Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Mind the Gap": John Van Wyhe on Darwin's Delay

For those of you who are interested in following up on last week's trip to Cambridge, John Van Wyhe's (the historian whom we met at Christ’s College) influential article on Darwin's delay is located here. In the article, Van Wyhe criticizes the widely-held – or, if you believe his critics, not so widely-held – belief that Darwin's delay in publishing his species theory was caused by his fear of revealing his species theory to his prejudiced contemporaries. Van Wyhe traces the origin of this belief concerning Darwin's motivations back to the late nineteenth century – and charts its subsequent dissemination through a variety of different academic disciplines – most notably history and psychology, where it has gained tremendous popularity. The breadth of Van Wyhe’s refutation is admirable, but it might lead to certain difficulties which I address below. Van Wyhe cites a number of contemporary sources, notably (from the perspective of our Darwin class) Browne and Quammen, who rely on this account to explain Darwin’s delay. In particular, Van Wyhe focuses his criticism on Desmond and Moore, who use Darwin’s fearfulness of the establishment as a central theme in their biography.

In refuting this account, Van Wyhe draws on a number of sources, most notably Darwin’s correspondences, to argue that Darwin did attempt to hide his belief in transmutation from his scientific colleagues. Within these correspondences, Van Wyhe analyzes a number of passages commonly used to support claims of Darwin’s fearfulness, and concludes that contrary to the prevailing opinion, such passages are more consistent with other interpretations. (For example, Van Wyhe argues that Darwin’s statement that confessing his belief in transmutation was like 'confessing a murder' is an example of his self-effacing humor rather than his fear.) While Van Wyhe concedes that Darwin was vague about the mechanism ('natural selection'), he claims that this vagueness resulted from the underdeveloped nature of Darwin’s theory. This lack of development, Van Wyhe argues, was directly addressed by Darwin’s work during the twenty years between his voyage aboard the Beagle and his publication of On the Origin of Species.

While Van Wyhe provides an overwhelming amount of historical evidence, I wonder whether his argument is hindered by his conflation of a number of substantially different theories. Van Wyhe relies on the same argumentative strategies in refuting the psychoanalytic theory of Howard Gruber as he does the traditionally historical theories of Desmond and Moore, Browne, and Quammen. While his own historical approach may be effective in refuting the latter theories which admit themselves to common standards of evaluation, such an approach may be ineffective in disputing Gruber’s psychoanalytic theory. Gruber, for example, offers a highly complex interpretation of Darwin’s motivations – motivations which may even be opaque to Darwin himself – which seems to evade much of Van Wyhe’s analysis. Whereas Gruber posits that Darwin’s dream of ‘a person was hung & came to life’ as a castration dream, Van Wyhe claims on the basis of surrounding textual evidence that Darwin’s recollection contained no evidence of fear. However, if Gruber’s psychoanalytic account is correct, than even Darwin’s self-reports, the driver of Van Wyhe’s analysis, may be unreliable. (We might even suppose non-psychoanalytic explanations which would render Darwin’s self-reports unreliable, eg. duplicity, etc.) Of course, the problem may very well lie with psychoanalytic theory – the evidence which Van Wyhe presents may provide reasons to doubt any interpretation which relies on a non-obvious theory of Darwin’s attitudes. However, what the example demonstrates is that even Van Wyhe’s rigorous refutation cannot completely settle the question of Darwin’s delay, no matter how compelling it may seem.

Those of you who are interested in history should read through the article and evaluate it for yourselves.

John Van Wyhe’s other publications are available here.

Ben Picozzi

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