Science and sceptics shrink Darwin’s big idea

By Nicolas Rothwell. First published in the Australian Literary Review, February 4th 2009. It also appears in The Best Australian Essays: A ten year collection, published by Black Inc, April 2011

Charles Darwin’s emotional trajectory and intellectual legacy reconsidered from Darwin on the bicentennial of his birth

Early in the morning of January 12, 1836, the young naturalist Charles Darwin, on board the Royal Navy’s HMS Beagle, caught his first glimpse of Sydney Harbour and the fledgling colony of New South Wales. He expected wonders: but what he saw, as he wrote that day in his diary, was a level landscape, “bare and horizontal strata of sandstone, covered by woods of thin, scrubby trees that bespoke useless sterility”. Darwin was close to his 27th birthday and fresh from the Galapagos Islands, his mind brimming with rich, strange impressions, an instinct for pattern and order coming alive inside his heart.

Darwin stayed a little more than two months: he crossed the Blue Mountains, visited a sheep station at Wallerawang and crossed the plains as far as Bathurst, where a little plaque behind the courthouse, in the fernery of Machattie Park, commemorates the “terminal point” of his only inland foray. He studied the mystifying plants and trees, the river systems and rock formations. Above all, he recorded and mused on the animals he came across: kangaroos, a platypus, currawongs and cockatoos. He was struck by the climate and the drought patterns that were already evident to the colonial settlers; he made long notes on the Aboriginal population, whose acuity and grace impressed him.

In the published journal of his voyage released three years later he included accounts of Aboriginal life around Sydney and then reflected on the fate of native peoples in his time:
Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal. We may look to the wide extent of the Americas, Polynesia, the Cape of Good Hope, and Australia, and we shall find the same result. Nor is it the white man alone, that thus acts the destroyer; the Polynesian of Malay extraction has in parts of the east Indian archipelago, thus driven before him the dark-coloured native. The varieties of man seem always to act on each other; in the same way as different species of animals — the stronger always extirpating the weaker.

Survival of the fittest! Fully two decades before the appearance of On the Origin of Species, here it is, in all its glinting detail: the hard world view coolly described, the initiating concept, the cascade of consequences, the scientist’s watchful stance, the limpid, almost aerial literary style.

Two centuries since his birth on February 12, 1809, and 150 years after the announcement of his great theory, Darwin is undergoing one of those periodic bouts of canonisation that reshape our view of master thinkers. The purity of his thought, the sweetness of his character and the probity of his life are not, of course, the things we remember about Darwin: his life is incidental to his work, which spawned the modern, Western, scientifically informed perspective on the world.

Darwin serves rather as the founding hero of contemporary, enlightened materialism. He is the remote father figure of a score of disciplines, from population genetics to evolutionary biology, to biotechnology, to the study of ecosystems and the science of the emotions. Whole schools of political thinking and philosophy descend from his ideas.

This paternity is amply, and touchingly, acknowledged in the reverential reception of Darwin’s words. Biographies of the highest quality have been written but it is the documenting of the thought, always, that comes first: those moments of inspiration and deduction that overthrew the old, tranquil paradigm of nature as an emanation of divine creative will. The record of Darwin’s intellectual journey towards his theory and beyond, into a realm of fame and constantly renewed controversy, is enshrined in the Darwin Correspondence Project (www.darwinproject.ac.uk), an independently funded group made up of historians and scientists and based at Cambridge University. Its members have already collected and transcribed more than 14,500 letters written by or received by Darwin, and embarked on a lavish publication program. When complete, the project will run to 30 volumes and present a detailed internet archive. For now, three newly released books of selected letters convey a strong, immediate impression of Darwin’s temper and his time and form the core of any anniversary re-evaluation of the tradition he began.

A return to the man is essential if we are to see with clear eyes the role his name plays in our world. Darwin’s science was very different from ours. The biology he knew is not what we know. The legacy he left isone of method more than fact. The evolutionary theory he devised, though widely seen as dogma, has in fact been recrafted, refined and dovetailed with new discoveries. For all Darwin’s private scepticism in matters of religion, he almost cuts the figure of a biblical prophet, peering through ancestral clouds of superstition towards the truths of life now revealed before us: and the painstaking steps he made towards his breakthroughs, which we can follow in great detail thanks to his meticulous note-taking and letter-writing, allows us, as his heirs, to set the splendour of his progress against the ambiguous condition of hislegacy.

