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Reading into Darwin

Alexis HarleyAlexis Harley
a.harley@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast, I’d be your Matt Smith Matt Smith, and I’m here today with Dr Alexis Harley. Thank you for joining me, Alexis.

Alexis Harley:

Pleasure. Great to be here.

Matt Smith:

Thanks for the thumbs up. That was a good bit of encouragement as well. Charles Darwin, let's start with how you got into researching him and what he means to you.

Alexis Harley:

OK. Back in my PhD-doing days, I was working on the autobiographies of 19th century atheists and agnostics. Darwin became an agnostic despite the fact that in his youth, he had trained for the Anglican Ministry. He had undergone a slow conversion. And he wrote a fantastic autobiography, which unlike most Victorian autobiographies, normally three volumes large, Darwin's was a short autobiography written for his family. And he talks in that volume about the various reasons for his de-conversion from Christianity.

So, that's how I first met him. And I found myself falling in love with him and with his writing, which is a really down-to-earth, accessible kind of writing. Although he's one of the most prominent scientists of the last 200 years, he writes in a way that anyone who can read can access.

Matt Smith:

Is the reason that he wrote his autobiography confessing his agnosticism to his family - is that because his family was such strong Christians?

Alexis Harley:

Uh-huh. It wasn't really a confession. They were already familiar with his position. And there had been some tension there because his wife, Emma Darwin, was a very strong Christian and was aware of the implications of his theories. So, it was more about providing an honest record for his grandchildren. That was one of the major motivations in writing his autobiography. He didn't envisage it being published. In fact, one of his sons, Francis Darwin, edited the autobiography for publication and he removed the chapter on religious beliefs out of deference for his mother. His granddaughter, Nora Barlow, reedited the autobiography for publication and she reinstated that chapter. So, times had changed sufficiently. Nora felt that the world was ready for Darwin's unexpurgated autobiography.

Matt Smith:

But a lot of Darwin's theories seem to be moreso affirming everybody's beliefs who want to turn away from religion and become agnostic or their beliefs become agnostic. They use Darwin's theories as evidence of why they should do this. Isn't that right? Wasn't he in that sort of way the first agnostic, the first one with credible reason to be agnostic?

Alexis Harley:

I think that's a very popular view today. Certainly, a lot of nonbelievers today use "Evolutionary Theory" as an argument for how the world came to be the way it is and this is debunking the creationists' position.

In terms of what was happening in the late 1850s, though, which is when Darwin was writing, there had already been some pretty serious threats to the creationists' position. Geologists had learned that the world was more than 6,000 years old and that meant that the account in Genesis couldn't be read literally already. And there had been various evolutionary theories before Darwin's, which were trying to explain a mutation of species and were suggesting that, in fact, species already formed on the Earth 6,000 years ago, but they had been changing all the time. They weren't as compelling theories as Darwin's had turned out to be, but they did mean that there were arguments against creationism already circulating before Darwin turned up.

Matt Smith:

There was a theory before Darwin put forward his "Theory of Evolution" that God placed the fossils, as he was creating the Earth. Is that right?

Alexis Harley:

Yes. This was a theory propounded by Philip Henry Gosse, who was a very respected marine biologist, a Fellow of the Royal Society and also a very earnest hyper-Calvinist Christian. He was concerned by what geology was starting to suggest about the age of the world. He suggested that what probably had happened is that God had created mountains, created fossils, all of these in order to suggest a slow creation but, in fact, it had been an instantaneous creation. And he compares this to the navel, the belly button that Adam would have had. Adam had never been gestated in a womb and yet he had a belly button, in the same way mountains hadn't been formed over millions of years but they look like they had.

Matt Smith:

Did Adam have a belly button?

Alexis Harley:

Apparently Adam had a belly button, although it's difficult to confirm at this stage.

Matt Smith:

If this clamped anybody's theory around it, it would have delayed his theory a long time. He would have had a conflict between what he was finding and what he was theorizing and his beliefs as well at the same time.

