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  • Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution
  • William C. Kimler
Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution. By Iain McCalman. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009. 400 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

It is an intriguing fact that three of Charles Darwin’s closest allies in the immediate controversy over his theory of evolution were, like Darwin, British naturalists with deep experience in the far off Southern Hemisphere. Joseph Dalton Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Alfred Russel Wallace had also gone as young men on transformative journeys. Their travels helped make their careers and grounded new insights into the great issue of the relationships of species, habitats, and histories. Iain McCalman provides a clear, often sharp, and always entertaining collective account of their formative experiences. It is his aim to show how their lives as young naturalists set up a later network of collaborators and supporters for Darwin.

The theme for the book is announced at the outset. Darwin’s most ardent supporters held “a common experience of hardship and pleasure that bound them together like shipmates” (pp. 12–13). They became close friends as well as mutually respected scientific colleagues. McCalman highlights their feelings of direct and honest trust among sailors, and sees this as pivotal to their forging a coordinated campaign for Darwinian evolution. This is a salutary emphasis on the often overlooked 1850s and the run-up to the evolution debates, within a set of closely interacting challengers to orthodoxy. McCalman perceives a greater significance, drawing on a mostly implicit essentialism, in the special nature of the southern oceans. The tie of the seafaring experience was strengthened by the impact of a shared natural world.

It is true that Hooker, Huxley, and Wallace were counted by Darwin as among the most persuaded by his theory, and the shared seafaring is a context of importance in their relationships. But there were others in the close circle who campaigned for the new science. Charles Lyell was clearly a major mentor and significant political ally, and like Asa Gray was no explorer. The value of this book is its account of the friendships and exchanges behind a scientific revolution. As recent scholarship has eliminated the image of an isolated recluse, it is clear, however, that the genial and generous and rather manipulative Darwin did not rely upon only the old salts.

A handful of historians have noted in general that widely traveled naturalists were quick, compared to the “cabinet naturalist” collectors, to take up evolution. It does seem that exotic experience was disruptive to received ways of thought, and the landscapes visited by the four [End Page 158] travelers provided startlingly different worlds from Britain. But this is not to say that something distinctive about the Southern Hemisphere prompted evolutionary ideas. Despite various overlaps of experience in Australia, or in remote southern islands, or with life aboard ship, the four performed quite distinct duties and scientific work. Darwin traveled as a gentleman with the attendant opportunities and support, whereas Wallace lived by his wits and enterprise. Wallace used ships of course to travel, but did no shipboard work; it is a stretch to call him a seafaring naturalist. Hooker and Huxley had naval appointments, mingling their own interests with required scientific duties. They had occasional periods ashore for exploration, but nothing like Darwin’s and Wallace’s extensive travel, collection, and observation in South America and the Malay Archipelago.

By telling their individual stories, McCalman makes obvious their different exposures, even as he seeks the common thread. He is clear about each man’s developing ideas and notes in passing their place in the rapidly changing sciences of geology, systematics, and biogeography. It seems more circumstance, however, than necessity as to which locale prompted their new ideas. McCalman emphasizes the resulting friendship from a shared life. Others might argue that their strong ties included an immersion in overwhelming diversity, and the travails of travel and work in remote, quite un-English places. They all encountered the provocative dilemmas raised for creationism by peculiar island life; those were the species that suggested relationships of origin, beyond the so...