Desmond and Moore’s Darwin

It is widely believed that Darwin delayed publication of his evolutionary theory for some fifteen years largely because he feared the wrath of his contemporaries.[1] The most influential exponents of this view are Adrian Desmond and James Moore, who have promoted it not only in their 1991 biography Darwin, but also in a number of articles and broadcasts. For instance, having reported that in 1842 Darwin had “fleshed-out a thirty-five-page sketch of his evolutionary theory”, they add that “he could have planned to publish” were it not for the fact that it was “heresy to the geologists and blasphemy to the parsons” (Desmond and Moore 1991, pp. 292, 294). A little later they write:

Of course Darwin could not publish… He was too worldly-wise not to sense the danger, the damning class implications. He had no illusions about how he would be treated… […] Ultimately he was frightened for his respectability. For a gentleman among the Oxbridge set, priming itself to guard man’s soul against the socialist levellers, publishing would have been tantamount to treachery – a betrayal of the old order. (1991, p. 296)

Again, following their recording that in the spring of 1844 “the sketch expanded into a full 189-page essay”, they continue:

He also knew, grinding away month after month, that he could not publish – he would be accused of social delinquency, or worse. Transmutation was still a weapon wielded by the militants, angrily eyeing the islands of gentrified opulence… […] No, publishing would be suicidal. Clergy-baiting was on the increase, and country parsons were among Darwin’s friends and family. He risked being accused of betraying his privileged class. (1991, pp. 316-17)

As George Levine writes, “Insofar the book has a thesis, it is that Darwin spent his life in terror of the consequences of publishing his theory” (Levine 1994, p. 200). The issue I want to address in this article is not only whether Desmond and Moore’s portrait of Darwin as someone “tormented” by the very thought of making public his evolutionary theory is justified by the unvarnished documentary evidence, but also the means by which they have sought to persuade their readers to their point of view.

Desmond and Moore’s Darwin provides an extraordinary amount of information, missing from previous biographies, about the socio-political background to the various stages in Darwin’s life. They have also laboriously sought out original sources (Darwin’s notebooks, letters and marginalia, as well as the contemporary literature) as have no other biographers. However, the central issue arising from their constant focusing on contemporary political events is whether it was actually the case that these played a significant role in relation to Darwin’s views on the transmutation of species.

They make their position clear from the outset: “We can trace the political roots of his key ideas, following his reading on population, the poor laws, and charity… We have to see him as part of an active Whig circle, in an age when the Whig government was building the workhouses and the poor were burning them down” (1991, p. xx). As Michael Ruse sees it, “They are writing with an end in view, namely, to show how Darwin was a cork bobbing on the surface of the society of his day, and how his theory was a product of the various ideologies of him and his family and his class” (Ruse 1993, p. 229). But, as we shall see, they achieve their aims by a highly selective use of evidence, and by insinuating connections between Darwin’s evolutionary writings and concurrent political events for which there is no documentary warrant. Marjorie Grene observes that in “follow[ing] the social constructivist route” to understanding the sources of Darwin’s scientific views, Desmond and Moore “are inventing a politicized Darwin, and cleverly they do it” (Grene 1993, p. 672).

Grene writes that the authors’ attempt to make the link between Darwin and contemporary political activities seems to her “sometimes just a bit fraudulent” (p. 671). She is particularly scathing about their use of quotations to intimate a political connection with Darwin’s life that doesn’t actually exist: “In short, one can only conclude that when it comes to their strictly political context Desmond and Moore are having us on” (p. 673). She cites “a few examples of two particularly striking techniques” used by Desmond and Moore. “One is to provide a nonannotated paragraph purporting to represent Darwin’s position”, when there is no documentary evidence that it actually does so. The second “device they use is to give carefully annotated political descriptions juxtaposed with accounts of Darwin’s anxieties, the sources for which, when inspected, have nothing to do with politics” (pp. 671-72). As she also notes, the authors’ “clustering method” of citing several references within a single endnote “helps to conceal what (for this reader at least) are small bits of cheating in support of a favored thesis” (p. 664).

