Authors: Stephen Jay Gould
Ontogeny and Phylogeny
Ever Since Darwin
The Panda’s Thumb
The Mismeasure of Man
Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes
The Flamingo’s Smile
An Urchin in the Storm
Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle
Illuminations (with R. W. Purcell)
Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors (with R. W. Purcell)
Reflections in Natural History
W.W.NORTON & COMPANY
NEW YORK LONDON
Cover design by Mike McIver
Cover painting by C.R. Knight,
Courtesy Department of Library Services, American Museum of Natural History. Neg. trans. no. 2417 (3)
Copyright © 1991 by Stephen Jay Gould
All rights reserved.
First published as a Norton 1992
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gould, Stephen Jay.
Bully for brontosaurus : reflections in natural history / Stephen Jay Gould.
1. Natural history—Popular works. 2. Evolution—Popular works. I. Title.
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110
W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.
Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London WIT 3QT
Pleni sunt coeli
Hosanna in excelsis
| HISTORY IN EVOLUTION
1 George Canning's Left Buttock and the Origin of Species
2 Grimm's Greatest Tale
3 The Creation Myths of Cooperstown
4 The Panda's Thumb of Technology
5 Bully for Brontosaurus
6 The Dinosaur Rip-off
7 Of Kiwi Eggs and the Liberty Bell
8 Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples
9 Not Necessarily a Wing
| FADS AND FALLACIES
10 The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone
11 Life's Little Joke
12 The Chain of Reason versus the Chain of Thumbs
| ART AND SCIENCE
13 Madame Jeanette
14 Red Wings in the Sunset
15 Petrus Camper's Angle
16 Literary Bias on the Slippery Slope
| DOWN UNDER
17 Glow, Big Glowworm
18 To Be a Platypus
19 Bligh's Bounty
20 Here Goes Nothing
| INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY
21 In a Jumbled Drawer
22 Kropotkin Was No Crackpot
23 Fleeming Jenkin Revisited
24 The Passion of Antoine Lavoisier
25 The Godfather of Disaster
| EVOLUTION AND CREATION
The World of T. H. Huxley
26 Knight Takes Bishop?
27 Genesis and Geology
Scopes to Scalia
28 William Jennings Bryan's Last Campaign
29 An Essay on a Pig Roast
30 Justice Scalia's Misunderstanding
| NUMBERS AND PROBABILITY
31 The Streak of Streaks
32 The Median Isn't the Message
33 The Ant and the Plant
| PLANETS AS PERSONS
34 The Face of Miranda
35 The Horn of Triton
, they call this genre
—but the implications are entirely positive. In America, we call it “popular (or pop) writing” and its practitioners are dubbed “science writers” even if, like me, they are working scientists who love to share the power and beauty of their field with people in other professions.
In France (and throughout Europe),
ranks within the highest traditions of humanism, and also enjoys an ancient pedigree—from St. Francis communing with animals to Galileo choosing to write his two great works in Italian, as dialogues between professor and students, and not in the formal Latin of churches and universities. In America, for reasons that I do not understand (and that are truly perverse), such writing for nonscientists lies immured in deprecations—“adulteration,” “simplification,” “distortion for effect,” “grandstanding,” “whiz-bang.” I do not deny that many American works deserve these designations—but poor and self-serving items, even in vast majority, do not invalidate a genre. “Romance” fiction has not banished love as a subject for great novelists.
I deeply deplore the equation of popular writing with pap and distortion for two main reasons. First, such a designation imposes a crushing professional burden on scientists (particularly young scientists without tenure) who might like to try their hand at this expansive style. Second, it denigrates the intelligence of millions of Americans eager for intellectual stimulation without patronization. If we writers assume a crushing mean of mediocrity and incomprehension, then not only do we have contempt for our neighbors, but we also extinguish the light of excellence. The “perceptive and intelligent” layperson is no myth. They exist in millions—a low percentage of Americans perhaps, but a high absolute number with influence beyond their proportion in the population. I know this in the most direct possible way—by thousands of letters received from nonprofessionals during my twenty years of writing these essays, and particularly from the large number written by people in their eighties and nineties, and still striving, as intensely as ever, to grasp nature’s richness and add to a lifetime of understanding.
We must all pledge ourselves to recovering accessible science as an honorable intellectual tradition. The rules are simple: no compromises with conceptual richness; no bypassing of ambiguity or ignorance; removal of jargon, of course, but no dumbing down of ideas (any conceptual complexity can be conveyed in ordinary English). Several of us are pursuing this style of writing in America today. And we enjoy success if we do it well. Thus, our primary task lies in public relations: We must be vigorous in identifying what we are and are not, uncompromising in our claims to the humanistic lineages of St. Francis and Galileo, not to the sound bites and photo ops in current ideologies of persuasion—the ultimate in another grand old American tradition (the dark side of anti-intellectualism, and not without a whiff of appeal to the unthinking emotionalism that can be a harbinger of fascism).
Humanistic natural history comes in two basic lineages. I call them Franciscan and Galilean in the light of my earlier discussion. Franciscan writing is nature poetry—an exaltation of organic beauty by corresponding choice of words and phrase. Its lineage runs from St. Francis to Thoreau on Walden Pond, W. H. Hudson on the English downs, to Loren Eiseley in our generation. Galilean composition delights in nature’s intellectual puzzles and our quest for explanation and understanding. Galileans do not deny the visceral beauty, but take greater delight in the joy of causal comprehension and its powerful theme of unification. The Galilean (or rationalist) lineage has roots more ancient than its eponym—from Aristotle dissecting squid to Galileo reversing the heavens, to T. H. Huxley inverting our natural place, to P. B. Medawar dissecting the follies of our generation.