Alexis Harley:

It's difficult to track the exact trajectory of Darwin's religious beliefs because he hasn't documented them every step of the way. Certainly in his 20's, he was a fairly conservative Bible-believing Christian, and we know that by his 60's, he definitely wasn't. But exactly when things started to ruffle his Christianity, it's hard to say.

I think the real reason why it took him such a long time to formulate his theory, because there was something like a 15-year gap between when he wrote to his friend Hooker, "I think I'm developing this new theory," and when he published the origin, that 15-year gap was intercepted by an eight-year period that he spent working on barnacles. He produced what remains the gold-standard work on barnacles, a text that is still referred to by "barnacologists", if I can use that word that I've just made up.

He was also very ill in that period. He picked up some kind of disease, probably in South America. It was probably some kind of intestinal parasite, although none of that is being confirmed. He was very ill for a long period, an illness that actually got cured, he thought, by pouring freezing cold water on himself. He set up in the back garden a shower system so that he could douse himself in freezing water on a daily basis and keep himself healthy. That's by the bye, sorry. A bit of diversion there.

But actually, the delay I think was more about him gathering systematic, slow information. The "Origin of Species" is full of examples and it's full of carefully compiled and analyzed data.

Matt Smith:

Lots of barnacle examples?

Alexis Harley:

No, there are quite a few barnacle examples and also examples taken from other species, as you know. He didn't just want to announce the theory, he wanted to support the theory with lots of evidence.

Matt Smith:

I heard that the reason that he eventually published his research when he did was because another naturalist wrote to him, saying, "Hey, look. I've got this theory of evolution." He used different terms but it was essentially the same one that he had been working on for years. So, he didn't want to lose the opportunity to be credited for his work.

Alexis Harley:

This is true. Wallace's theory...

Matt Smith:

Wallace, that was his name?

Alexis Harley:

Yeah. Wallace's theory was very similar to Darwin's and had been published in a short essay. That was another incentive for Darwin to get a wriggle on and then publish his work. Wallace's theory was slightly different and Wallace actually maintained his Christianity until the end of his life. So, he was an approximately Bible-believing Christian. Wallace was trying to reconcile a kind of creationist and evolutionary position together.

Matt Smith:

So, if you're working in an English department, why are you studying Charles Darwin?

Alexis Harley:

OK, great question. There has been a turnaround in the discipline of literary studies over the last 30 years. We're increasingly looking at non-literary texts, scientific texts, philosophical texts, political texts through a literary lens. And with someone like Darwin, this is a particularly interesting process because he was trying to articulate a new theory about how the world came to be, a new story about nature, and there was no language available to him for that story.

And so, if you look at the "Origin of Species", you'll notice that repeatedly he deploys words that suggest creationism. In fact, he did several reedits of the Origin where he tried to eliminate some of that language and replace it with a different non-creationist language. But this is a place where someone who's interested in language can really have a lot of fun looking at this kind of thing.

He also deploys lots of Biblical metaphors in his accounts of evolution. So, there's an image he constructs of the "Tree of Life", he calls it. And of course, there's a "Tree of Life" in the Book of Genesis as well as in the Garden of Eden. His "Tree of Life", though, is full of dead branches, which are the species that are now extinct.

Darwin has had an incredible influence as well on writers from the 19th century and beyond. If you look at novelists like George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, you'll find that they have been influenced incredibly by a view of the world and a view of transformation that is very relevant to their novels about human transformation.

Matt Smith:

So, can you tell us a bit about Darwin the man? What do you know about him?

Alexis Harley:

OK. He's definitely one of my top 10 favorite Victorians. He was born, obviously, 200 years ago, 1809. That's the only date that I have firmly lodged in my head, unfortunately. He was born to Robert Darwin, who was a very, very wealthy doctor, also a stockbroker. That's why he was so wealthy. You don't get wealthy by being a doctor in the 19th century but by investing in shares. And Robert Darwin was the son of Erasmus Darwin, who was another famous scientist and writer who had come up with a kind of an evolutionary theory as well back in the 18th century and had written fantastic poetry, the "Love of Plants", for instance, and had obviously bequeathed to his grandson a vast interest in scientific methods.