In similar vein, Levine objects to “the book’s strategies of representation, of ‘factually’ cloaked argument, of lively rhetoric and fictionalizing techniques. The remade Darwin is gradually squeezed from implicit interpretations of data that have long been available, interpretations that are not argued for but presented as fact.” In short, there is “a lot of cheating going on this biography” (Levine 1994, pp. 194, 200).

The twin characteristics of the authors’ providing truncated quotations embedded in sentences and paragraphs shaped to implicitly convey their own interpretations, and the juxtaposing of extra-scientific occurrences with Darwin’s activities to insinuate a causal connection between them, are a pervasive feature of the book. They are part and parcel of “strategies of persuasion” which include “some quite devious writing” (Levine 1994, p. 197) by means of which they impute to Darwin fears in relation to concurrent radical political activities that supposedly influenced his behaviour, both scientific and private. They write of London in 1842 that it was “a cauldron”, “Malthusian hatreds were festering”, and “society was teetering”, followed immediately in the next paragraph by “The Darwins’ house-hunting acquired a new urgency”, clearly implying a connection between the two items. There follows more melodramatically presented material about civil unrest: “The [London] streets were frightening”, and a little later: “Working men and women milled about in the streets, shouting and cheering… The worst was expected.” This is immediately followed by a paragraph commencing with Emma Darwin “overseeing the packing”: “It was now the fourth week of the general strike… The Darwins were thankful to be getting out” (1991, pp. 296-298).

Levine writes that “it is hard to read this without feeling that the stress of those days was very important to Darwin, that he was deeply sensitive to the Chartist uprisings and to the government’s reaction, that he and Emma sat nervously in their home as the mobs screamed by”, creating the impression that “he wants desperately to get away from all this revolutionary hubbub”. But a perusal of his letters at the time shows no indication that these events intruded on his mind, only that with his growing family, his illness, and his continuing immersion in his ongoing writings it was imperative that he acquired more amenable premises away from London. As Levine observes, “As far as I can see, there isn’t a single reference in the published correspondence to those Chartist uprisings that play so important a role in Desmond and Moore’s narrative” (1994, pp. 198-99). Moreover, Sandra Herbert writes, contrary to the scenario portrayed by Desmond and Moore, “the Chartist movement in London was militant but not violent”, and after noting the absence of  any mention of concurrent political events in Darwin’s letters, she advises: “One should be cautious in accepting the biography as reflecting Darwin’s political opinions or his fears” (Herbert 1993, p. 116).

One paragraph devoted to Chartist activities in 1839 begins “By summer the disorder on the streets was impossible to avoid…”, and the next paragraph opens with “Darwin was sick with worry”. This is immediately followed by: “Yet he felt compelled to confess to the priests vilified by the mob – or at least to the orthodox Henslow – that he was ‘steadily collecting every sort of fact, which may throw light on the origin & variation of species’. It would have been music to the ears of street atheists, but not, of course, to Henslow” (1991, pp. 286). However, as Grene notes, there is no “confession” by Darwin, only his reporting to his friend that “he is collecting facts to do with the ‘origin & variation of species,’ followed by an account of how withdrawn the Darwins’ life is, with the days alike as ‘as two peas'” (Grene 1993, p. 672).

Desmond and Moore write in the same section: “Entertainment grew uncomfortable: ‘we are living a life of extreme quietness… We have given up all parties, for they agree with neither of us…'” (1991, p. 286). Grene observes about this passage: “From the context, one is given the impression that this withdrawal is a response to political crisis. In fact, however, the description of the Darwins’ routine occurs in the very same letter to his sister Caroline in which he remarks that ‘London is so cheerful'” (Grene 1993, p. 672).

The authors ask rhetorically, “And what was to stop out-and-out dissidents from appropriating his theory for real revolutionary ends?” (p. 285), though they do not provide any evidence that the notion of such consequences ever entered Darwin’s head. In fact Darwin later expressed his disdain towards such views: “What a foolish idea seems to prevail in Germany on the connection between Socialism and Evolution through Natural Selection” (Darwin, F. 1887, vol. 3, p. 237). 