I love good Franciscan writing but regard myself as a fervent, unrepentant, pure Galilean—and for two major reasons. First, I would be an embarrassing flop in the Franciscan trade. Poetic writing is the most dangerous of all genres because failures are so conspicuous, usually as the most ludicrous form of purple prose (see James Joyce’s parody, cited in Chapter 17). Cobblers should stick to their lasts and rationalists to their measured style. Second, Wordsworth was right. The child is father to the man. My youthful “splendor in the grass” was the bustle and buildings of New York. My adult joys have been walks in cities, amidst stunning human diversity of behavior and architecture—from the Quirinal to the Piazza Navona at dusk, from the Georgian New Town to the medieval Old Town of Edinburgh at dawn—more than excursions in the woods. I am not insensible to natural beauty, but my emotional joys center on the improbable yet sometimes wondrous works of that tiny and accidental evolutionary twig called
. And I find, among these works, nothing more noble than the history of our struggle to understand nature—a majestic entity of such vast spatial and temporal scope that she cannot care much for a little mammalian afterthought with a curious evolutionary invention, even if that invention has, for the first time in some four billion years of life on earth, produced recursion as a creature reflects back upon its own production and evolution. Thus, I love nature primarily for the puzzles and intellectual delights that she offers to the first organ capable of such curious contemplation.
Franciscans may seek a poetic oneness with nature, but we Galilean rationalists have a program of unification as well—nature made mind and mind now returns the favor by trying to comprehend the source of production.
This is the fifth volume of collected essays from my monthly series, “This View of Life,” now approaching two hundred items over eighteen years in
magazine (the others, in order, are
Ever Since Darwin, The Panda’s Thumb, Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes
The Flamingo’s Smile
). The themes may be familiar (with a good dollop of novelty, I trust), but the items are mostly new (and God has never left his dwelling place in the details).
Against a potential charge of redundancy, may I advance the immodest assertion that this volume is the best of the five. I think that I have become a better writer by monthly practice (I sometimes wish that all copies of
Ever Since Darwin
would self-destruct), and I have given myself more latitude of selection and choice in this volume. (The previous four volumes discarded only a turkey or two and then published all available items in three years of essays. This volume, covering six years of writing, presents the best, or rather the most integrated, thirty-five pieces from more than sixty choices.)
These essays, while centered on the enduring themes of evolution and the innumerable, instructive oddities of nature (frogs that use their stomachs as brood pouches, the gigantic eggs of Kiwis, an ant with a single chromosome), also record the specific passage of six years since the fourth volume. I have marked the successful completion of a sixty-year battle against creationism (since the Scopes trial of 1925) in our resounding Supreme Court victory of 1987 (see essays under “Scopes to Scalia”), the bicentennial of the French revolution (in an essay on Lavoisier, most prominent scientific victim of the Reign of Terror), and the magnificent completion of our greatest technical triumph in
’s fly-by and photography of Uranus and Neptune (Essays 34 and 35). I also record, as I must, our current distresses and failures—the sorry state of science education (approached, as is my wont, not tendentiously, abstractly, and head-on, but through byways that sneak up on generality—fox terriers and textbook copying, or subversion of dinomania for intellectual benefit), and a sad epilogue on the extinction, between first writing and this republication, of the stomach-brooding frog.
Yet I confess that my personal favorites usually treat less immediate, even obscure, subjects—especially when correction of the errors that confined them to ridicule or obscurity retells their stories as relevant and instructive today. Thus, I write about Abbot Thayer’s theory that flamingos are red to hide them from predators in the sunset, Petrus Camper’s real intent (criteria for art) in establishing a measure later used by scientific racists, the admirable side of William Jennings Bryan and the racist nonsense in the text that John Scopes used to teach evolution, the actual (and much more interesting) story behind the heroic, cardboard version of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate of 1860.
For what it’s worth, my own favorite is Essay 21 on N. S. Shaler and William James (I won’t reveal my vote for the worst essays—especially since they have been shredded in my mental refuse bin and will not be included in these volumes). At least Essay 21 best illustrates my favorite method of beginning with something small and curious and then working outward and onward by a network of lateral connections. I found the fearful letter of Shaler to Agassiz in a drawer almost twenty years ago. I always knew that I would find a use for it someday—but I had no inkling of the proper context. A new biography of Shaler led me to explore his relationship with Agassiz. I then discovered the extent of Shaler’s uncritical (and lifelong) fealty by reading his technical papers. At this point, luck intervened. One of my undergraduate advisees told me that William James, as a Harvard undergraduate, had sailed with Agassiz to Brazil on the master’s penultimate voyage. I knew that Shaler and James had been friendly colleagues and intellectual adversaries—and now I had full connectivity in their shared link to Agassiz. But would anything interesting emerge from all these ties? Again, good fortune smiled. James had been critical of Agassiz right from the start—and in the very intellectual arena (contingency versus design in the history of life) that would host their later disagreements as distinguished senior professors. I then found a truly amazing letter from James to Shaler offering the most concise and insightful rebuttal I have ever read to the common misconception—as current today as when James and Shaler argued—that the improbability of our evolution indicates divine intent in our origin. James’s document—also a brilliant statement on the general nature of probability—provided a climax of modern relevance for a story that began with an obscure note lying undiscovered in a drawer for more than a hundred years. Moreover, James’s argument allowed me to resolve the dilemma of the museum janitor, Mr. Eli Grant, potential victim of Shaler’s cowardly note—so the essay ends by using James’s great generality to solve the little mystery of its beginning, a more satisfactory closure (I think) than the disembodied abstraction of James’s brilliance.