For the status of that scientific descent line is anomalous in the extreme today. It is in the stars and in crisis at the same time. As is well known by even the most determined layman, post-Darwinian molecular biology provides us with an extraordinarily elegant, successful descriptive scheme for the natural realm. This is the world of DNA, the genome and immunology, the world of cancer research and drug design. Our knowledge in this world works; it delivers on its predictions: it is as well founded and internally consistent as quantum mechanics or cosmology.

Yet, like those other gilded realms of scientific triumph, it is in trouble, at a deeper level there is a rigid feel about its underpinnings, its explanatory depth is unclear, it seems to have struck the limits of what it can decode and know.

Darwin was much aware, on his youthful antipodean journey, of the limits to his knowledge. Everything solid and sure in his conceptual frame had been overturned. For all the precision of his recording, he was seeing new things in nature that failed to fit into his categories. The barriers between species seemed porous, the landscapes had unfamiliar logics to them. All was drama, and adventure: during the Beagle’s South American cruisings, he had come across bizarre creatures, such as the Andean condor, that could “live, and retain its vigour, between five and six weeks without eating”, although Darwin did not stop to verify the truth of this local report, shooting one instead.

Already he had passed through a world of splendours: off the shore of Patagonia, on the way to Port Desire, he records an episode when the Beagle, still 16km out to sea, was surrounded by flying insects, a cloud of them. They came closer. The sailors cried out to him: it was snowing butterflies: “vast numbers, in bands or flocks of countless myriads, extended as far as the eye could range”.

To cope with this sensory overload, Darwin often plunged himself into reading: he tried metaphysical works, but they failed to please his cast of mind. He preferred poetry: Wordsworth, and Coleridge, and Milton above all: Paradise Lost, the book he always chose for his longer excursions. On one such trip, while in the Blue Mountains hinterland, lying at early evening on a sunny bank, he fell to somewhat Miltonic reflections on the “strange character of the animals of this country as compared to the rest of the world”:

A disbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Surely two distinct creators must have been at work: their object however has been the same and certainly in each case the end iscomplete”.

At which point in his musings, Darwin noticed an ant-lion trap, and an ant struggling to escape it. How like a European ant-lion’s trap it was, though plainly the species was different: “Would any two workmen ever hit on so beautiful, so simple and yet so artificial a contrivance? I cannot think so.” Darwin was increasingly overwhelmed by the parallels between the creatures he was seeing and the wildlife of his English home. Similar environments in far-distant places, he realised, were filled by similar animals with similar characteristics, what he came to call adaptations. From such seeds the theory of natural selection was born.

The Beagle’s last Australian port of call was Albany and the majestic reach of King George’s Sound. “Farewell Australia,” scrawled Darwin in his diary:
you are a rising infant and doubtless some day will reign a great princess in the south. But you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect. I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.

Australia, though, did not wholly leave him. It was the alternative “creation”, the southern continent that lingered in his thoughts, and helped him to grasp the natural kingdom’s mechanisms of pulse and change; the arbitrary, rather than fixed, character of species, the distance and devastating absence, above all, of the divine hand.

Nor did his name entirely vanish from the south. Three years later, under a new captain, John Lort Stokes, a former shipboard companion of Darwin’s, the Beagle returned and circumnavigated Australia on a survey mission, in the course of which the crew explored a wide northern harbour rimmed by a sandstone cliff — “a new feature in the geology of this part of the continent, which afforded us an appropriate opportunity of convincing an old shipmate and friend, that he still lived in our memory”.

And so, by a strange descent line of coincidences, Darwin’s name was bestowed on the future site of Australia’s northern capital, where many a frontier scientist has lingered since, lost in taxonomic studies, and where a symposium devoted to Darwinian discoveries and their consequences will be held in September.

We have, then, our model of the perfect, inquiring, open-minded man of science, casting aside prejudice and emotion, proceeding resolutely on his unending quest for the wellsprings of the natural world. It is a view Darwin himself advanced: as Janet Browne, author of the definitive, two-volume life of Darwin, sketches it, he sensed that “perseverance was indeed the single most important feature of his personality”. He admired diligence in other scientists; he felt his ability in tackling questions lay in persistence, which he turned into his great methodology and justification. Others might rely on brilliance, or memory — he brought to the scientific task a talent for mental determination. In his autobiography, Darwin dabs in this self-portrait, and lists his special attributes: “The love of science — unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject — industry in observing and collecting facts — and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense.”

