Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Charles Darwin and the triumph of literary genius

with 3 comments

Last week, while browsing at Open Books in Chicago, I made one of those serendipitous discoveries that are the main reason I love used bookstores: a vintage copy of The Tangled Bank by Stanley Edgar Hyman, which I picked up for less than seven dollars. Both the author and his work are mostly forgotten these days—Hyman is remembered, if anything, for his marriage to Shirley Jackson—but this book caught my attention right away. It’s an ambitious attempt to consider Darwin, Marx, Frazer, and Freud as imaginative writers who made their arguments using the strategies of narrative artists and storytellers, and as such, it’s a great bedside book, if not completely successful. Hyman obsessively details how books like Das Kapital mimic the tropes of narrative art (“The dramatic movement of Capital consists of four descents into suffering and horror, which we might see as four acts of a drama”) while neglecting the main point: if authors like this are storytellers, it’s because they’ve turned themselves into the protagonists of their own books, with their attempts to impose order on reality as their most enduring literary monuments.

And we may never see such protagonists again. If Darwin or Freud are literary characters as memorable as Pickwick or Hamlet, it’s in the tradition of the solitary man of genius considering the world through the lens of his own experience, a figure who has, of necessity, gone out of fashion in the sciences. As Jonah Lehrer recently pointed out in the New Yorker, the era of the lone genius is over:

Today…science papers by multiple authors contain more than twice as many citations as those by individuals. This trend was even more apparent when it came to so-called “home-run papers”—publications with at least a hundred citations. These were more than six times as likely to come from a team of scientists.

The explanation for this is easy enough to understand: most remaining scientific problems are far too hard for any one person to solve. Scientists are increasingly forced to specialize, and tackling important problems requires a greater degree of collaboration than ever before. This leads to its own kind of creative exhilaration, and perhaps a different model of genius, as that of a visionary who can guide and direct a diverse team of talents, like Steve Jobs or Robert Oppenheimer. But it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get to know such thinkers as living men and women, at least not as well as the ones profiled in The Tangled Bank.

Of these four, the one who interests me the most these days is Darwin, whose birthday was this past Sunday. (And while I’m on the subject, if you haven’t picked up a copy of Darwin Slept Here, by my good friend Eric Simons, you really should.) Darwin emerges in his own works as a fascinating figure, a ceaseless experimenter whose work is inseparable from the image of the man himself. One of the pleasures of The Tangled Bank lies in its reminder of how ingenious a scientist Darwin was. To  compare the area of geological formations on a topographical map, he cut them out and weighed the paper. He tickled aphids with a fine hair and made artificial leaves for earthworms by rubbing triangular pieces of paper with raw fat. And this impression of Sherlockian thoroughness, of leaving no experimental stone unturned, is more than just a literary delight: it’s an integral part of the persuasiveness of The Origin of Species, which is convincing as an argument largely because we’re so charmed by the author’s voice.

As Daniel C. Dennett has famously argued, Darwinian evolution is probably the best idea of all time, but it’s also impossible to separate the idea from the man, who survives in his own work as one of the great literary characters of the nineteenth century. It’s true that if Darwin, or Alfred Russel Wallace, hadn’t arrived at the principle of natural selection, somebody else would have done so eventually: it’s one of those ideas that seem obvious in retrospect. (After reading The Origin of Species, Thomas Huxley is supposed to have said: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”) But there’s no denying that the force and appeal of the book itself, which Darwin worked on quietly for years, bears a great deal of the credit for the theory’s rapid acceptance, at least among reasonable readers. Without that presentation, and the author’s personality, the history of the world might have been very different. And for that, we have literary genius to thank.

Written by nevalalee

February 13, 2012 at 11:30 am

3 Responses

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  1. “most remaining scientific problems are far too hard for any one person to solve”

    Sort of. More often, they just require more infrastructure than one person can posses. As a working scientist, I see this all the time. Say you work on superconductivity. You need a sample. You need a machine to characterise it. Probably several machines, some of them at national facilities like the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne. You probably have a boss who puts his/her name on everything that comes out of the lab, even if they have almost nothing to do with it except obtaining the research grant. Every person in the chain needs their name on outputs to justify themselves to their superior, so… authors abound. I do not believe the work is in general ‘harder’. I just think it takes more infrastructure to get to the coal face. Exceptions do exist — take a look at graphene. Monolayers of graphite have weird physical properties. And how were the monolayers obtained?

    Step (1): Attach magic tape to a single crystal of graphite.
    Step (2): Peel off tape.

    _That_ ‘just’ took someone to see the obvious. It still happens.



    Darren Goossens

    February 13, 2012 at 11:01 pm

  2. Nice post Alec. Thanks for the mention!

    I actually had an interesting conversation with an editor early on in the Darwin book writing process in which I was arguing that one of the things I found most fascinating about Darwin — one of the ways I connected with him most — was the engaging quality of his prose. (Especially true in Voyage of the Beagle and in his diaries and correspondence.) The editor argued the opposite, though: that to him most of Darwin’s books read like antiques, notable mainly for how distant they sound. I suppose this is the problem with growing up with Sherlock Holmes on permanent station next to the bed: Victorian language sounds so normal…

    (I also just wrote a short Darwin note for a travel piece on MSNBC — visiting the homes of nine famous authors — in which we squeezed Charles in next to Burns, Dickinson, Twain, Melville, etc. —

    Can’t wait for the Icon Thief release. It’s looking great. If we can create an iPhone-like mob at the bookstore here, you may depend on us to do so.

    Eric Simons (@ericsimons)

    February 14, 2012 at 11:52 am

  3. @Darren: Thanks for the input, and the graphene story. It’s good to know that the potential for individual “a-ha!” moments is still there…

    @Eric: Nice piece! And I love Darwin’s prose style—he clearly worked very hard to create the impression of naturalness, and it shows.


    February 14, 2012 at 6:19 pm

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