Joseph Carroll observes that “with whatever distortions and falsifications they find necessary,… [Desmond and Moore] have created an imaginative atmosphere in which it is possible to regard evolutionary biology as subordinate to the world of social and political activity” (Carroll 1995, p. 300). The means they frequently use to promote their viewpoint is perceptively characterised by Levine when he writes of “how devious is a narrative that acquires its ‘blood’ by eliding the ambiguities, by disguising the absence of direct and literal connections, by presenting as fact what is speculation, or more precisely, by avoiding calling it fact but making it feel like fact” (Levine 1994, pp. 199-200).

The opening words in Darwin set the tone for much of what follows: “It is 1839. England is tumbling towards anarchy, with countrywide unrest and riots. The gutter presses are fizzing, firebombs flying. The shout on the streets is for revolution” (1991, p. xvii). Ruse takes issue with this historical setting: “…let me point out that all of this stuff about Britain being in the throes of revolution is pretty old-fashioned Marxist history, and that in the last quarter-century a huge amount has been written casting doubt on the scenario (Cannadine, 1992)” (Ruse 1993, p. 229).[2] In Ruse’s view, Desmond and Moore’s “neo-Marxist analysis of Darwin [that] has him cowering in rural Kent, while England burned around him, wracked with guilt because he was betraying his class by contributing to the revolution” is “silly nonsense” (Ruse 1999, p. 319).

Sulloway writes on the same topic:

Limited by their Marxist conception of history, Desmond and Moore were forced into a series of Don Quixote-like reconstructions of Darwin’s scientific career. According to Marxist expectations, Darwin should have abhorred evolution. Given the undeniable fact that he endorsed it, Desmond and Moore conclude that Darwin must have been “tormented” by his radical ideas. (Sulloway 1996, p. 240)

Moore takes the “tormented” portrait of Darwin to extraordinary lengths. When the Darwin family moved to Down House in 1842 he attached a mirror to the inside of his study window to enable him to see the arrival of visitors. The Darwin biographer Janet Browne suggests that this was “in order to catch the first glimpse of the postman” (Browne 1999), but Moore finds a motive in accord with his own agenda in a 2009 BBC radio programme:

[Darwin] knew that this terrible burden he carried, of the belief in evolution, including humans in society in that evolutionary process, would open him to persecution, if he let people know that he was working on that project… [At Down House] he could control access to himself. That’s the most important point. He was far enough away from railway stations, scientific societies, actually outside this window behind you he had a mirror installed so that he could see people coming up the drive. That’s not paranoia, that’s prudence in a man who was carrying a kind of burden that Darwin had, evolution. (Moore 2009b)[3]

John van Wyhe disputes the very notion that Darwin regarded his preparatory work on the transformation of species as a “secret” (2007, pp. 182-84). As Desmond and Moore acknowledge, in the year that he wrote his brief sketch of his theory (1842) “he could not resist telling Lyell” his “secret” (1991, p. 292). Then in the following year he mentioned his views on the transmutation of species to the taxonomist George Waterhouse, and in 1844 told his recently-acquired friend Joseph Hooker and his old friend Leonard Jenyns, and entrusted his 1844 sketch to the local schoolmaster in the neighbouring village of Downe to make a fair copy (Letters, 26 and 31 July 1843; 11 January 1844; 12 October 1844; Desmond and Moore 1991, pp. 313, 316; Wyhe 2007, pp. 183, 184). Frank Sulloway writes that “Far from being a ‘closet evolutionist,’ as Desmond and Moore claim, Darwin told a dozen of his closest friends about his evolutionary ideas” before he made them public (Sulloway 1996, p. 246).