Finally, and now thrice lucky, I received two years later a fascinating letter from Jimmy Carter presenting a theological alternative to the view of contingency and improbability in human evolution advanced in my last book,
. Carter’s argument, though more subtle and cogent than Shaler’s, follows the same logic—and James’s rebuttal has never been bettered or more apropos. And so, by presidential proclamation, I had an epilogue that proved the modern relevance of Shaler’s traditionalism versus James’s probing.
Some people have seen me as a polymath, but I insist that I am a tradesman. I admit to a broad range of explicit detail, but all are chosen to illustrate the common subjects of evolutionary change and the nature of history. And I trust that this restricted focus grants coherence and integration to an overtly disparate range of topics. The bullet that hit George Canning in the ass really is a vehicle for discussing the same historical contingency that rules evolution. My sweet little story about nostalgia at the thirtieth reunion of my All-City high school chorus is meant to be a general statement (bittersweet in its failure to resolve a cardinal dichotomy) about the nature of excellence. The essay on Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak is a disquisition on probability and pattern in historical sequences; another on the beginnings of baseball explores creation versus evolution as primal stories for the origin of any object or institution. And Essay 32, the only bit I have ever been moved to write about my bout with cancer, is not a confessional in the personal mode, but a general statistical argument about the nature of variation in populations—the central topic of all evolutionary biology.
A final thought on Franciscans and Galileans in the light of our environmental concerns as a tattered planet approaches the millennium (by human reckoning—as nature, dealing in billions, can only chuckle). Franciscans engage the glory of nature by direct communion. Yet nature is so massively indifferent to us and our suffering. Perhaps this indifference, this majesty of years in uncaring billions (before we made a belated appearance), marks her true glory. Omar Khayyám’s old quatrain grasped this fundamental truth (though he should have described his Eastern hotel, his metaphor for the earth, as grand rather than battered):
Think, in this battered caravanserai
Whose portals are alternate night and day,
How sultan after sultan with his pomp
Abode his destined hour, and went his way.
The true beauty of nature is her amplitude; she exists neither for nor because of us, and possesses a staying power that all our nuclear arsenals cannot threaten (much as we can easily destroy our puny selves).
The hubris that got us into trouble in the first place, and that environmentalists seek to avoid as the very definition of their (I should say our) movement, often creeps back in an unsuspected (and therefore potentially dangerous) form in two tenets frequently advanced by “green” movements: (1) that we live on a fragile planet subject to permanent ruin by human malfeasance; (2) that humans must act as stewards of this fragility in order to save our planet.
We should be so powerful! (Read this sentence with my New York accent as a derisive statement about our false sense of might, not as a literal statement of desire.) For all our mental and technological wizardry, I doubt that we can do much to derail the earth’s history in any permanent sense by the proper planetary time scale of millions of years. Nothing within our power can come close to conditions and catastrophes that the earth has often passed through and beyond. The worst scenario of global warming under greenhouse models yields an earth substantially cooler than many happy and prosperous times of a prehuman past. The megatonnage of the extraterrestrial impact that probably triggered the late Cretaceous mass extinction has been estimated at 10,000 times greater than all the nuclear bombs now stockpiled on earth. And this extinction, wiping out some 50 percent of marine species, was paltry compared to the granddaddy of all—the Permian event some 225 million years ago that might have dispatched up to 95 percent of species. Yet the earth recovered from these superhuman shocks, and produced some interesting evolutionary novelties as a result (consider the potential for mammalian domination, including human emergence, following the removal of dinosaurs).
But recovery and restabilization occur at planetary, not human, time scales—that is, millions of years after the disturbing event. At this scale, we are powerless to harm; the planet will take care of itself, our puny foolishnesses notwithstanding. But this time scale, though natural for planetary history, is not appropriate in our legitimately parochial concern for our own species, and the current planetary configurations that now support us. For these planetary instants—our millennia—we do hold power to impose immense suffering (I suspect that the Permian catastrophe was decidedly unpleasant for the nineteen of twenty species that didn’t survive).
We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria (they have been the modal organisms on earth right from the start, and probably shall be until the sun explodes); I doubt that we can wreak much permanent havoc upon insects as a whole (whatever our power to destroy local populations and species). But we can surely eliminate our fragile selves—and our well-buffered earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness. Global warming is worrisome because it will flood our cities (built so often at sea level as ports and harbors), and alter our agricultural patterns to the severe detriment of millions. Nuclear war is an ultimate calamity for the pain and death of billions, and the genetic maiming of millions in future generations.
Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run. Yet no political movement is more vital and timely than modern environmentalism—because we must save ourselves (and our neighbor species) from our own immediate folly. We hear so much talk about an environmental ethic. Many proposals embody the abstract majesty of a Kantian categorical imperative. Yet I think that we need something far more grubby and practical. We need a version of the most useful and ancient moral principle of all—the precept developed in one form or another by nearly every culture because it acts, in its legitimate appeal to self-interest, as a doctrine of stability based upon mutual respect. No one has ever improved upon the golden rule. If we execute such a compact with our planet, pledging to cherish the earth as we would wish to be treated ourselves, she may relent and allow us to muddle through. Such a limited goal may strike some readers as cynical or blinkered. But remember that, to an evolutionary biologist, persistence is the ultimate reward. And human brainpower, for reasons quite unrelated to its evolutionary origin, has the damnedest capacity to discover the most fascinating things, and think the most peculiar thoughts. So why not keep this interesting experiment around, at least for another planetary second or two?
the connection between Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. They conveniently contrived to enter the world on the same day, February 12, 1809, thus providing forgetful humanity with a mnemonic for ordering history. (Thanks also to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson for dying on the same momentous day, July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after our nation’s official birthdate.)
