed emotions generated by his mother's death; the noteworthy attacks of the illness can be traced to moments of stress or incidents reminding Darwin of his late mother. Darwin was raised by his older sisters, who did all they could to suppress his memory of her. As a result, Darwin grieved insufficiently for his mother, and paid for this suppression with years of psychosomatic illness.

All this is not so much implausible as uninteresting. Darwin is a historically important figure, and his life is copiously documented. The theory associated with his name continues to draw headlines. The struggle, and conflict, between religion and science is as much an issue now as it was when Darwin was suffering from persistent gastric pains. The psychosomatic origin of much illness, and no doubt Darwin's, is well worth discussing. But precisely because Darwin is so strongly associated with those well-known theories and controversies, we do expect a discussion of any psychosomatic illness he suffered to be related to evolution, or to the issue of religion and science more generally.

If, on the other hand, Darwin's repressed grief really is the true cause of his illness, and that's all there is to it, it is a comparatively insignificant point and scarcely worth bringing up. Bowlby, or his editors, may have realized this, because most of the book is straightforward biography, informative and clearly written (if wholly conventional in its unqualified admiration of Darwin and his ideas). The redeeming feature of the book is that, ultimately, it has very little to do with the author's pet theories about bereavement.
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Author:Bethell, Tom
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1991
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