IF it's any consolation, every generation thinks the world is going to hell in a handcart.
Victorian England of the mid-19th century was a time and place beset with the same kind of moral dislocation that afflicts us in 2009. The Crimean War -- sparked by a dispute over the Holy Land -- had been fought and won at the cost of tremendous suffering and with little perceived benefit. Industrial expansion and the growth of the railway network had brought enormous wealth and freedom to a small sector of society, but imposed a corresponding burden of misery on the masses. The Indian Mutiny was casting serious doubts on the supposed benefits of colonisation abroad, while The Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels, 1848) raised the prospect of a revolution nearer to home.
Into this ferment, 150 years ago, Charles Darwin lobbed On the Origin of Species (1859), a book that seemed to his opponents to strengthen the hand of nihilists, supremacists and anarchists across the globe. His critics claimed he was denying the existence of God, disputing man's higher moral purpose and portraying all human endeavour as a brute struggle for survival. Darwin, they claimed, envisioned us as no more than a species of ape constrained only by the laws of nature: laws that, by Darwin's own admission, permitted rape, theft, incest and murder.
But much more than the mere laws of the jungle, what Darwin was describing was a system of mutual interdependence that had governed life on Earth for billions of years; a system that managed simultaneously to be incredibly liberal and fiercely restrictive.
This was Darwin's moral compass: a set of guiding principles that could be discerned from the close study of nature and which, if properly followed, might ensure man's continuing survival on the planet. Species that ignored these rules were quickly extinguished. Their fate -- extinction -- had been suffered by the majority of plants and creatures that had ever lived on Earth. According to Darwin we are just another of these species. Not the top of the tree, and not specially blessed or selected by God, but possessed of one significant advantage: we alone can read the compass and divine from it the chances of our own survival. Assessing those chances now, on the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, one would have to admit that the signs are not toopropitious.
Climate change was specified in Origin as one of the main drivers of evolution and one of the main agents of mass extinction. As a keen amateur geologist and fossil hunter, Darwin observed how, during millennia, oceans rose and fell, tropical landscapes became temperate, or successive ice ages scoured the planet of life. Were he alive today he would surely be among the ranks of career scientists telling us that a 2C temperature rise, to which we will soon be committed, will transform life on Earth more radically and more permanently than most people can imagine.
But first it's reasonable to ask who Darwin was and why, 200 years after his birth on February 12, 1809, we should be looking back for instruction to another dead white guy with a beard.
He was certainly not the first to come up with a theory of evolution, but he convincingly described the mechanism of change. Previous researchers, such as the influential French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, had suggested that transmutation might occur via the inheritance of acquired characteristics: that a giraffe might elongate its neck by stretching for higher branches and then pass on this characteristic to its young. Others saw the hand of God in the pressure towards self-improvement, but only among the "lower" forms of animal and plant life. All were agreed man was a different caseentirely.
Man, equipped with an immortal soul, was regarded as being as different from an ape as a carriage is from a toadstool, the one blindly executing its perennial life cycle, the other carefully designed for a very specific function -- to carry an immortal soul through the hazardous journey between conception and paradise -- assuming it didn't spin off the road and end up in the other place.
In the Victorian England of Darwin's time, man's divine purpose -- to be good, die and go to heaven -- underpinned politics, community life and education. Acceptance of this world view was a prerequisite of admission to the best universities. It was taught to every citizen from their baptism onwards and reiterated every day at school, at church and in the workplace.
It was embraced by the young Charles Darwin who, having dropped out of Edinburgh medical school, took a BA in Cambridge with a view to becoming a country parson. On leaving university, however, Darwin applied and was accepted for the role of captain's companion and naturalist on the voyage of the Beagle, a journey that changed his view of the world, and ours, forever.
Darwin's journal of the journey, The Voyage of the Beagle, is the most entertaining and readable of all his books. Alan Moorehead gives a beautiful account of it in Darwin and the Beagle (1969) --now, sadly, out of print -- and the voyage isone of four linked journeys of exploration inthe just published book Darwin's Armada bythe always-entertaining Iain McCalman.
One of Darwin's tasks on the voyage was to collect specimens that might be slotted into the existing classification of life on Earth. It quickly became apparent to the young Darwin, however, that species were arbitrary and fluid. Many animals and plants -- such as the barnacle -- exhibited so many variations that it was impossible to say where one species ended and another began.
Second, the "creator" seemed to tear up his pattern book and start a new one on every new continent he visited, so the animals of South America seemed unrelated to the animals of Europe or of Australia. But each bore a distinct resemblance to the fossil creatures on their particular continent.
It was as though branches of evolution, separated by the oceans, had progressed independently, creating different but similar animals to occupy similar ecological zones.
In the Galapagos islands, it seemed the creator had manufactured a crow, a seagull, a woodpecker and so on, just as in England. But on closer inspection they were all varieties of finch, as though one finch had occupied the island and then diversified into a copy of all those other birds. Thus Darwin came to the idea of a tree of life, in which, during many millions of years, the descendants of a common ancestor become adapted to fit their ever-changing environment. His insight into the mechanism -- described independently by Alfred Russel Wallace -- derived from the work of Thomas Malthus, whose An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) laid out a bleak future for humanity. Malthus observed that, by the laws of mathematics, any one species would overpopulate the planet in a few thousand years unless its numbers were drastically reduced by starvation or predation. Mother nature didn't give a damn if we survived or perished. In fact the optimal outcome was that most of us should perish.
