The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik has a fabulous, illuminating essay called “Rewriting Nature: Charles Darwin, natural novelist,” in the October 23 issue. (Print only, as far as I can tell.) Gopnik explores Darwin’s writing style – his methods of shaping his material into sentences, into chapters, into books. “Darwin’s strategy was one of the greatest successes in the history of rhetoric, so much so that we are scarcely now aware that it was a strategy,” Gopnik writes. “His pose of open-mindedness and ostentatiously asserted country virtue made him, in his way, as unassailable as George Washington.” Gopnik examines this strategy by putting specific Darwin sentences under the microscope:
Darwin’s ability to look pious while demolishing every piety can be seen at its best in what may be the single most explosive sentence in English, which appears in the last chapter of “The Descent of Man”: “We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World.”
We can be startled by its boldness today; we know what its effect was in 1871. Yet how beautifully it is situated within the book, after hundreds of detailed pages on sexual selection, on peacocks’ tails and mammals’ tusks, by which point it is presented not as a thesis to be demonstrated (although that was exactly what it was) but as a conclusion forced inexorably on the unwilling author. And then the sly use of words – the “hairy” quadruped (unnecessary for the point but necessary to make the image maximally disturbing) and the dynamite of that tail and those pointed ears, with their specific invocation of the diabolical, and the use of the domestic verb “furnished.” There are a thousand ways the sentence could have been written in order to minimize its damage to belief; for example,“Those primates closest in organization and structure to man may have had their early origins among arboreal quadrupeds native to the old world.” But, a decade after “The Origin,” he writes, instead, the mortar sentence,the one that makes the minimal noise incoming and does the maximum damage on arrival. There’s your grandfather: in a tree on all fours, his ears sticking straight up and his tail swinging through the branches.
The books Gopnik writes about here include the recently published brick From So Simple a Beginning, which includes Darwin’s four essential volumes; Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin’s Lost Notebooks; Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction; Randal Keynes’s Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution; and George Levine’s Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World. I splurged on the first a few months ago but haven’t yet dug in.