On Desmond and Moore’s portrayal of a politicised Darwin, Helena Cronin is at one with the historians quoted above:

Here, indeed, is a Darwin hitherto unknown. But did this Darwin exist? Again and again I checked the footnotes, eager to track down the newly-revealed soul in his own diaries and letters. But again and again my hopes were dashed; references to recent historians a-plenty but to the sage himself, none. (Cronin 1991)

In other words, what we have in Desmond and Moore’s biography is a Darwin carefully crafted to accord with a preconceived view of scientific history, one which needs to be viewed “with extreme caution” and “contested at almost every sentence” (Levine 1994, p. 194). That their Darwin won, among other awards, the 1997 British Society for the History of Science Dingle Prize “for the best book of the decade in communicating the history of science to a wide audience” is a measure of  how successful Desmond and Moore have been in promoting both their portrait of Darwin and their social constructivist view of the origins of his evolutionary theory. But close reading of the text, such as those by well informed and conscientious historians like Grene and Levine which reveal the authors’ dubious techniques of persuasion, indicates that the book does not merit the accolades it has received.


1. That there actually was a “delay” in the sense promoted by Desmond and Moore in their Darwin (1991) is strongly disputed by several Darwin scholars, most notably John van Wyhe (2007). See also A. Esterson (2011), Darwin’s “Delay”.

2. D. Cannadine, 1992, pp. 52-57; see also A. Briggs, 1960, pp. 236-343.

3. In the same BBC radio series on Darwin, Moore plumbed the depths of implausibility when invoking a Marxist-style explanation in relation to Darwin’s receiving the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in part because of his researches into barnacles:

Now that’s a very important thing to do in a seafaring nation. Any expert on barnacles is obviously promoting British trade. Ships go faster if you understand how these things behave, how to get them off your hulls. So it’s not surprising if in 1853 Darwin was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society of London, the great gold medal. (Moore 2009a)

Hooker’s report to Darwin on the Royal Society meeting provides a rather more likely scenario:

The R.S. have voted you the Royal Medal for Natural Science – All along of the Barnacles!!!… Portlock proposed you for the Coral Islands & Lepadidae. Bell followed seconding, on the Lepadideae alone, & then, followed such a shout of pæans for the Barnacles that you would have [sunk] to hear. (Letter, 4 November 1853)


Briggs, A. (1960). The Age of Improvement, 1783-1867. London: Longmans.

Browne, J. (1999). Men of Letters: Charles Darwin’s Correspondence with Victorian Naturalists. Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution, 12 November 1999.

Cannadine, D. (1992). “Cutting Classes.” The New York Review of Books, 17 December 1992, pp. 52-57.

Carroll, J. (1995). Evolution and Literary Theory. Columbia and London: University of Michigan Press.

Cronin, H. (1991). “The origins of evolution.” The Times Educational Supplement, 29 November 1991, p. 25.

Darwin, C. R.  The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online. Edited by John van Wyhe.

Darwin, F. (ed.) (1887). The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter. Vol. 3. London: John Murray.

Desmond, A. and Moore, J. (1991). Darwin. London and New York: Michael Joseph.

Grene, M. (1993). “Recent Biographies of Darwin: The Complexity of Context.” Perspectives on Science. Vol. 1, no. 4: 659-675.

Herbert, S. (1993). “Essay Reviews.” Isis, 84: 113-127.

Levine, G. (1994). “Darwin Revised, and Carefully Edited.” Configurations, 1994, 1: 191-202. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Moore, J. (2009a). Darwin – In Our Time – Programme 3. BBC Radio 4, 7 January 2009.

Moore, J. (2009b). Darwin – In Our Time – Programme 4. BBC Radio 4, 8 January 2009.

Ruse, M. (1993). “Will the Real Charles Darwin Please Stand Up?” The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 68, No. 2 (June 1993): 225-231.

Ruse, M. (1999). The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw. Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sulloway, F. J. (1996). Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives. London: Little, Brown and Company.

Wyhe, J. van (2007). Mind the Gap: Did Darwin Avoid Publishing His Theory for Many Years? Notes & Records of the Royal Society (2007), 61: 177-205.

February 2011

About the Author

Allen Esterson has also written articles on books by Walter Isaacson: Walter Isaacson, Einstein, and Mileva Marić, and Patricia Fara: Scientists Anonymous, and on the PBS co-produced documentary “Einstein’s Wife”: Einstein’s Wife: Mileva Marić. In addition to his book Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud, he has written several journal articles on Freud.

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