In the first half of the twelfth chapter of Darwin’s Watch, Darwin’s improbable history is more fact than fiction. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Science of Discworld III.
This is somewhat similar to what I said for the last Roundworld section, but it’s worth repeating: I love having this context. I love knowing that Darwin had to take time, that he had to do years of work, that his first book was not a success, and that we (speaking of someone in the American school system) do not learn the full scope of his life and how various things influenced his thought process. I find all of this so valuable in understanding how he came to write The Origin, and it’s not just because I get all the fictional stuff better. Of course, this chapter opens by acknowledging that at least three of the fictional derailments from chapter eleven WERE BASED ON REAL THINGS. The Beagle was fired upon in the Buenos Aires harbor; Darwin did learn to throw a bolas and tripped up his own horse; and he took part in suppressing an insurrection. (I should note that while I don’t necessarily expect this book to be an explicitly political text, it was a little uncomfortable that the opening of this chapter addressed realities of British imperialism—like the insurrection in Montevideo—in a way that only relates them as interesting stories and not… well, acts of imperialism. Like, why exactly did those black soldiers in Montevideo take over the central fort? What’s the context there? Who else was involved?)
So, fact is often as strange (or stranger) than fiction, but I also think it’s the way we talk about history that matters, too. I mentioned this in the video, but this chapter was constructed so well that it felt exciting. It was like I was experiencing a fiction story! And y’all, I really wish that history was taught with this same sense of excitement and drama, because all the shit I remember most from my education was done in similar ways. Yes, not everything is high drama, but the narrative that the authors focus on here made for great entertainment and education at the same time. Any person’s life can seem improbable if you talk about all the paths they could have taken, but there’s another level to this that I enjoyed. Darwin wrote the “wrong” book eight times. He worked immensely hard to sift through information, to consider the social, political, and religious implications of his ideas, and to eventually make it to the point where The Origin actually came to fruition. (Granted, it appears Darwin had independent income, so I think that’s important to acknowledge; he could spend five years navigating the world without the terrible stress of OH MY GOD RENT IS DUE.)
We often hear of success and accomplishment, and becoming an “overnight” celebrity is lauded as an attainable (but very special) thing. But how much of that is actually an overnight success? The authors here build a compelling portrait of Darwin’s life after the Beagle got back home, and it’s important because it shows us that he did not just get home, write a book, and find infamy. Which I genuinely thought he did! We were not taught all the years that passed between the voyage and The Origin, and if we were, I don’t remember it. A lot of our history is just memorizing of dates here in the States; I would have absolutely remembered this wild-ass story of Darwin’s if I’d been taught that he was shot at, that he nearly didn’t make it a dozen times, that he wrote EIGHT other books, that someone else almost published his theory of natural selection BEFORE Darwin. (I should acknowledge that Wallace’s theory was ultimately not the same, especially since he thought selection mainly happened because of “hostile environments,” whereas Darwin saw it as competition amongst the organisms themselves.)
I’m having a blast reading this, y’all. I still don’t know who is derailing Darwin’s life, but I’m eager to see if the next Roundworld section will talk more about Darwin’s life after the publishing of The Origin. We get a sense of its immediate success, and I learned that every day people (gasp!!!!) were reading it, too, not just academia or high society folks. What was Darwin’s life like a year after it was published? Ten years? I don’t actually know what his later life was like, aside from the hint early in this book that he was a bit agnostic towards the end. UGH I WANT MORE!!!
Mark Links Stuff
– The paperback edition of my debut, ANGER IS A GIFT, is now up for pre-order! It comes out on May 7, 2019. If you’d like to stay up-to-date on all announcements regarding my books, sign up for my newsletter! DO IT.