But what is the connection between Charles Darwin and Andrew Jackson? What can an English gentleman who mastered the abstractions of science hold in common with Old Hickory, who inaugurated the legend (later exploited by Lincoln) of the backwoodsman with little formal education fighting his way to the White House? (Jackson was born on the western frontier of the Carolinas in 1767, but later set up shop in the pioneer territory of Nashville.) This more difficult question requires a long string of connections more worthy of Rube Goldberg than of logical necessity. But let’s have a try, in nine easy steps.
1. Andy Jackson, as a result of his military exploits in and around the ill-fated War of 1812, became a national figure, and ultimately, on this basis, a presidential contender. In a conflict conspicuously lacking in good news, Jackson provided much solace by winning the Battle of New Orleans, our only major victory on land after so many defeats and stalemates. With help from the privateer Jean Lafitte (who was then pardoned by President Madison but soon resumed his old ways), Jackson decisively defeated the British forces on January 8, 1815, and compelled their withdrawal from Louisiana. Cynics often point out, perhaps ungenerously, that Jackson’s victory occurred more than two weeks after the war had officially ended, but no one had heard the news down in the bayous because the treaty had been signed in Ghent and word then traveled no faster than ship.
2. When we were about to withdraw from Vietnam and acknowledge (at least privately) that the United States had lost the war, some supporters of that venture (I was not among them) drew comfort from recalling that, patriotic cant aside, this was not our first military defeat. Polite traditions depict the War of 1812 as a draw, but let’s face it, basically we lost—at least in terms of the larger goal espoused by hawks of that era: the annexation of Canada, at least in part. But we did manage to conserve both territory and face, an important boon to America’s future and a crucial ingredient in Jackson’s growing reputation. Washington, so humiliated just a few months before when British troops burned the White House and the Capitol, rejoiced in two items of news, received in early 1815 in reverse order of their actual occurrence: Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, and the favorable terms of the Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814.
3. The Treaty of Ghent restored all national boundaries to their positions before the war; thus, we could claim that we had lost not an inch of territory, even though expansion into Canada had been the not-so-hidden aim of the war’s promoters. The treaty provided for commissions of arbitration to settle other points of dispute between the United States and Canada; all remaining controversies were negotiated peacefully under these provisions, including the establishment of our unfortified boundary, the elimination of naval forces from the Great Lakes, and the settlement of the Saint Lawrence boundary. Thomas Boylston Adams, descendant of John Quincy Adams (who negotiated and signed the treaty), recently wrote of that exemplary document (in his wonderful column “History Looks Ahead,” appearing twice a month in the
Globe): “The treaty…ended a war that never should have been begun. Yet its consummation was unbounded good. The peace then confirmed…has never been broken. Its bounty has been the cheerful coexistence of two friendly nations divided by nothing more tangible than an invisible line that runs for 3,000 miles undefended by armed men or armaments.”
4. If the war had not ended, fortunately for us, on such an upbeat, Andy Jackson’s belated victory at New Orleans might have emerged as a bitter joke rather than a symbol of (at least muted) success—and Jackson, deprived of status as a military hero, might never have become president. But why did Britain, in a fit of statesmanship, agree to such a conciliatory treaty, when they held the upper hand militarily? The reasons are complex and based, in part, on expediency (the coalition that had exiled Napoleon to Elba was coming apart, and more troops might soon be needed in Europe). But much credit must also go to the policies of Britain’s remarkable foreign secretary, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh. In a secret dispatch sent to the British minister in Washington in 1817, Castlereagh set out his basic policy for negotiation, a stance that had guided the restructuring of Europe at the Congress of Vienna, following the final defeat of Napoleon: “The avowed and true policy of Great Britain in the existing State of the World is to secure if possible, for all states a long interval of repose.”
Three years earlier, Castlereagh had put flesh on these brave words by helping to break the deadlock at Ghent and facilitate a peace treaty that did not take all that Britain could have demanded, thereby leaving the United States with both pride and flexibility for a future and deeper peace with Britain. Negotiations had gone badly at Ghent; anger and stalemate ruled. Then, on his way to Vienna, Castlereagh stopped for two days in Ghent, where, in secret meetings with his negotiators, he advocated conciliation and helped to break the deadlock.
5. We must thank the fortunate tides of history that Castlereagh, rather than his counterpart and rival, the hawkish and uncompromising George Canning, was presiding over Britain’s foreign affairs in 1814. (And so you see, dear reader, we are finally getting to Mr. Canning’s rear end, as promised in the title.) The vagaries of a key incident in 1809 led to this favorable outcome. Canning, then foreign secretary, had been pushing for Castlereagh’s ouster as secretary of war. Castlereagh had sent a British expedition against Napoleon’s naval base at Antwerp, but nature had intervened (through no fault of Castlereagh’s), and the troops were boxed in on the island of Walcheren, dying in droves of typhoid fever. Canning used this disaster to press his advantage.
Meanwhile (this does get complicated), the prime minister, the duke of Portland, suffered a paralytic stroke and eventually had to resign. In the various reshufflings and explanations that follow such an event, Perceval, the new prime minister, showed Castlereagh some of Canning’s incriminating letters. Castlereagh did not challenge Canning’s right to lobby for his removal, but he exploded in fury at Canning’s apparent secrecy in machination. Canning, for his part (and not without justice), replied that he had urged open confrontation of the issue, but that higher-ups (including the king) had imposed secrecy, hoping to paper over the affair and somehow preserve the obvious talents of both men in government.
Castlereagh, to say the least, was not satisfied and, in the happily abandoned custom of his age, insisted upon a duel. The two men and their seconds met on Putney Heath at 6
on September 21. They fired a first round to no effect, but Castlereagh insisted on a second, of much greater import. Castlereagh was spared the fate of Alexander Hamilton by inches, as Canning’s bullet removed a button from his coat but missed his person. Canning was not so fortunate; though more embarrassed than seriously injured, he took Castlereagh’s second bullet in his left buttock. (Historians have tended to euphemism at this point. The latest biography of Castlereagh holds that Canning got it “through the fleshy part of the thigh,” but I have it on good authority that Canning was shot in the ass.) In any case, both men subsequently resigned.