This is a modest self-assessment, and it has won favour with Darwin’s modern admirers: anyone, it seems to hint, can become a great scientist, as long as they have good research technique, strong reserves of will and character and a degree of curiosity. In his introduction to the new selection of late-career letters, David Attenborough enthuses over Darwin’s habit of questioning his informants. Are blue-eyed rabbits deaf? Do capuchin monkeys open their mouths when surprised? Does the colour of the beards of Slavonic men differ from that of their hair? Darwin had to know the answers, for “detail, accumulated, marshalled, classified and distilled, is of course the very foundation of natural science”.

It would almost be possible, on reading these accounts, to view Darwin as a man who had transcended all the passions and the turbulences of life. Browne depicts him as he was in 1859, on the verge of publishing his masterwork. He had all the standard encumbrances of family and social life around him, yet she sees him as a being largely involved in his mental world: “His power of analysis was outstanding; his creative imagination remarkable,” she writes, and argues that the fascination in his story lies precisely in the interplay between the inner realm of the mind and his external life of scientific celebrity, a celebrity that weighed heavily, for his work “even in his own lifetime was regarded as a foundation stone for the modern world, not least for the manner in which he changed the way human beings thought about themselves and their own place in nature”.

Coincidentally, the publication year was a hinge-point of the century, as a lovely new chrono-portrait, Mr Darwin’s Incredible Shrinking World: Science and Technology in 1859, by Sydney science writer Peter Macinnis, well shows. It was the year when science became professional and its various branches began to diverge; it was the year when Louis Pasteur proved that life is not spontaneously generated, and when technological innovation emerged as a strong force in city life: the first electric lights were being tested, the first oil well was sunk, the first internal combustion engine was developed.

But Darwin was also the inheritor of another tradition: the tradition of romantic science, so beautifully delineated in British biographer Richard Holmes’s latest book, The Age of Wonders (HarperCollins). In the last years of the 18th and first years of the 19th century, scientific endeavour was imbued with a fervent, questing zeal, and its golden moments were captured by Darwin’s polymathic grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, in his mazy, encyclopedic poem, The Botanic Garden. How not to trace Darwin’s scientific leanings back to this ancestor? How not to see his campaign of self-mastery as a bid to even out his poetic impulses and ground his darting, spasmodic mind?

All around Darwin were romantic scientists: there was his dear friend Joseph Hooker, the botanist and Antarctic expeditioner; there was his publicist, the self-taught Thomas Henry Huxley, depressive pioneer of marine invertebrate phylogeny; there was his continental acolyte, the handsome, maritally ultra-unfortunate Ernst Haeckel, whose microscopic studies of sea creatures off the coast of Messina were inspired by Goethe’s Italian journeys (The Tragic Sense of Life, a startling new biography of this militant Darwinist, is a poignant excursus into the backwaters of evolutionary science). And chief of them all, there was the rainforest-exploring specimen hunter Alfred Wallace, who reached his independent insights into natural selection while trembling in a malarial fit on the remote Moluccan island of Halmahera. The scientific journeys of Wallace, Darwin, Hooker and Huxley form the narrative thread of Iain McCalman’s new portrait of the evolutionary age, Darwin’s Armada (to be published next month by Viking; $49.95). The tale breathes with the excitement and the intensity of romantic travel, and with the race of suggestive ideas set in train by the experiences of these cerebral explorers in the new realms of the tropics and the south. The crescendo comes when Wallace sets down in writing his dawning convictions regarding the development of species through selection pressures.

As is well known, Wallace confided this news by mail to Darwin, who had spent two decades pondering his theory and declining to publish. On June 18, 1858, Darwin read the letter from the tropics: his world fell apart. “I never saw a more striking coincidence.” Would he lose his claim to have invented the ideas that were first his? “So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.” He wrote to his closest colleagues, Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell: “I dare say it is all too late. I hardly care about it … I really cannot bear to look at it. Do not waste much time. It is miserable in me to care at all about priority.”

