Here’s some interesting material on the history of evolutionary biology, posted with permission of Dr. Browne.
Last night I had dinner with several people associated with Harvard, among them Janet Browne, a renowed historian of science and a professor at the University. Janet is the author, among other things, of the definitive biography of Charles Darwin, a two-volume set that is both historically rigorous and dazzlingly readable (the Amazon sites for the books are here and here).
As I departed, I had one question that I wanted to ask her, which went something like this: “Tell me, Janet, in all your researches on Charles Darwin, delving deeply into every aspect of his life and times, what do you think was the most surprising or novel revelation you uncovered.”
She said, “Do you mind if it’s not Charles but Emma?” (Emma Wedgwood was Darwin’s wife.)
“Yes, of course,” I replied.
Janet said that Emma is classically characterized as deeply religious, with her faith being often cited as a major constraint on Darwin’s scientific career. For example, there has been speculation that Darwin delayed publishing his thoughts on evolution for fear of upsetting Emma with his “heresy.” This theory speculates that he would have published his theory more than a decade before The Origin finally appeared in 1859 had he not been sensitive to his wife’s concerns.
In fact, Darwin’s theory was more or less complete by 1844, when he put together an essay outlining his ideas. The delay would have been even longer had not he received, in 1858, a letter from A. R. Wallace laying out the same ideas—Darwin now had to publish to establish his precedence.
Janet said that while Darwin’s sensitivity to Emma’s beliefs may have played a role in delaying publication, this is a gross mischaracterization of Emma and religion. Emma was indeed devout and churchgoing, but of course this was in Victorian Britain, where it was the universal practice to attend church. But in reality, said Janet, Emma’s faith was less doctrinaire than supposed, and waned as she got older. (Darwin died 1882, while Emma lived on until 1896.)
Andrew teaches the history of science with Janet, and relates that, in class, Janet says that, contrary to widely held views of Emma as a dogmatic “theological policeman,” jealously guarding her husband’s eternal soul from scientific heresy, she was in fact much more liberal and enlightened. A measure of Emma’s sophistication can be seen from the fact that, before marrying Charles, she toured Europe and even took piano lessons from Chopin. To characterize her as a bible-thumping simpleton is to do her a serious injustice. Darwin wrote that, “She has been my greatest blessing, and I can declare that in my whole life I have never heard her utter one word which I had rather been unsaid.”
h/t: Andrew Berry