As the world turns and passions cool, both Canning and Castlereagh eventually returned to power. Canning achieved his burning ambition (cause of his machinations against Castlereagh) to become prime minister, if only briefly, in 1827. Castlereagh came back in Canning’s old job of foreign secretary, where he assured the Treaty of Ghent and presided for Britain at the Congress of Vienna.
6. Suppose Canning had fired more accurately and killed Castlereagh on the spot? Canning, or another of his hawkish persuasion, might have imposed stiffer terms upon the United States and deprived Andy Jackson of his hero’s role. More important for our tale, Castlereagh would have been denied the opportunity to die as he actually did, by his own hand, in 1822. Castlereagh had suffered all his life from periods of acute and debilitating “melancholy” and would, today, almost surely be diagnosed as a severe manic depressive. Attacked by the likes of Lord Byron, Shelley, and Thomas Moore for his foreign policies, and suffering from both overwork and parliamentary reverses, Castlereagh became unreasonably suspicious and downright paranoid. He thought that he was being blackmailed for supposed acts of homosexuality (neither the blackmail nor the sexual orientation has ever been proved). His two closest friends, King George IV and the duke of Wellington, failed to grasp the seriousness of his illness and did not secure adequate protection or treatment. On August 12, 1822, though his wife (fearing the worst) had removed all knives and razors from his vicinity, Castlereagh rushed into his dressing room, seized a small knife that had been overlooked, and slit his throat.
7. Yes, we are getting to Darwin, but it takes a while. Point seven is a simple statement of genealogy: Lord Castlereagh’s sister was the mother of Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS
and host to Charles Darwin on a five-year voyage that bred the greatest revolution in the history of biology.
8. Robert FitzRoy took command of the
at age twenty-three, after the previous captain had suffered a mental breakdown and shot himself. FitzRoy was a brilliant and ambitious man. He had been instructed to take the
on a surveying voyage of the South American coast. But FitzRoy’s own plans extended far beyond a simple mapping trip, for he hoped to set a new standard of scientific observation on a much broader scale. To accomplish his aim, he needed more manpower than the Admiralty was willing to supply. As a person of wealth, he decided to take some extra passengers at his own expense, to beef up the
A popular scientific myth holds that Darwin sailed on the
as official ship’s naturalist. This is not true. The official naturalist was the ship’s surgeon, Robert McKormick. Darwin, who disliked McKormick and did eventually succeed him as naturalist (after the disgruntled McKormick “invalided out,” to use the euphemism of his time), originally sailed as a supernumerary passenger at FitzRoy’s discretion.
Why, then, did FitzRoy tap Darwin? The obvious answer—that Darwin was a promising young scientist who could aid FitzRoy’s plans for improved observation—may be partly true, but does not get to the heart of FitzRoy’s reasons. First of all, Darwin may have possessed abundant intellectual promise, but he had no scientific credentials when he sailed on the
—a long-standing interest in natural history and bug collecting to be sure, but neither a degree in science nor an intention to enter the profession (he was preparing for the ministry at the time).
FitzRoy took Darwin along primarily for a much different, and personal, reason. As an aristocratic captain, and following the naval customs of his time, FitzRoy could have no social contact with officers or crew during long months at sea. He dined alone and conversed with his men only in an official manner. FitzRoy understood the psychological toll that such enforced solitude could impose, and he remembered the fate of the
’s previous skipper. He decided on a course of action that others had followed in similar circumstances: He decided to take along, at his own expense, a supernumerary passenger to serve, in large part, as a mealtime companion for conversation. He therefore advertised discreetly among his friends for a young man of appropriate social status who could act as both social companion and scientific aid. Charles Darwin, son of a wealthy physician and grandson of the great scholar Erasmus Darwin, fitted the job description admirably.
But most captains did not show such solicitude for their own mental health. Why did FitzRoy so dread the rigors of solitude? We cannot know for sure, but the answer seems to lie, in good part, with the suicide of his uncle, Lord Castlereagh. FitzRoy, by Darwin’s own account, was fearful of a presumed hereditary predisposition to madness, an anxiety that he embodied in the suicide of his famous uncle, whom he so much resembled in looks as well as temperament. Moreover, FitzRoy’s fears proved well founded, for he did break down and temporarily relinquish his command in Valparaiso during a period of overwork and tension. On November 8, 1834, Darwin wrote to his sister Catherine: “We have had some strange proceedings on board the
…Capt. FitzRoy has for the last two months, been working
hard and at the same time constantly annoyed…. This was accompanied by a morbid depression of spirits, and a loss of all decision and resolution. The Captain was afraid that his mind was becoming deranged (being aware of his hereditary predisposition)…. He invalided and Wickham was appointed to the command.”
Late in life, and with some hindsight, Darwin mused on the character of Captain FitzRoy in his autobiography:
FitzRoy’s character was a singular one, with many very noble features: he was devoted to his duty, generous to a fault, bold, determined, indomitably energetic, and an ardent friend to all under his sway…. He was a handsome man, strikingly like a gentleman, with highly courteous manners, which resembled those of his maternal uncle, the famous Lord Castlereagh…. FitzRoy’s temper was a most unfortunate one. This was shown not only by passion but by fits of long-continued moroseness…. He was also somewhat suspicious and occasionally in very low spirits, on one occasion bordering on insanity. He was extremely kind to me, but was a man very difficult to live with on the intimate terms which necessarily followed from our messing by ourselves in the same cabin. [Darwin does mean “eating,” and we find no sexual innuendo either here or anywhere else in their relationship.]
