Excerpt from Darwin's Armada by Iain McCalman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Darwin's Armada

Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution

by Iain McCalman

Darwin's Armada
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2009, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2010, 432 pages

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Kim Kovacs

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Politicians, both Liberals and Tories, had also to be coaxed, especially Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone, who had frequently clashed with Huxley over evolution. Here too Huxley sought the help of Lubbock, who lobbied a group of science-friendly politicians of all parties and obtained a petition in support of a Westminster Abbey funeral. Public opinion had to be stimulated and guided, but not too obviously. Huxley chose to work through the Standard because of its impeccably conservative reputation.

Finally, some of Darwin's important fellow scientists and friends had to be rallied. Joseph Hooker, for example, hated any type of ceremonial fuss and favoured a quiet local event. Alfred Wallace lived so quietly in the countryside these days that Huxley forgot about him altogether, until reminded by one of Darwin's sons. Cursing himself for his stupidity, Huxley hastily invited him to be a pallbearer.

To Huxley's relief, all the leading newspapers followed the cue of the Standard in arguing that British patriotism demanded a suitable acknowledgement by the state of Darwin's achievements, especially when countries like Germany and France had long accorded him their highest honours. The Vienna Allgemeine had been typical in declaring: 'Our century is Darwin's century, we can suffer no greater loss'. This cosmopolitan ownership of Darwin had to be usurped; Britain's national reputation was at stake. Even newspapers like Clerical World agreed that the days of the evolution wars were long forgotten; an accommodation between Christianity and evolution was possible. So successful was Huxley's strategy that The Times thought it was telling the truth when it claimed that the idea of an Abbey funeral 'arose, not apparently, in any single mind, but spontaneously and everywhere it was felt that the Abbey needed it more than it needed the Abbey. The Abbey tombs are a compendium of English deeds and intellect. The line would have been incomplete without the epoch-making name of DARWIN'.

With clerical, political, public and family agreement finally secured, Huxley set about organising the trappings for a grand Abbey funeral. A famous firm of Piccadilly undertakers, Messrs T. and W. Banting of St James Street, was hired; they'd been the orchestrators of one of the century's most magnificent state funerals, that of the military hero Wellington in 1852. John Lewis's rough coffin was discarded. 'They sent it back,' the carpenter complained, and shunted Darwin into a new one, 'so shiny you could see to shave in.'

Lewis and some other villagers, including the aggrieved publican of the George and Dragon, did share an element of self-interest in their grumbling. Having the world-famous naturalist buried in Downe would be excellent for business: the village would become a place of pilgrimage, Lewis's coffins would be legendary and pints of beer in brisk demand. But the locals had a point when they complained about the cavalier way in which Darwin's wishes had been overridden. Lewis was right in saying that the reclusive Charles Darwin 'always wanted to lie here, and I don't think he'd have liked [a Westminster Abbey burial]'.

There was a deeper sense, too, in which Darwin had a right to be recognised as a Kentish naturalist. It was not just that he'd lived for forty years in that brick house with its azaleas and giant old mulberry tree; that he'd conducted his famous homely experiments using vines, floating seeds, and pigeons in its hothouses and roosts; that he'd written most of his great books in its cluttered, comfortable study with engravings of Hooker and Huxley on the wall; or that he'd exchanged ideas in the garden with some of the most brilliant scientists in the world. All these were important enough reasons for him to be buried in the village, but some newspapers also hinted that Darwin had become so intimate with the 'natural economy', as they termed it, that it seemed wrong to remove him from it.

Reprinted from Darwin's Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution by Iain McCalum copyright (c) 2009 by Iain McCalum. with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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