Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What a struggle

A couple of posts at Butterflies and Wheels called to mind one of my favorite sections in Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her

[CHARLES DARWIN, 1809-1882]
If Darwin’s ill health was not, as some seem to think, a pretext to isolate himself with his work, neither was it, as Darwin had right to fear, an insuperable obstacle to his work. One reason why it did not prove fatal to his ambitions was the devotion and sympathy of his wife.

GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution
Beginning early in the day, after taking breakfast alone, and a walk, he worked in his study from eight until nine-thirty in the morning. Then he went into the drawing room with his family; he looked over the mail, and sometimes listened as a novel was read aloud, he resting on the sofa. (‘All that we can do’, he wrote, ‘is to keep steadily in mind that each organic being is striving to increase in a geometrical ratio…) He returned to his study at ten-thirty and emerged again at noon. (…that each at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation, or at intervals, has to struggle for life or suffer great destruction…’) Then he took another walk, past the greenhouse, perhaps looking at an experimental plant, and then onto a gravel walk encircling an acre and a half of land, taking a specified number of turns, perhaps watching his children play, observing a bird, a flower. Or before he took too many spills, taking a canter on an old and gentle horse. (‘What a struggle must have gone on during long centuries’, he wrote, ‘between several kinds of trees each annually scattering its seeds by the thousands, what war between insect and insect – between insects, snails and other animals with bird and beasts of prey - ) After this, lunch was served to him. And then he read the newspapers and wrote letters. If they were lengthy he dictated them from rough drafts. At three o’clock, he went to rest in his bedroom, smoked a cigarette, lay on a sofa, and listened again to a novel read aloud to him by his wife. ( - all striving to increase, all feeding on each other, or on the trees, their seed and seedlings, or on the other plants which first clothed the ground and thus checked the growth of trees!’) This reading often put him to sleep so that he complained he had missed whole parts of books. His wife feared the cessation of her voice would wake him. (Of the Formica refescens, he wrote, ‘So utterly helpless are the masters, that when Huber shut up thirty of them without a slave…they did nothing; they could not even feed themselves and many perished of hunger’.)

At four he took another walk, and worked for one more hour. Then after another period of listening to a novel, he ate his dinner, played two games of backgammon with his wife, read some of a scientific book, and when tired finally, lay back again to listen while his wife read to him or played the piano. When he retired at ten or ten-thirty, he often lay awake for hours afterward in pain. On bad days, he could not work at all. (Of the process of selection he wrote: ‘…the struggle will almost invariably be most severe between individuals of the same species, for they frequent the same districts, require the same food and are exposed to the same dangers’.)

In a letter to Lyell he claimed that he was bitterly mortified to conclude that ‘the race is for the strong’, but that he would be able to do little more than admire the strides others would make in science. (‘…the swiftest and the slimmest wolves’, he wrote, ‘would have the best chance of surviving and so be preserved or selected’.) Because of his own ill health, and that of his grandfather and his brother, and mother-in-law and aunt (And he wrote: ‘…so profound is our ignorance and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being, and we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms…’) and because of the sick headaches which his wife suffered (‘natural selection acts only by preservation and accumulation of small inherited modifications, each profitable to the preserved being…’ he wrote) he feared for the health of his children, of whom one died shortly after birth, one died in his childhood, and others suffered chronic illness.

In 1844, of his discovery of evolution, he recorded: ‘At last gleams of light have come and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that the species (it is like confessing a murder) are not immutable’. (145-6)

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