I am struck by the similarity, according to Darwin’s description, between FitzRoy and his uncle, Lord Castlereagh, not only in physical characteristics and social training, but especially in the chronicle of a mental history so strongly implying a lifelong pattern of severe manic depression. In other words, I think that FitzRoy was correct in his self-diagnosis of a tendency to hereditary mental illness. Castlereagh’s dramatic example had served him well as a warning, and his decision, so prompted, to take Darwin on the
was history’s reward.
But suppose Canning had killed Castlereagh, rather than just removing a button from his coat? Would FitzRoy have developed so clear a premonition about his own potential troubles without the terrible example of his beloved uncle’s suicide during his most impressionable years (FitzRoy was seventeen when Castlereagh died)? Would Darwin have secured his crucial opportunity if Canning’s bullet had been on the mark?
Tragically, FitzRoy’s premonition eventually came to pass in almost eerie consonance with his own nightmare and memory of Castlereagh. FitzRoy’s later career had its ups and downs. He suffered from several bouts of prolonged depression, accompanied by increasing suspicion and paranoia. In his last post, FitzRoy served as chief of the newly formed Meteorological Office and became a pioneer in weather forecasting. FitzRoy is much admired today for his cautious and excellent work in a most difficult field. But he encountered severe criticism during his own tenure, and for the obvious reason. Weathermen take enough flak today for incorrect predictions. Imagine the greater uncertainties more than a century ago. FitzRoy was stung by criticism of his imprecision. With a healthy mind, he would have parried the blows and come out fighting. But he sank into even deeper despair and eventually committed suicide by slitting his throat on April 20, 1865. Darwin mourned for his former friend (and more recent enemy of evolution), noting the fulfillment of the prophecy that had fostered his own career: “His end,” Darwin wrote, “was a melancholy one, namely suicide, exactly like that of his uncle Ld. Castlereagh, whom he resembled closely in manner and appearance.”
9. Finally, the other short and obvious statement: We must reject the self-serving historical myth that Darwin simply “saw” evolution in the raw when he broke free from the constraints of his culture and came face to face with nature all around the world. Darwin, in fact, did not become an evolutionist until he returned to England and struggled to make sense of what he had observed in the light of his own heritage: of Adam Smith, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Malthus, among others. Nonetheless, without the stimulus of the
, I doubt that Darwin would have concerned himself with the origin of species or even entered the profession of science at all. Five years aboard the
did serve as the sine qua non of Darwin’s revolution in thought.
My chain of argument runs in two directions from George Canning’s left buttock: on one branch, to Castlereagh’s survival, his magnanimous approach to the face-saving Treaty of Ghent, the consequent good feeling that made the Battle of New Orleans a heroic conquest rather than a bitter joke, to Andrew Jackson’s emergence as a military hero and national figure ripe for the presidency; on the other branch, to Castlereagh’s survival and eventual death by his own hand, to the example thus provided to his similarly afflicted nephew Robert FitzRoy, to FitzRoy’s consequent decision to take a social companion aboard the
, to the choice of Darwin, to the greatest revolution in the history of biological thought. The duel on Putney Heath branches out in innumerable directions, but one leads to Jackson’s presidency and the other to Darwin’s discovery.
I don’t want to push this style of argument too far, and this essay is meant primarily as comedy (however feeble the attempt). Anyone can set out a list of contrary proposals. Jackson was a tough customer and might have made his way to the top without a boost from New Orleans. Perhaps FitzRoy didn’t need the drama of Castlereagh’s death to focus a legitimate fear for his own sanity. Perhaps Darwin was so brilliant, so purposeful, and so destined that he needed no larger boost from nature than a beetle collection in an English parsonage.
No connections are certain (for we cannot perform the experiment of replication), but history presents, as its primary fascination, this feature of large and portentous movements arising from tiny quirks and circumstances that appear insignificant at the time but cascade into later, and unpredictable, prominence. The chain of events makes sense after the fact, but would never occur in the same way again if we could rerun the tape of time.
I do not, of course, claim that history contains nothing predictable. Many broad directions have an air of inevitability. A theory of evolution would have been formulated and accepted, almost surely in the mid-nineteenth century, if Charles Darwin had never been born, if only for the simple reason that evolution is true, and not so veiled from our sight (and insight) that discovery could long have tarried behind the historical passage of cultural barriers to perception.
But we are creatures of endless and detailed curiosity. We are not sufficiently enlightened by abstractions devoid of flesh and bones, idiosyncrasies and curiosities. We cannot be satisfied by concluding that a thrust of Western history, and a dollop of geographic separation, virtually guaranteed the eventual independence of the United States. We want to know about the tribulations at Valley Forge, the shape of the rude bridge that arched the flood at Concord, the reasons for crossing out “property” and substituting “pursuit of happiness” in Jefferson’s great document. We care deeply about Darwin’s encounter with Galápagos tortoises and his studies of earthworms, orchids, and coral reefs, even if a dozen other naturalists would have carried the day for evolution had Canning killed Castlereagh, FitzRoy sailed alone, and Darwin become a country parson. The details do not merely embellish an abstract tale moving in an inexorable way. The details are the story itself; the underlying predictability, if discernible at all, is too nebulous, too far in the background, and too devoid of hooks upon actual events to count as an explanation in any satisfying sense.
