Darwin's Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution

  • Iain McCalman
W. W. Norton/Simon & Schuster: 2009. 432 pp. $29.95/£20 0393068145 | ISBN: 0-393-06814-5

Iain McCalman takes an unconventional tack among historians commemorating Charles Darwin's anniversary year. His aim is to show that the triumph of Darwinism in scientific and public debate following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 was the result of a collective effort by a handful of career scientists from relatively unprivileged backgrounds. The bond between Darwin and the most important of these lieutenants — Joseph Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace — was founded on their similar experiences as, in Darwin's words, “co-circum-wanderers” of the southern oceans.

Dangerous research: Hooker's vessel HMS Erebus and its sister ship HMS Terror in the Antarctic. Credit: J. W. CARMICHAEL/NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM

A cultural historian rather than a specialist in the history of science, McCalman is aware that the decision to take a long voyage was a conventional scientific career move in the early- and mid-nineteenth century. Finding passage to a remote portion of the globe was one of the few options available to young men of limited means who wished to devote their lives to the study of nature. Whereas the well-connected Darwin was offered a place on the Beagle unsolicited, the more common avenue for aspiring naturalists was to train as a physician and then to scrap for an appointment as a medical officer to a naval expedition.

It was in this manner that the 22-year-old Hooker joined James Clark Ross's Antarctic expedition as the surgeon's mate in 1839. Seven years later an equally callow Huxley embarked for a survey of the Great Barrier Reef as assistant surgeon on Captain Owen Stanley's Rattlesnake. These two at least had steady jobs and official dispensations to collect and study the plants and animals they found during their voyages. Wallace had to pursue science as an independent prospector, travelling to little-studied parts of Brazil and the Malay archipelago in search of desirable specimens that he could sell to collectors.

The years of sea-sickness, danger and tropical disease served all four men as an investment. As the unproven Hooker wrote when he was lobbying Captain Ross for a place on the Erebus, just three years after the Beagle had returned Darwin to Britain, “what was Mr. D[arwin] before he went out? He, I daresay, knew his subject better than I do now, but did the world know him? The voyage with FitzRoy was the making of him.”

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This book's claim to novelty, and its main virtue, lies in McCalman's decision to juxtapose the periods in each of the protagonists' lives when they were travelling. Individually, Darwin, Hooker, Huxley and Wallace are already the best-studied anglophone naturalists of the nineteenth century. McCalman breaks no new ground in his research, relying on their published travel narratives and memoirs and on recent biographies, particularly those by Janet Browne, Jim Endersby, Adrian Desmond, James Moore and Ross Slotten. But by holding events in England at arm's length, McCalman forces us to notice the similarities of the men's intellectual and emotional experiences as well as of their physical privations. He thus sheds light on the depth of their mutual sympathies in later years.

McCalman brings the four voyagers' stories together in 1858 when Wallace, who was still in the field at Ternate in the Moluccan Islands (now part of Indonesia), sent Darwin a manuscript articulating a concept very similar to Darwin's as yet unpublished theory of evolution by natural selection. He dwells on Darwin's distressed reaction to this letter, and the quick decision by Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell to have it read in Wallace's name at the Linnean Society alongside unpublished extracts that proved Darwin's priority. McCalman concludes that this move, though it was “dodgy”, helped to bring attention to Wallace's work and provided him with credibility as a theorist and not a mere professional collector. This view of Wallace's rise in prestige feeds into the argument of the book's closing chapters.

To this point, McCalman has relied on the ready metaphor of the individual voyage to describe the personal development of each protagonist. Now he uses the image of a naval fleet to portray how Darwin's three junior colleagues coordinated efforts to support “their admiral's” reputation against enemies inside and outside the scientific community. McCalman wants us to see that their work on behalf of evolutionary theory was part of a larger campaign — by Huxley, Hooker and others such as the physicist John Tyndall — to wrest control of science from the traditional elite. They wanted to put scientific institutions into the hands of middle-class, secular-leaning professionals like themselves and in turn to increase the power of these institutions in Victorian society.

Getting a clear picture of how this post-1859 “battle for the theory of evolution” was fought and won would require attention to many factors. But McCalman is less concerned with how the battle was waged than with why the participants on Darwin's side felt so strongly about their cause, and this is where he draws connections to the voyages to which he has devoted the bulk of the book.

On the intellectual level, each naturalist had his faith in the doctrine of special creation unsettled during his travels by the experience of seeing organisms in unexpected geographical distributions. Then there was the psychological link among those who had earned their knowledge through the alternating peril and drudgery of a long sea voyage. “We have had a masonic bond,” Huxley wrote to Hooker in 1888, “in both being well salted in early life.” Finally, McCalman's book seems to suggest, we should view the decision of a young Hooker, Huxley or Wallace to undertake such a difficult voyage as the most telling symptom, not the cause, of his enduring devotion to science.