He had a number of siblings, quite a few sisters and an older brother, another Erasmus, his older brother. He grew up in what seems to me to have been a really happy, convivial family. His mother died sadly when he was quite young, about 8. And he talks very little about her, which I find very interesting, too.

After leaving school, he was sent to Edinburgh University to study medicine. He really didn't enjoy the dissections, which is kind of ironic, given that he ended up working in biology where dissection was on the go. He dropped out of medicine at Edinburgh. And his father, in a bit of a huff, re-enrolled him at Cambridge to do Bachelor of Arts. If he couldn't be a doctor, he could be at least a Church of England minister. Darwin really slugged his way through that degree. He wasn't particularly interested in Latin. He wasn't particularly interested in theology. He was very interested in natural science. He spent a lot of time chasing beetles and going on nature rambles and things rather than studying, but he did eventually complete that degree.

Just as it looked like he was getting somewhere, he heard about this voyage. He thought four years traveling around the world, putting off the future, was a nice option for him. It took a lot of convincing of his father to enable him to go. Dad was not impressed with his idea at all, but Darwin was really keen and he got his uncle to sell the idea to his father and off he went.

That was an amazing journey. I think you can imagine a sea voyage around the world in the 1830s, an incredible series of adventures compounded by Darwin suffering from seasickness. He spent as much time as he could on land. While the Beagle was mapping the perimeter of South America, Darwin was mostly rampaging through rainforests.

Matt Smith:

Now, he wrote about that, didn't he?

Alexis Harley:

Yes. He kept a diary the whole of that voyage and he was sending packets of the diary back home to entertain his cousins and his sisters. And he later wrote that up into the journal of researches, which was sufficient actually to have him admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society. That was the voyage where Darwin starts to think of himself as a scientist for the first time, and that's a really important conversion for him in terms of his identity turning into a scientist. And he's gathering specimens every step of the way, documenting geological formations, and starting to make the sorts of observations that will later turn into his famous theory.

Darwin is a very lovable character, not so much because of his theory, which has an incredible appeal for its neatness and its persuasiveness and also its simplicity. You don't have to stretch your mind in incredible ways to come to terms with what he's saying. It's not like the "Theory of Special Relativity" or something.

He's lovable in lots of ways because of who he was as a person. There's a beautiful story that his son Francis tells about Darwin walking into the family room, seeing his son Leonard jumping up and down on the sofa, which wasn't allowed because it would damage the springs. He said, "Lenny, Lenny, that's not allowed." And Leonard said, "Well, Papi, you better leave the room then." And Darwin did. I think this story really illustrates his humbleness, a very endearing quality in someone who has had such an influential role in our culture and in our understanding of the world.

Matt Smith:

And patience with his children.

Alexis Harley:

And patience with his children, too. We also see that humility in the kind of research that he kept doing after he had published the "Origin of Species" and the "Descent of Man". His last work was a book called "The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Earthworms", which is a very lowly subject, considering the kind of places where his mind had already been.

Matt Smith:

He seemed to be very reluctant to insult anybody's beliefs or to discount anybody's beliefs at all. He was a bit like, "This is a theory that I've come up with. This is what I found out, and I'm very sorry that it contradicts what you believe in." So, he seemed to be very apologetic that way.

Alexis Harley:

He was a very ethical person, I think. He was very concerned about lots of political issues. Deeply opposed to slavery, for instance. Quite a philanthropist. Concerned about alleviating poverty and doing good things generally. So, yes, he didn't want to hurt anyone, and I think it saddened him a lot that he did.

Matt Smith:

Dr. Alexis Harley, thank you for your time.

Alexis Harley:

A pleasure.