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Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution, by Iain McCalman

Those of us who believe we are familiar with Charles Darwin often think of the quiet man who went about his work with little fanfare; a man who was so gracious that when Alfred Wallace sent him a manuscript that seemed to anticipate Darwin’s own evolutionary theory, he arranged a joint reading before the Linnean Society; a man who was so retiring that he relied on Thomas Huxley to be his bulldog in debates. Darwin’s Armada will certainly shake those beliefs free from your mind.

The book follows the four main protagonists of the evolution battles of the late 1800s. First was Darwin, a man born to a fairly good social station; followed by Joseph Hooker, not quite so well-off; Huxley, of even lesser family background; and finally Wallace, who had the least impressive pedigree. That was also the order in which their explorations and work was performed, with Wallace even missing out on the early action due to still being in Southeast Asia. Bound together by their experience with the seas, the term “armada” seems a fitting description of this band; as the author explains, this background was important in developing camaraderie and a sense of purpose.

The book begins with Darwin’s funeral and shows the shrewdness and political savvy of Huxley to great effect. While Darwin and his family had made it known that their preference was for a quiet, simple service in the church in his village of Downe, Huxley seized the opportunity to make a spectacle of the event. He reasoned that Darwin deserved to be laid to rest with the greats of British science, and nothing less than Westminster Abbey (also the resting place of Sir Isaac Newton) would do. His roguishness and salesmanship are plain in the way he manoeuvred the scientific establishment and lightly twisted the family’s arm until they acquiesced. While some might be put off by his dealings in the matter, I found it made him more of a loveable imp, someone who knew and appreciated Darwin’s importance more than any other.

Moving into the main text, we find Darwin is initially shown as we know him already, but with enough significant insight into the voyages that even though entire books have been written on it, the information presented here is still enlightening.

The major new ground for many readers will be the next section, devoted to a man that seems to have been forgotten in many discussions ó Joseph Hooker. Here he is presented as the equal of any of his generation, and just as crucial to the upcoming battles as the rest of the foursome.

Huxley is shown to be a product of his upbringing and early experience, a man who was bitterly hardened against many of the social ideas and institutions of his day, the most rebellious of the group. And Wallace is shown to be a figure who underwent more suffering for his work than all the rest, and who very nearly lost his life in pursuit of knowledge.

The revelations about Darwin come as the author brings these men together and documents the way they worked not only to present their ideas, but also to overthrow some of the scientific establishment. While not quite not as combative as Huxley and Hooker, many readers will be a little shocked (but probably also immensely gratified) to find that Darwin was just as privy to the machinations and struggles as they, and he acted as the admiral of the armada, organising strategy and tactics that were used to great effect. He took great glee in skewering their chief nemesis, Sir Richard Owen. The pre-eminent naturalist of his day, Owen is exposed here as a rather petty and spiteful member of the old school who resisted attempts to undermine divine creation with an evangelical fervour. The four men were also not without their differences of opinion about not only evolution, but about how the fight should be waged, and these are detailed as well, including how they were resolved amicably.

There are some small errors in the publication (for instance, alligators are not found in the Amazon), but Mr. McCalman is a Humanities professor, not a naturalist, so I am willing to overlook such things in what is otherwise a rollicking good read. The insights into the professional and private lives of each member of the armada seems to be so much more than the simple overview that brief biographies would normally supply, and there is much information packed into a small space. When large blocks of text are quoted, this is done in the normal style as a separate paragraph, but shorter quotes are so seamlessly woven into the narratives that it is as if Mr. McCalman lived their lives himself. His ability to let us live their lives through him is what makes this book so enjoyable. Heartily recommended!

One response to “Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution, by Iain McCalman”

  1. I was so impressed with this book that I was inspired to write an article about it (“NEW PHYSICS SUGGESTS DARWIN’S ORIGIN OF SPECIES IS INCOMPLETE, AND THAT GODLIKE HUMANITY WILL EMERGE”). The article can be read by clicking on Download PDF at and here’s the abstract –

    The basic outline for a different perspective on the Theory of Evolution has been described in this article. It includes many elements that the average person might call nonsense, fantasy or science fiction. I don’t want this hypothesis to be tossed in the nearest rubbish bin, so I’ll explain each element in Part 2 which proposes that the origin of life, and its evolutionary adaptations, cannot be comprehended through biology alone. Comprehension also requires physics.

    When contemplating the theory of evolution, people almost universally start with an error. They assume evolution belongs exclusively to the biological sciences. Upon reading the previous sentence, some people will compound that error by assuming evolution will not be addressed in terms of science by this article – but perhaps in terms of religion. To quote from the webpage offering the “$25,000 Cosmology Prize in Evolutionary Theory” (,

    “Darwin evokes or praises and makes reference to the powers of “God” and the “Creator” eleven times in his famous book and repeatedly attributes natural selection to a living “spirit” and to benevolent quasi-supernatural “powers” which keep watch over the works of the “Creator,” and which actively strives for the “good” and fights against the “bad;” and this may come as a surprise to those who never read his book, but it is not surprising given that Darwin trained to be a minister of religion.”

    Darwin’s religious references were probably an attempt to appease the beliefs of the place and time he lived in. As Iain McCalman writes on pp. 361-362 of “Darwin’s Armada” (Simon and Schuster, 2009), “It was wholly unnecessary, (Darwin) said, to introduce a higher intelligence to explain man’s development; the incremental gradations of evolutionary complexity from primate to human over eons were enough to account for consciousness …” Reading Professor McCalman’s book filled me with admiration for Charles Darwin and his principle “disciples” – Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley, and the man who is often reported to have independently reached the same conclusions about evolution that Darwin did: Alfred Russel Wallace.

    Without a conviction that time travel is possible, I’d have to totally agree with the evolutionary concepts they proposed. But since I have no doubt that time doesn’t exclusively operate in a straight line (my reasons are explained below), I can propose a different origin of species – though all the species subsequently undergo adaptations throughout the centuries. In 1870, Alfred Wallace suddenly converted to spiritualism. Page 361 of “Darwin’s Armada” states –

    “Using the Darwinian dictum that naturally selected change must be immediately beneficial to the species involved, Wallace argued that it could not therefore have produced the large brain of primitive man, whose prime needs were for strength, swiftness and cunning. The massive early brain of humans only began to fulfil its potential use much later, when social organisation generated the need for sophisticated abstraction, aesthetic appreciation and moral behaviour. Wallace surmised, therefore, that man must have been programmed for civilisation by some higher intelligence.” (see Wallace’s “The Limits of Natural Selection as applied to Man”, Contributions to the Theory, p.359)

    Assuming Wallace’s “higher intelligence” happens because, as this article puts it near the end, “eternal God and humanity of the far future are not separate in any sense but are the same thing”, I wonder what Alfred Wallace (as well as Darwin and his other disciples) would think of this article if they were on Earth today. This article consists of 3 parts – NON-DARWINIAN ORIGINS OUTLINED, CONVERTING FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION INTO COSMOLOGY AND SCIENCE, and SPECULATIONS CONCERNING FUTURE HUMAN EVOLUTION (the speculation is backed up with science and references).

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