Darwin, that great beneficiary of a thousand chains of improbable circumstance, came to understand this principle and to grasp thereby the essence of history in its largest domain of geology and life. When America’s great Christian naturalist Asa Gray told Darwin that he was prepared to accept the logic of natural selection but recoiled at the moral implications of a world without divine guidance, Darwin cited history as a resolution. Gray, in obvious distress, had posed the following argument: Science implies lawfulness; laws (like the principle of natural selection) are instituted by God to ensure his benevolent aims in the results of nature; the path of history, however full of apparent sorrow and death, must therefore include purpose. Darwin replied that laws surely exist and that, for all he knew, they might well embody a purpose legitimately labeled divine. But, Darwin continued, laws only regulate the broad outlines of history, “with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.” (Note Darwin’s careful choice of words. He does not mean “random” in the sense of uncaused; he speaks of events so complex and contingent that they fall, by their unpredictability and unrepeatability, into the domain of “what we may
But where shall we place the boundary between lawlike events and contingent details? Darwin presses Gray further. If God be just, Darwin holds, you could not claim that the improbable death of a man by lightning or the birth of a child with serious mental handicaps represents the general and inevitable way of our world (even though both events have demonstrable physical causes). And if you accept “what we may call chance” (the presence of this man under that tree at that moment) as an explanation for a death, then why not for a birth? And if for the birth of an individual, why not for the origin of a species? And if for the origin of a species, then why not for the evolution of
You can see where Darwin’s chain of argument is leading: Human intelligence itself—the transcendent item that, above all else, supposedly reflected God’s benevolence, the rule of law, and the necessary progress of history—might be a detail, and not the predictable outcome of first principles. I wouldn’t push this argument to an absurd extreme. Consciousness in some form might lie in the realm of predictability, or at least reasonable probability. But we care about details. Consciousness in
form—by means of a brain plagued with inherent paths of illogic, and weighted down by odd and dysfunctional inheritances, in a body with two eyes, two legs, and a fleshy upper thigh—is a detail of history, an outcome of a million improbable events, never destined to repeat. We care about George Canning’s sore behind because we sense, in the cascade of consequences, an analogy to our own tenuous existence. We revel in the details of history because they are the source of our being.
WITH THE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION
of Eng and Chang, who had no choice, no famous brothers have ever been closer than Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, who lived and worked together throughout their long and productive lives. Wilhelm (1786–1859) was the prime mover in collecting the
(fables for the home and for children) that have become a pillar and icon of our culture. (Can you even imagine a world without Rapunzel or Snow White?) Jacob, senior member of the partnership (1785–1863), maintained a primary interest in linguistics and the history of human speech. His
, first published in 1819, became a cornerstone for documenting relationships among Indo-European languages. Late in their lives, after a principled resignation from the University of Göttingen (prompted by the king of Hanover’s repeal of the 1833 constitution as too liberal), the brothers Grimm settled in Berlin where they began their last and greatest project, the
—a gigantic German dictionary documenting the history, etymology, and use of every word contained in three centuries of literature from Luther to Goethe. Certain scholarly projects are, like medieval cathedrals, too vast for completion in the lifetimes of their architects. Wilhelm never got past
; Jacob lived to see the letter
Speaking in Calcutta, during the infancy of the British raj in 1786, the philologist William Jones first noted impressive similarities between Sanskrit and the classical languages of Greece and Rome (an Indian king, or raja, matches
, his Latin counterpart). Jones’s observation led to the recognition of a great Indo-European family of languages, now spread from the British Isles and Scandinavia to India, but clearly rooted in a single, ancient origin. Jones may have marked the basic similarity, but the brothers Grimm were among the first to codify regularities of change that underpin the diversification of the rootstock into its major subgroups (Romance languages, Germanic tongues, and so on). Grimm’s law, you see, does not state that all frogs shall turn into princes by the story’s end, but specifies the characteristic changes in consonants between Proto-Indo-European (as retained in Latin) and the Germanic languages. Thus, for example, Latin
’s in Germanic cognates (voiceless stops become voiceless fricatives in the jargon). The Latin
becomes “full” (
, pronounced “foll” in German);
becomes “fish” (
in German); and
becomes “foot” (
in German). (Since English is an amalgam of a Germanic stock with Latin-based imports from the Norman conquest, our language has added Latin cognates to Anglo-Saxon roots altered according to Grimm’s law
. We can even get both for the price of one in
I first learned about Grimm’s law in a college course more than twenty-five years ago. Somehow, the idea that the compilers of Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin also gave the world a great scholarly principle in linguistics struck me as one of the sweetest little facts I ever learned—a statement, symbolic at least, about interdisciplinary study and the proper contact of high and vernacular culture. I have wanted to disgorge this tidbit for years and am delighted that this essay finally provided an opportunity.
A great dream of unification underlay the observations of Jones and the codification of systematic changes by Jacob Grimm. Nearly all the languages of Europe (with such fascinating exceptions as Basque, Hungarian, and Finnish) could be joined to a pathway that spread through Persia all the way to India via Sanskrit and its derivatives. An origin in the middle, somewhere in the Near East, seemed indicated, and such “fossil” Indo-European tongues as Hittite support this interpretation. Whether the languages were spread, as convention dictates, by conquering nomadic tribes on horseback or, as Colin Renfrew argues in his recent book (
Archaeology and Language
, 1987), more gently and passively by the advantages of agriculture, evidence points to a single source with a complex history of proliferation in many directions.
Might we extend the vision of unity even further? Could we link Indo-European with the Semitic (Hebrew, Arabic) languages of the so-called Afro-Asiatic stock; the Altaic languages of Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan; the Dravidian tongues of southern India; even to the native Amerindian languages of the New World? Could the linkages extend even further to the languages of southeastern Asia (Chinese, Thai, Malay, Tagalog), the Pacific Islands, Australia, and New Guinea, even (dare one dream) to the most different tongues of southern Africa, including the Khoisan family with its complex clicks and implosions?
