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Book Review: The Darwin Archipelago

The Darwin Archipelago

by Steve Jones

Yale University Press, 2011

2009 marked the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin and the sesquicentennial of the publication of his landmark book The Origin of Species. In the late 1830s, Darwin published his account The Voyage of the Beagle, which rocketed the timid, retiring naturalist to international fame and added considerable financial coals to the Newcastle of Darwin’s personal fortune. Many a writer has achieved immortality with a single work of amazing vitality like The Voyage of the Beagle and then called it a day, but the Origin, rushed into publication in 1859 so that the renown of its revelations would be the sole property of its author rather than ignominiously shared with Alfred Russel Lawrence, brought Darwin a thousand, a million times the fame of its predecessor – it catapulted him immediately into the rarefied ranks of world-changers, alongside Newton and Galileo (so that rush to print was justified – I think Lawrence is currently living in a cardboard box near Euston Station).

The 150th anniversary of the Origin‘s publication prompted a wave of commemorative prose from all quarters. Spiffy new editions of the work were offered to a reading public presumed to be anniversary-crazy, and a shelf of new analyses of Darwin and his seminal work appeared.

A version of The Darwin Archipelago, by the hugely entertaining biologist and lecturer Steve Jones, also appeared in 2009, under the title Darwin’s Island – and its slightly altered re-appearance in 2011, is a twice-welcome thing. The hoo-hah about Darwin’s anniversary has faded completely (the betting men are all on to Dickens now, who’s about to suffer a bicentenary of his own), and the ensuing quiet is the perfect time to remind readers that Darwin wrote a shelf of books himself – not just the two that have so mesmerized posterity. As Jones puts it:

Great Britain was the first and last of his forty islands and he studied its natural history in far more detail than that of anywhere else. For him, Kent was as much a place of discovery as had been the jungles of the Amazon or the stark cinders of the Galapagos.

Granted, some of those books the great man wrote in the decades after the Origin don’t at first sound like Jackie Collins best-sellers. Who but true Devonian Devotees would crack open Barnacles for instance? Orchids and Insects is scarcely better, despite what Jones describes as Darwin’s “solid Victorian prose.” Variation under Domestication, Insectivorous Plants, Climbing Plants, Movement in Plants, Forms of Flowers, and Cross and Self-Fertilisation - none of them exactly strikes the fancy on a wet afternoon … not if there’s a decent Georgette Heyer within arm’s reach (as, in any self-respecting library, when wouldn’t there be?). And as for Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, well, it all seems more than a little Causabonesque, the type of thing the uninformed might picture being labored over by an ursine dodderer who keeps mice in his desk cubbies. Darwin in fact was such a figure for the final two decades of his life – people who met him during those decades had to forcibly remind themselves that this was the man who toppled six millennia of human arrogance. True, titles like The Descent of Man, and Expression of the Emotions strike a good deal more interest, but even so, the whole subject of ‘the other books Darwin wrote’ whiffs a bit to strongly of a trivia contest.

The biggest mistake Jones could make in Darwin’s Archipelago would be trying to convince his readers that these books are dynamic overlooked masterpieces that everybody should run right out and buy. Classicists are fond of this brand of scholarly hari-kari – claiming the Ion is Euripides’ best thing, and so forth – but it would take a first-ticket lunatic to rank anything by Darwin ahead of the two books that made his name. No reader would believe it, and very few would stick around to be convinced.

Jones doesn’t make this mistake. Instead, audaciously and wonderfully, he strays very far afield from Darwin for a good portion of his book, and the book is much the better for it. Our author opens things with a lively and hilarious grounding chapter called “The Queen’s Orang-Utan” about the many permutations and the current understanding of the one puzzle-piece Darwin himself didn’t possess: genetics. Jones knows genetics backwards and forwards, and from the first page he demonstrates a merry ability to teach – this is popular science-writing at its best, as when he digresses (as he frequently does) to dish the dirt on a cousin to humans:

Chimpanzees are nastier than many people like to think. They kill monkeys and are pretty unpleasant to each other, too. Their sex lives would shock Queen Victoria, and their ethical universe, if they have such a thing, is much darker than our own. They live in groups, but the groups break and reform as their members quarrel. Terror makes their world go round. If two chimps need to pull a rope to get a tray of food, they will, but only if they are out of reach of one another. Otherwise, the dominant animal attacks its subordinate and neither of them gets anything. Anger and greed destroy the hope of reward. What makes humans different is the loss of fear, odd as that sounds in a world where that emotion seems to be everywhere. When anxiety goes, society can emerge.