A “delicate arrangement” for swift publication was put in place by Lyell and Hooker; it ensured Darwin’s pre-eminence: Wallace, languishing in the East Indies, could only assent, and the rise of Darwin to his place in the scientific pantheon was assured; Wallace, far distant, in his humid tropics, was consigned by history’s simplifying vice to the margins: his later turn towards spiritualism, and his insistence on a divine role in forging human intelligence, ensured that modern scientists would look askance at his parallel researches and evolutionary intuitions, until their memory had almost vanished.

Whatever else this tale tells us, it suggests another side of Darwin: it gives us a man rather different from the scientific paragon presented by the standard biographical account: a man gripped by emotions, by longings, by the driving desire to know, and indeed to be known. Stephen Jay Gould, one the most artful of modern science writers, attempts to locate this face of Darwin in his introductory essay for the Origins selection of the letters. “Mere intellect,” Gould writes, “is never enough to forge a scientific revolution. Darwin also possessed the requisite traits of character that make a person both persist and believe in himself.”

Toughness, zeal, perseverance and constant enthusiasm were part of his character, along with a sharp radicalism of the intellect, but still he seems to hover beyond our grasp, something remains unglimpsed. “No one,” Gould continues, “could possibly match Darwin for fascination and appeal — a remarkably genial man who must inspire affection, but also a strikingly complex and often cryptic person, whose contradictory desires and influences cannot be resolved into coherence, even by access to an epistolary domain more intimate than his published works.”

As luck would have it, though, a different interpretation of Darwin has been explored, in a detailed life study by psychiatrist John Bowlby, who died in 1990, shortly before the publication of Charles Darwin: A New Life. It foregrounds an unfamiliar aspect of the master scientist: the dreadful, debilitating plague of interlinking illnesses that shaped his later years. Palpitations, rashes, skin lesions and constant vomiting attacks came to form the substrate of Darwin’s daily life, and almost certainly dictated the regime of professional isolation he clung to despite his growing celebrity after his great theory had seen the light of day.
Once these afflictions were viewed by biographers as a legacy of the Beagle, as strange after-effects of some unnamed tropical disease. Bowlby, who pioneered the field of childhood emotional development, traces Darwin’s mysterious suite of symptoms to the crippling effect of his mother’s death in 1817, when he was eight. Bowlby’s subtle, poignant book sets many thoughts in train: Darwin’s startling non-belief may well stem from some defiant rejection of God’s injustice; his strained relations with his father, and idealisation of his poet grandfather, point to an enduring resentment harboured by the son. And what could the drive to know thecauses of life’s order stem from, other than a desire to make sense of a cold, hard, unreadable world in the wake of a sudden, silence-mantled bereavement?

There is a tension in the texts, and in the letters, and it yields a portrait of a controlled, self-overcoming man, but also a man whose consequent clarity and breadth of vision extended far and wide. Darwin’s prose is a constant, ever-modulating, even-moving force, much like a wave front in the natural world, taking up and examining each phenomenon it describes before advancing calmly on. The books he wrote emerge from this realm of thought: their style, their pace and unfurling grandeur seem to mark them out not just as products of the age, but as emblems of the author’s perspective: coherent, energetic, dark. In fact, On the Origin of Species went through a long gestation as a mass of manuscript that Darwin obsessed over for years, before Wallace and the spur of competition drove him in a rush to complete the work.

He was a tortured writer: “It is a mere rag of hypothesis,” he wrote to Huxley, “with as many flaws and holes as sound parts. My question is whether the rag is worth anything?” For Janet Browne, the critical, shaping background is as much social as personal: “Darwin’s biology,” she argues, “mirrored the British way of life in all its competitive, entrepreneurial factory spirit.” His appeal to natural law advanced the cause of secularisation. “As well as rewriting the story of life, he was telling the tale of the rise of science in Victorian Britain.” Both these backgrounds, of course, belong in the story: and neither can wholly account for Darwin’s flashing, jumping mind.

