Books: Barnacles for All

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APES, ANGELS & VICTORIANS (399 pp.)—William Irvine—McGraw-Hill ($5).

Dr. Robert Darwin had a sharp eye. When his son Charles came home on H.M.S. Beagle in 1836, after a five-year voyage of scientific exploration, the old man took one look at him and exclaimed: "Why, the shape of his head is quite altered!" But within 30 years a greater change had taken place: standing at the helm of one of history's great intellectual revolutions, Charles Darwin had altered the shape of contemporary thought.

It is difficult to recapture the feeling of "intellectual holocaust" into which Darwin's doctrine of evolution by natural selection plunged the world. So much the better that Stanford University's Professor William Irvine should be the man to have made the attempt. U.S. biography has become world renowned for the depth and breadth of its research, but almost invariably it has paid for its weightiness in stolid writing and lack of imagination. Author Irvine (who proved his touch in 1949 with The Universe of G.B.S.) is one U.S. biographer to show that vast masses of research can be moved around with light-fingered dexterity.

The great names of Victorian science, philosophy and theology find a place in Biographer Irvine's brilliant study. Thomas Henry Huxley, who was Darwin's right-hand man and champion, actually takes up half the book. And yet, as Huxley himself readily admitted, it is Charles Darwin who dominates the scene.

Terror of Error. Psychologists have played with Darwin's psyche like happy children with an entrancing toy. Raised by a stern and awesome father, Darwin spent his whole life trying to be a well-behaved little gentleman deserving of love and approval; no great man was ever more prone to anxiety and apology, more terrified of being caught in error.

He was "physically awkward"—so much so that he bent every effort to making himself manually skillful, spending hours whipping a rifle to his shoulder in front of a mirror (he became a first-rate shot). Fear of error caused him to develop "an insatiable appetite for tabulation" and the determination to write nothing that he could not back up. His inability to talk back fast and deep-rooted fear of sudden criticism made him a wary recluse who spent year upon year building impregnable fortresses. Author Irvine is a shade sharp with Novelist Samuel Butler, who, like Shaw after him, quarreled with the theory of natural selection because it attributed the survival and development of species more to luck than cunning and paid no tribute to the power of the will. Yet Darwin's own calculated struggle is like a confirmation of Butler's criticism. Genius, Darwin himself insisted, is essentially "unflinching, undaunted perseverance."

Unenthusiastic about becoming a clergyman (which his father proposed), too "pathologically sensitive" to become a doctor, Darwin devoted his mammoth perseverance to becoming Darwin, i.e., an authority on matter rather than mind. For eight years he studied barnacles: his "patient dissection of thousands of smelly little sea animals" so impressed his children that they assumed that everyone in the world was similarly occupied. "Then where does he do his barnacles?" asked a little Darwin about a neighbor.

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