Once his general catching-up introductory chapter is out of the way, Green is free to take the smart approach to acquainting the reader with the many long works that filled Darwin’s later years. We learn the heft and importance of those works in far greater detail than we do their particulars – Jones essentially revisits Darwin’s chosen topics, showing us the great man’s most salient or prescient points and bringing us up to speed on all the latest science, all of it told with a clarity and energy that’s thrilling. Whether he’s talking about the nearly 600 types of insect-eating plants in the world or telling us that all the apples on Earth descend from “just two ancient Kazakh trees,” Jones always finds the perfect hook – this is most compulsively readable popular science book since Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale.

When Darwin decided to go no more a-roving, he turned his attention increasingly to the wildlife all around him – hence the almost hilarious prerequisite of immobility in most of his later-life subjects. One type of megafauna had always appealed to him and now began to yield some of its secrets: Darwin was, as Jones reminds us, a life-long dog-lover. “One species in particular was quick to abandon its ancestral habits,” Jones writes. “It was the first to accept servitude and has used its own personality to manipulate mankind.” Large chunks of Darwin’s later books on breeding and the physiognomy of emotion are devoted to dogs, and Jones follows this example, with always thought-provoking results:

Perhaps the most repellent of dogs is the Mexican hairless, or Xoloitzcuinthi, originally bred for food (and used as a bed warmer by the Aztecs). As its name suggests, it is entirely bald. Again, a single mutation, in a gene that in humans leads to loss of hair and sweat glands, is responsible … Darwin himself identified a family with the human form of the condition – and almost worked out the pattern of inheritance, for he noted that it was passed through daughters but expressed only in sons, exactly what is expected from its position on the X chromosome.

If anything, Jones is far more of a realist than pietistic Darwin ever was; time and again in The Darwin Archipelago, a grim note is allowed to sound:

As men and women filled the world they killed off many of their kin. The Neanderthals were the first to go. Human habits have not changed since then. Now just a few remnants of our once extensive clan linger on. In a century or so we will be the only large primate (and almost the only large mammal) found outside farms or zoos. Almost all the apes will be extinct in the wild, some before they have been properly studied by science, and much of our biological heritage will be lost forever.

These asides can become arias of hard-facts despair, giving this brisk overview some very appealing personal undertones:

Man has flayed his native planet for ten thousand years. Soil is hard to make but easy to destroy. A modern plough turns over hundreds of tons a day, far beyond the capacity of the most vigorous invertebrate. It digs down no more than a couple of feet, making a solid and impermeable layer at the depth of the blades. When heavy tractors roll across the surface their wheels compact loose earth into something like concrete, in which nothing will grow. Continued ploughing also breaks up the topmost layer and allows vast quantities to wash away. The farmers’ raw material is on the move, from hill to plain, from plain to river, and from land to sea. The evidence is everywhere. My parents’ house overlooked the Dee Estuary (the Welsh rather than Scottish version). What was, a few centuries ago, a broad waterway has become a green field with a ditch in it, and the local council is much exercised about the rising sand that blows onto its roads. The reason lies in the fertile fields of Cheshire and North Wales. They have been ploughed again and again, and their goodness has disappeared downstream.

And yet, such interruptions don’t murder the upbeat, inquisitive tone of the book as you might expect – in fact, they enhance it. Readers should be prepared to learn a gigantic amount of fascinating stuff that has only a tenuous justification for appearing in a book about Darwin’s archipelago of post-Origin writing. For instance, our poor overworked author, when talking of the facial expression the Germans (those Germans!) call Orgasmusgesicht, tells us that “its existence in humans remains to be demonstrated” – which hints that either he needs to socialize more or that he likes to keep his eyes shut at key moments. And we’re rather phlegmatically told (too late, for some of us) “Certain families of basset hounds suffer from a delusion reminiscent of paranoid schizophrenia …”

But ultimately, of course, the book comes back and back to Darwin, and to this extremely odd, impressive, and idiosyncratic library he generated after he’d changed the world. Jones gives us expert summaries of each (thanks to him, you will not, in your lifetime, be required to read The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Earthworms) and then playfully and expertly extrapolates on them. It’s a dazzling post-Darwin performance – whether you’ve read The Voyage of the Beagle or The Origin of Species or not, you’ll find this book very much worth your time.

Although if you really haven’t read The Voyage of the Beagle and The Origin of Species, go and do so directly – Georgette Heyer will keep, you lazy thing.