A sumptuous new illustrated edition of Origin, edited by nature writer David Quammen, allows curious readers to meander through the serried thought sequence of the text, in which fragments of Darwin’s Beagle narrative and late autobiography have been artfully embedded, like little highly scented truffles of relieving subjectivity. The book, with its relentless, gently tightening logic chains, still makes a strong appeal. It presents its observations: unhurriedly, it discloses its conclusions and the consequent world view. What was Darwin announcing? That nature had no purpose or moral basis, that species were not fixed by God, but had merely won battles on an abstract battleground of selection pressures, that they were not in fact immutable at all; that the landscape and the beings in it were all linked by relations of contest and struggle for control. This is the core of the Darwinian system.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is that Darwin had no idea what vectors were responsible for these effects. He simply saw the effects and deduced the pattern that must be there. The researcher who first detected clues to genetic inheritance was Gregor Mendel, a monk in the Augustinian abbey of St Thomas at Brno in Moravia. He was already beginning his researches when Darwin was writing. Mendel’s studies, which became widely known only at the start of the 20th century, were the necessary prelude to the advances of modern molecular biology. Darwin himself had tried to sketch this vital groundwork. Several years after Origins, he unveiled a further model to explain the observed patterns of variation in inheritance down the generations. He called this new idea “pangenesis”. In its intricacy and theoretical boldness it is very typical of his cast of thought. Darwin contended that every part of a living organism threw off “gemmules”, tiny particles that, through the process of sexual reproduction, transmitted both inherited and acquired characteristics from parent organisms to descendants.

This episode in the progress of Darwin’s thought is little emphasised today, though it stems from a feat of intuition and synthesis as remarkable as that embodied in the idea of natural selection: it even comes close to predicting the role played at the cellular level by the genetic code’s messenger molecules, DNA and RNA. It is in the shadows of scientific history, for the simple reason that it has points in common with the earlier theory of the French Revolution-era botanist, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, who envisaged the transmission of acquired characteristics from parent to offspring, a blueprint Darwin’s evolution overthrew. The annals of science favour clean descent lines: a Lamarckian Darwin is not in the script. Best pass by, and leave the old master in the saintly seclusion of his later years.

From this point, Darwin’s mind cast here and there: he spent his final decade engaged in the punctilious study of orchids, and earthworms, industrious creatures for which he appears to have nursed a tender affection. He threw off majestic speculations that resonate to this day, and find their contemporary echoes: like Wallace, he believed natural selection had acted on the human mind and helped generate language and the domain of thought; he came to view the religious impulse as an instinctual propensity to quest for the ultimate causes of events; he viewed moral codes as relative to cultures. All this he tended to discuss in private, enlightened circles. He endured his sickness; his mood remained unquiet. One haunting letter in his correspondence, written to him by his wife Emma at the height of the Origin controversy, and shortly after the death of their youngest, most cherished child, gives a better sense than any other document we have of the life that Darwin lived. “I cannot tell you,” she begins,

the compassion I have felt for all your sufferings for these weeks past that you have had so many drawbacks. Nor the gratitude I have felt for the cheerful and affectionate looks you have given me when I know you have been miserably uncomfortable. I feel in my inmost heart your admirable qualities and feelings and all I would hope is that you might direct them upwards, as well as to one who values them above every thing in the world.

“God bless you,” wrote Darwin in the margin on receipt of this heartfelt note, a remark that, coming from an author of his inclinations, loses itself on plains of bitter irony. Such was the first evolutionist’s life world. The famous closing image of Origin captures the voice, as much as the great idea:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Restrained, precise, animated, it is a tone that compels the deepest admiration. In a recent essay, the prince of modern writers on the brain and neurology, Oliver Sacks, describes his childhood fascination with the patterns Darwin’s work revealed to him. How rich the interconnections in a simple garden were, how subtle the linked development of species that depended on each other. “The notion,” Sacks writes, putting his finger on the wonder of the Darwinian scheme, “the notion of such vast eons of time, and the power of tiny, undirected changes which by their accumulation could generate new worlds — worlds of enormous richness and variety — was intoxicating. Evolutionary theory provided, for many of us, a sense of deep meaning and satisfaction that belief in a Divine Plan had never achieved. The world that presented itself to us became a transparent surface, through which one could see the whole history of life. The idea that it could have worked out differently was a dizzying one. It made life seem all the more precious, and a wonderful, ongoing adventure — not fixed or predetermined, but always susceptible to change and new experience.”