Wherever Darwin travelled, he found teeming evidence of life, much of it new to science. Thousands of offspring were spawned but most died young without reproducing. "So much beauty," he reflected, "for so little purpose." In the terrible, constant struggle for life, being fought in various ecosystems across the globe, minor variations might give one organism a slight mathematical advantage over its fellows. Through generations these tiny incremental advantages might produce a new form, which might thrive and dominate for a while, until a shift in the balance -- the emergence of some new predator or some catastrophic change in the environment -- rendered all its acquired adaptations useless, and the whole species was abruptly extinguished.
There was no progression towards complexity or sophistication, not a ladder of progress as Lamarck had envisioned, merely a struggle to survive whatever the cost, whatever the compromises. As Rebecca Stott describes in her beautiful, poetic book Darwin and the Barnacle (2003), a free-swimming creature might survive by becoming a parasite, might transform its oviduct to a cement gland, its upper body into a shell and end up at the mercy of the tides, fishing with the remnants of its legs; a barnacle on a rock.
Darwin returned home to England in 1836. He married his cousin Emma, who went on to bear him 10 children. Two died in infancy. A third, his beloved Annie, died -- possibly of abdominal TB -- at the age of 10. Randall Keynes's delightful biography Annie's Box (2002) describes Darwin's home life in Kent, years spent raising his children, working on his barnacle specimens and suffering what is surely one of the most chronic cases of writer's block in the annals of literature.
From his letters and diaries, now freely available at Darwin Online, we can date his theory of natural selection to 1838. Darwin was 29 and he had discovered the holy grail of science, the mechanism of transmutation. Yet it was another 21 years before he published his book on the subject. He knew it would offend Emma's religious beliefs but, more profoundly, he knew he would tear a hole in the fabric of Victorian society. Once he'd started, others would start to pull on the threads and pretty soon the whole darned thing would unravel: the fear of God, the social order, the British class system and, sooner or later, the empire that supported it.
Darwin was a revolutionary thinker but socially conservative, a methodical, sceptical scientist who had much to lose by disrupting the status quo. He was pushing 50 before the weight of his researches outweighed his fear of ostracism and Origin finally went to print.
From the start it was a staggeringly significant work: one that changed forever the way humans thought about the world. Darwin's contribution, in a nutshell, was to show how natural processes, given sufficient time, could accomplish the miraculous and make a human being, without recourse to miracles. We were part of the everyday, secular story of all life on Earth and suddenly everything we could learn from the natural world, past and present, was blindingly relevant to man. Darwin's notion of constructive competition gave us a whole new way of thinking about history, psychology, politics, economics, ecology. His idea of our animal nature found its way into psychology, anthropology, philosophy and art. It's fair to say that in the late 19th century there was not a branch of human endeavour that was not profoundly altered by Darwinism.
In the process of dissemination, the theory took on various forms, some of which bear little resemblance to the parent idea. It's therefore worth touching on what Darwin wasn't saying.
First, he wasn't advocating survival of the fittest as a one-line formula for success. So-called social Darwinists have since promoted unfettered competition as the best way of improving our society, but the competition Darwin describes in nature is always constrained; a constant struggle to stay in balance with a changing environment, fending off challenges from other species and environmental upheavals. The survivors are rarely the most aggressive or powerful individuals. More often a light footprint is the best survival strategy, adaptability is the best protection and co-operative alliances are the key.
Second, Darwin never proposed that one sort of being was superior to another. Darwin believed strongly in animal rights on the logical grounds that animals and humans are part of the same non-hierarchical system. He was also a vigorous opponent of racism in any form. A biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore -- Darwin's Sacred Cause (2009) -- shows how Darwin's later work, including his "big book", The Descent of Man (1871), was driven by his passionate lifelong belief in the one-ness of the human race.
Third, he didn't see evolution as acting solely on man's physical shape. Everything that seemed to make us separate from the beasts -- our intelligence, our language, our insight and even our morals -- were merely adaptations, like the intelligence of bees or the sociability of cattle, naturally selected because they conferred a survival advantage to the herd. If our natural tendency was towards moderation and conservation, these feelings should be ignored at our peril. They had kept our species from exterminating itself over tens of thousands of years.
Finally, he wasn't saying there's no such thing as God. Darwin declared himself agnostic rather than an atheist.
It's a credit to Victorian humanism that he was buried in Westminster Abbey with full Christian honours. And it is perhaps a measure of human short-sightedness that, even in the modern era, we can't quite bring ourselves to believe in the darker side of his message. We are organisms formed by the environments of the recent past. Time is limitless and implacable, constantly throwing up new challenges that can render meaningless, at a stroke, all the past achievements of our species.
We have been endowed with the gift of foresight and the potential to manipulate our own environment. Only time will tell if these unique adaptations will preserve us or exterminate us.