Darwin’s Passion

In the introduction to the New Penguin edition of Darwin’s memoirs, Michael Neve says the following about Darwin’s methodology.

“No genius he, according to him. Instead he insisted on: “It’s dogged as does it”. Indeed Darwin makes claims for the ordinariness of proper scientific labour and for a form of resilient, unglamorous daily labour as the foundation stone for true science”

“He built his alternative working milieu outside the established places, eventually setting up a domestic milieu where an endless, often tedious, scientific method – collecting, classifying, pondering, observing, writing, corresponding – might carry on for decades. His was not the world of inspired thoughts and flashes, but of grind and yet more grind.”

These comments fail to understand Darwin or his scientific method. It’s true that Darwin spent decades doing painstaking experiments. In order to ascertain fully the fertility of hybrid dimorphic heterostyled plants for a small section of his book on the ‘Forms of Flowers’, he crossed 256 flowers in the course of four seasons. “I may mention, as a mere curiosity,” he added, “that if anyone were to raise hybrids between two TRI-morphic heterostyled species, he would be compelled to fertilise 900 flowers and count their seeds. This would probably exhaust the patience of the most patient man.”

Freud, a scientist himself, would have laughed at Neve’s description of Darwin’s method. No creative scientist works like that, let alone a genius. All such views are rationalisations designed to obscure the emotional depths which scientific investigation is drawing from, or presumptuous prescriptions from the lofty world of philosophy.

In ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes’ Freud describes a subtle dialectic between concepts, ideas and the material of observation, which accords far better with Darwin’s real working methods. He is talking about the idea of ‘basic concepts’ but his comments go much further than that.

“We have often heard it maintained that sciences should be built up on clear and sharply defined basic concepts. In actual fact no science, not even the most exact, begins with such definitions. The true beginning of scientific activity consists in rather describing phenomena and then in proceeding to group, classify and correlate them. Even at the stage of description it is not possible to avoid applying certain abstract ideas to the material in hand, ideas derived from somewhere or other but certainly not from the new observations alone. Such ideas – which will later become the basic concepts of the science – are still more indispensable as the material is further worked over. They must at first necessarily possess some degree of indefiniteness; there can be no question of any clear delimitation of their content. So long as they remain in this condition, we come to an understanding about their meaning by making repeated references to the material of observation from which they appear to have been derived, but upon which, in fact, they have been imposed. Thus, strictly speaking, they are in the nature of conventions – although everything depends on their not being arbitrarily chosen but determined by their having significant relations to the empirical material, relations that we seem to sense before we can clearly recognize and demonstrate them. It is only after more thorough investigation of the field of observation that we are able to formulate its basic scientific concepts with increased precision, and progressively so to modify them that they become serviceable and consistent over a wide area. Then, indeed, the time may have come to confine them in definitions. The advance of knowledge, however, does not tolerate any rigidity even in definitions. Physics furnishes an excellent illustration of the way in which even ‘basic concepts’ that have been established in definitions are constantly being altered in their content.” (SE 14, p117)

The fact that Darwin – sensibly – worked no more than four hours a day on the experiments and left the rest of the day free for thought, throws a different light on his methods. The flashes of insight he shows in his notebooks, his use of metaphor, his unstated goal to integrate his work into a unified theory (which applies equally to his work prior to The Origin of Species), all point to the truth of Freud’s description. In ‘The Effects of Cross and Self-fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom”, one of Darwin’s lesser known works but typical of his oeuvre, he shows a quite different relationship between hypothesis and observation than is prescribed by positivist philosophy. He begins:

“There is weighty and abundant evidence that the flowers of most kinds of plants are constructed so as to be habitually or occasionally cross-fertilised by pollen from another flower, generally by a distinct plant.”

He then lists the many contrivances which effect this end, and “concludes” (that is to say, begins his investigation):

“As plants are adapted by such diversified and effective means for cross-fertilisation, it might have been inferred from this fact alone that they derive some great advantage from the process; and it is the object of the present work to show the nature and importance of the benefits thus derived”

He sees the diversity in nature – the many contrivances and developmental processes of flowers – (an ‘observation’ which he can only make if he is in a certain frame of mind primed by the theory of natural selection) – then he sees unity in this diversity – they are designed for a reason – and this crystalises into a hypothesis which he investigates (the reason is to ensure cross-fertilisation).

All the while he is working within a grander theory – natural selection – which acts as an organising template for his thought. In other words he starts off already knowing the answer! The actual ‘work’, then, the myriad of experiments and observations, is largely to circumvent the anxiety of being criticised, and to cope with the anxiety of having the thought in the first place. That is to say, the anxiety of having a thought which eliminates ‘God’.

Behind these conscious and preconscious levels are unconscious concerns which motivate his interest. One is with the structure of sexuality; another with the problem of interdependence. Darwin’s passion is revealed not just in his style of thought, his working methods and the topics of investigation.

It is also revealed in his writing. Here is one of my favourite passages from his book on Climbing Plants. Although it does not reveal the essentially sexual interest which motivates the work, I find it deeply moving and have displayed it as a poem. I will leave it to the psychoanalytic literary critics for further analysis.

I have more than once gone on purpose during a gale
To watch a Bryony growing in a hedge,
With its tendrils attached to the surrounding bushes;

And as the thick and thin branches
Were tossed to and fro by the wind,
The tendrils, had they not been elastic,
Would instantly have been torn off
And the plant thrown prostrate.

But as it was, the Bryony safely rode out the gale,
Like a ship with two anchors down,
And with a long range of cable ahead,
To serve as a spring as she surges to the storm.

Added November 2003

Darwin’s Autobiography confirms my views.

In an appendix to the recent publication, his son Francis mentions Darwin’s use of the expression “Its dogged as does it”.

Unlike Michael Neve, Francis Darwin recognises the depths of his father’s passion. He continues: “I think doggedness expresses his frame of mind almost better than perserverence. Perserverence seems hardly to express his almost fierce desire to force the truth to reveal itself”.

And in the very next paragraph, anticipating Freud’s views quoted above: “He often said that noone could be a good observer unless he was an active theoriser”.

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin is published by Icon Books at £9.99. It is a beautiful little book and I highly recommend it.

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