Most scholars balk at the very thought of direct evidence for connections among these basic “linguistic phyla.” The peoples were once united, of course, but the division and spread occurred so long ago (or so the usual argument goes) that no traces of linguistic similarity should be left according to standard views about rates of change in such volatile aspects of human culture. Yet a small group of scholars, including some prominent émigrés from the Soviet Union (where theories of linguistic unification are not so scorned), persists in arguing for such linkages, despite acrimonious rebuttal and dismissal from most Western colleagues. One heterodox view tries to link Indo-European with linguistic phyla of the Near East and northern Asia (from Semitic at the southwest, to Dravidian at the southeast, all the way to Japanese at the northeast) by reconstructing a hypothetical ancestral tongue called Nostratic (from the Latin
, meaning “our”). An even more radical view holds that modern tongues still preserve enough traces of common ancestry to link Nostratic with the native languages of the Americas (all the way to South America via the Eskimo tongues, but excluding the puzzling Na-Dene languages of northwestern America).
The vision is beguiling, but I haven’t the slightest idea whether any of these unorthodox notions has a prayer of success. I have no technical knowledge of linguistics, only a hobbyist’s interest in language. But I can report, from my own evolutionary domain, that the usual biological argument, invoked a priori against the possibility of direct linkage among linguistic phyla, no longer applies. This conventional argument held that
arose and split (by geographical migration) into its racial lines far too long ago for any hope that ancestral linguistic similarities might be retained by modern speakers. (A stronger version held that various races of
arose separately and in parallel from different stocks of
, thus putting the point of common linguistic ancestry even further back into a truly inaccessible past. Indeed, according to this view, the distant common ancestor of all modern people might not even have possessed language. Some linguistic phyla might have arisen as separate evolutionary inventions, scotching any hope for theories of unification.)
The latest biological evidence, mostly genetic but with some contribution from paleontology, strongly indicates a single and discrete African origin for
at a date much closer to the present than standard views would have dared to imagine—perhaps only 200,000 years ago or so, with all non-African diversity perhaps no more than 100,000 years old. Within this highly compressed framework of common ancestry, the notion that conservative linguistic elements might still link existing phyla no longer seems so absurd a priori. The idea is worth some serious testing, even if absolutely nothing positive eventually emerges.
This compression of the time scale also suggests possible success for a potentially powerful research program into the great question of historical linkages among modern peoples. Three major and entirely independent sources of evidence might be used to reconstruct the human family tree: (1) direct but limited evidence of fossil bones and artifacts by paleontology and archaeology; (2) indirect but copious data on degrees of genetic relationship among living peoples; (3) relative similarities and differences among languages, as discussed above. We might attempt to correlate these separate sources, searching for similarities in pattern. I am delighted to report some marked successes in this direction (“Reconstruction of Human Evolution: Bringing Together Genetic, Archaeological, and Linguistic Data,” by L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, A. Piazza, P. Menozzi, and J. Mountain,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencs
, 1988). The reconstruction of the human family tree—its branching order, its timing, and its geography—may be within our grasp. Since this tree is the basic datum of history, hardly anything in intellectual life could be more important.
Our recently developed ability to measure genetic distances for large numbers of protein or DNA sequences provides the keystone for resolving the human family tree. As I have argued many times, such genetic data take pride of place not because genes are “better” or “more fundamental” than data of morphology, geography, and language, but only because genetic data are so copious and so comparable. We all shared a common origin, and therefore a common genetics and morphology, as a single ancestral population some quarter of a million years ago. Since then, differences have accumulated as populations separated and diversified. As a rough guide, the more extensive the measured differences, the greater the time of separation. This correlation between extent of difference and time of separation becomes our chief tool for reconstructing the human family tree.
But this relationship is only rough and very imperfect. So many factors can distort and disrupt a strict correlation of time and difference. Similar features can evolve independently—black skin in Africans and Australians, for example, since these groups stand as far apart genealogically as any two peoples on earth. Rates of change need not be constant. Tiny populations, in particular, can undergo marked increases in rate, primarily by random forces of genetic drift. The best way to work past these difficulties lies in a “brute force” approach: The greater the quantity of measured differences, the greater the likelihood of a primary correlation between time and overall distance. Any single measure of distance may be impacted by a large suite of forces that can disrupt the correlation of time and difference—natural selection, convergence, rapid genetic drift in small populations. But time is the only common factor underlying all measures of difference; when two populations split, all potential measures of distance become free to diverge. Thus, the more independent measures of distance we compile, the more likely we are to recover the only common signal of diversification: time itself. Only genetic data (at least for now) can supply this required richness in number of comparisons.
Genetic data on human differences are flowing in from laboratories throughout the world, and this essay shall be obsolete before it hits the presses. Blood groups provided our first crude insights during the 1960s, and Cavalli-Sforza was a pioneer in these studies. When techniques of electrophoresis permitted us to survey routinely for variation in the enzymes and proteins coded directly by genes, then data on human differences began to accumulate in useful cascades. More recently, our ability to sequence DNA itself has given us even more immediate access to the sources of variation.
The methodologically proper and powerful brute force comparisons are, for the moment, best made by studying differing states and frequencies of genes as revealed in the amino acid sequences of enzymes and proteins. Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues used information from alleles (varying states of genes, as in tall versus short for Mendel’s peas) to construct a tree for human populations least affected by extensive interbreeding. (Few human groups are entirely aboriginal, and most populations are interbred to various degrees, given the two most characteristic attributes of
wanderlust and vigorous sexuality. Obviously, if we wish to reconstruct the order of diversified branching from a common point of origin, historically mixed populations will confuse our quest. The Cape Colored, living disproof from their own ancestors for the Afrikaner “ideal” of apartheid, would join Khoisan with Caucasian. One town in Brazil might well join everyone.)