This is Darwin’s achievement. The divine architect is dethroned. And the new theory? How far can it take us into the froth and murk of life? The past 12 months has seen a torrent of new books of scientific explanation aimed at readers avid for guidance in the new, Darwin-coloured age. Publication and communication about new advances in science has become almost as critical a part of a scientific career as mere research. So has engagement with the underlying ideas that propel biological research: the theory, the speculation, the blue sky. The different stances for writers in this vein are clearly marked. There are defenders of neo-Darwinism, who believe in the deep explanatory power of his insights; and there are sceptics, who feel the initial theory falls short, and there must be more: whether more complexity and variety in the rules governing how things work or more scope for design in the universe.

Today’s public champion of Darwinian thinking is the productive, persuasive Richard Dawkins, who has a new book on Darwin due later in the year, and whose own popular account of genetic selection, The Selfish Gene, still sells well after 30 years. Assisting Dawkins are allies from various camps: there is the dry-as-dust philosopher of materialism, Daniel C. Dennett; there are evolutionary biologists such as Steven Pinker, who read the origins of human behaviour in selection pressures; there are historians of science such as Michael Ruse, whose Darwinism and its Discontents gives a combative overview of today’s debates over evolution, its mechanisms and predictive force.

Ruse rounds up the most common objections to the ascendancy of the Darwin-derived world view with pleasing briskness; he defends the tenets of modern biology as objective because the model works: “It does what is needed to tell us in a disinterested fashion about the world of experience.” Grave problems at the door of the project of modern science re-emerge in his thought as appealing opportunities. What matter if some experts regard the emergence of life on earth as a mystery beyond easy explanation? For Ruse, and the cohorts of enthusiasts like him in the international community of life sciences research, “the origin-of-life problem is not a threat. It is not an area of gloom and self-delusion. It is rather inspiring and exciting.” This is the orthodox position, which trusts in the power of science to classify and comprehend the sensory flux of life.

A somewhat smaller quota of science books by critics of the reach of the modern paradigm also appear regularly. In the Western intellectual landscape of the day, which is quite dominated by the post-Darwin consensus, these are rank outliers and tend to have a certain flavour of wilful eccentricity about them. The captivating, effervescent Dissent Over Descent, by Steve Fuller, a sociology professor at the University of Warwick, is a good example of the genre. Fuller, a keen iconoclast, concludes that there is little difference in principle between theology and biology, once genetics is understood as the “grammar of life”. Indeed he finds little to choose between neo-Darwinian thinking and its arch-enemy “intelligent design” — the set of theories, some influenced by religious precepts, that allow a degree of room for directed agency in the creation of the natural kingdom. The standard model is faulty, Fuller proclaims, and another must be found.

Books of this pitch, whether endorsements of the modern standard version of biology or attempts to explore its shortcomings, enter the discussion at a relatively abstract level. They are all works of interpretation.

There is, though, another realm of contention over Darwin’s legacy: in the results of experiments. Broadly, non-specialists tend to assume that the fruits of the
modern neo-Darwinian synthesis are secure. After all, we know how what Darwin described works: we know that male and female genes mingle in sexual reproduction; we know the finest details of microbiology; we can isolate the results in human patients of the most minute genetic flaws; we are at the point where we can shape and influence the course of life through the application of such knowledge.

Darwinian theory, though, has long been based on a kind of explanatory totalitarianism, which is obviously in great part a counter to, and mirror of, the explanation of nature in terms of divine will. For the past century, biologists have insisted that Darwin’s theory accounts for all the mechanisms of biological interaction, without exception. Indeed there can be no exception if it is to maintain its power and the power of its associated world view.

In reality, what we see emerging is much more interesting. The standard model of genetic transmission of characteristics, with variations spreading through populations over time by the spread of successful mutations alone, gives us the obvious mechanism of inheritance: but there are other, subsidiary influences in the picture. At a meeting of advanced biological science researchers held in September 2008 at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Altenberg, Austria, and reported in the journal Nature, stress was laid on new understandings of how variation enters the genetic landscape. In this shifting view, the environment also has the capacity to shape genes and traits can be passed on through an “epigenetic” inheritance — in other words, temperature or chemicals can produce consequences in the next generation. A multilayered approach to cause and effect in evolution begins to emerge from such presentations.

But the best-known, most contentious supplement to conventional neo-Darwinian theory stems, by a wild coincidence no novelist would script, from the mind of a great Australian scientist born, in the post-war years, in Darwin, that sleepy harbour city of the north. The conceptions of the bold, outspoken Ted Steele, his duels with the scientific establishment, his determination to follow up the faint hints in his first experiments and his subsequent life on the trail of a magnificent intellectual obsession fall into the shape of a perfect story. Steele’s saga has attracted journalists and documentarists, and now it forms the subtext of a clear, concise history by Australian author Ross Honeywill. Lamarck’s Evolution, very accurately subtitled “Two Centuries of Genius and Jealousy”, describes the fate of Lamarck, the obscurity in which his ideas came to languish, and their surprising re-emergence as a result of Steele’s recondite work establishing the mechanisms of “reverse transcription” in genetics: simply put, the passage down an unsuspected pathway of genetic data from body cells back to reproductive cells, so allowing environmentally caused changes to be passed on to future generations. This phenomenon, now well understood and clearly demonstrated in experiments, breaks one of the long-maintained core dogmas of neo-Darwinism: it shows that information is, under certain circumstances, able to cross the “Weismann Barrier”.

Viewed from today’s perspective, with Steele now vindicated, though far from acknowledged for the sweep and scale of his work, or for his willingness to defy a monolithic science establishment, the nature of the dance that has surrounded Lamarck’s ideas at last becomes plain. Lamarck and Darwin were thinkers about nature, and theory builders. Darwin’s account, strange and counter-intuitive though it was, anticipated, and fitted with, a set of mid-20th century discoveries: the details of cell biology and the genetic code. After a century and a half, and the clear victory in the West of the secular, materialist world view Darwin championed, biological research is gradually piecing together a portrait of organic life that becomes subtler and more densely interrelated almost by the day. It is a portrait that has room for Darwin, Lamarck and their many speculative successors: it is rich and strange, and all our confident theories, despite their predictive force, feel more and more like theories at a remove from the elusive, animated world.

In short, the revolution Darwin set in train has reached its term, and it is now possible for us, late-comers at the scientific feast, to see the vast extent of its achievements and its unexpected limits as well. We can describe, classify and manipulate nature with extraordinary precision. Our sense of the unknown and unknowable in life has largely evaporated. It is we who are the measure of the world. There is a very strong temptation to believe that the mechanisms of life itself have been revealed by modern microbiology: that when we describe the workings of the cell or the firing of neurons in the brain we are at the last level of sophisticated analysis. We have no need for the divine dimension as a supplement to our materialist understanding of what is. And yet there are still vast realms before us that remain obscure.

Consider, if you will, the thorny devil, an Australian lizard of the central deserts, which grows to some 20cm in length, and can eat, when its luck is in, thousands of insects in a day. The devil, rather unkindly known to science as Moloch horridus, is the sole species of its genus. It is distinctive in its style: it bears a faint camouflage pattern on its flanks that changes colour subtly as the lighting shifts through the day. Its nature is gentle: in fact it is quite tame when captured. It has a false head on its back to deceive predators, and the grooves along its body trap falling rain and channel it to its mouth. In this description, of course, there is much cod-Darwinism: the evolutionary adaptations that “make sense”, the fitness of the species for its extreme environment, and so on. But there is much that makes no sense at all. Where are the other, intermediate species? Why is it tame, despite constantly falling foul of human tormentors over past millennia? Of this life form, we can ask, as we can about any life form: what quickens it, what organises it, what is the living force in it that dissipates when it dies? What level of consciousness does it have? How does it see the world? Why does it appear to us at once beautiful and subtle, sweet and strange? These are not so much unfair questions to put to biological science, as quite irreducible questions.

Darwin’s work, and the vast enterprise that descends from his name and symbolic parentage, cannot begin to answer them: we are no nearer resolving the problem of consciousness, or life’s origins or the world’s origins than the ancient Greeks were. It is not so much that the materialist project has failed: it has not even begun.

Yet the scientific world view prevails. This is through an impressive sleight of hand. Religious modes of appreciating the world have faded from prominence in the secular West, in some part because of the dissemination of the Darwinian understanding of life’s patterns. In place of religion, ideological, sociological and scientifically informed perspectives have won the field. It is a materialist horizon we contemplate. As a result, the broad assumption is that materialist explanations for all the things that still remain obscure in our lives — reductive assumptions, that will render consciousness an affair of sub-atomic particles, and life itself an affair of charged fields — must be close, must be on the way, just around the corner in some research lab. It is also widely assumed that no critique of the scientific world view exists that is not a veiled defence of religious belief.

What, though, is this lone voice, dissonant amidst the consensual chorus? The mathematician David Berlinski, an intriguing sceptic on these points, has published, over the past decade, a series of disquieting articles, from a perspective of unblinking logical rigour, exploring the state of Darwinian theory and its claim to provide the keys to the world. These pieces focus not on the success of the project of neo-Darwinian life science, but on a much deeper question: whether science could ever hope to fill the gaps in our knowledge of life. Their author is not worrying about which scientific model, but about the very idea of a model that explains phenomena away.

Berlinski, though himself an avowed secular materialist, is not popular with evolutionary scientists: his highly coloured prose, seen to striking effect in a new book-length essay on atheism, The Devil’s Delusion, cloaks a devastating, systematic assault on the pretensions of science to know more than it has established as sure. “Something,” he says, “is at work in biological systems that we have not yet properly defined, or even grasped” — no matter how well we can describe and classify those systems and their inter-relations. Berlinski, then, is the latest proclaimer of the uncertainties inherent in science, and this, as much as his association with the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, nest of the intelligent design movement, accounts for the scorn or silence with which his ornate essays are received. He turns the tools of scientific thinking against science’s program: he suggests that science begs its questions, and cannot begin to account for the way things come into being. God, genetic codes, information — do they all have the same status, are they all mere metaphors for an uncaused primal cause? Darwinian thinking gives us, in the blind engines of selection, a smuggled-in approximation of some sense of motion, progress. But life, Berlinski muses, “may not be designed at all, the weight of evolution borne by neutral mutations, with genes undergoing a slow but pointless drifting in time’s soft currents”.

If Darwin has become no more than the brand name for a plausible, consistent description of the world, then what survives of the founding zeal that drove the author of On the Origin of Species forward in his ceaseless task? “No doubt,” writes Berlinski, “the theory of evolution will continue to play the singular role in the life of our secular culture that it has always played. The theory is unique among scientific instruments in being cherished not for what it contains, but for what it lacks. The theory functions simply as a description of matter in one of its modes, and living creatures are said to be something that the gods of law indifferently sanction and allow.”

One hundred and fifty years since the publication of the first masterpiece of evolutionary thinking, the Darwinian tradition has itself evolved with impressive speed, generating whole new realms of scientific endeavour, a mini-tornado of book publishing, and a rainbow of world views and linguistic metaphors. Were he with us, the old, illness-plagued naturalist in his book-lined study would surely be hard-pressed to recognise this new creation furnaced in his wake. Or have there been some survivors, some constant presences, from those foundation days, sufficiently familiar to make Darwin feel slightly at home in our fluctuating world? Perhaps, as it happens; perhaps — at least until very recently.

We know from extensive colonial records that the commander of the Beagle during Darwin’s spell on board, the animal-loving John Clements Wickham, eventually returned to Australia and served briefly as government resident at Brisbane before retracing his steps to England once again. Old ties stayed strong. Along with two other Beagle shipmates, Wickham visited Darwin at his home at Down House in Kent in October 1862.

More than a century later, the story began to circulate that a large tortoise, known as Harriet and resident at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo in Beerwah, Queensland, was in fact one of the baby tortoises collected by Darwin on the Galapagos Islands in 1835, and later brought from England to Australia by Wickham at the time he settled in Brisbane. Harriet only died in 2006, the same year as the nature-subduing Irwin, and it is pleasing to speculate that her involvement with human beings had stretched in such poetic fashion from the sublime to the ridiculous. As Frank Nicholas, emeritus professor of animal genetics at the University of Sydney, and his Australiana specialist wife Jan, note in the closing pages of their book on Darwin’s sojourn in Australia, “there is some compelling circumstantial evidence” backing up this delightful story.

But sadly, scientific method seems, here again, to rule the field. With an appropriate dash of scepticism, a scepticism that will leave all sentimental, pattern-seeking readers transfixed by disappointment, they conclude in the negative: Harriet was just another ordinarily-evolved Galapagos Methuselah, and “closer examination of documentary and DNA evidence” rules against the claim.