Wednesday, May 30, 2012
The title of the book, Shadowland, sets the tone for Steve Burrow's explanation of these fifteen centuries. The people, he argues, are like shadows on the Welsh landscape. Almost nothing of their daily lives has been found. Few homes, few farms, few implements. Even the relatively common post-holes that normally mark the locations of ancients homes are few and far between. This is not to say the lands were unpopulated. What these people did leave us were extensive funerary remains. We also know a great deal about specific areas of their lives - extensive copper mining at Great Orme for instance. We can infer a great deal, but we cannot say much specifically about their lives.
Burrows takes us sytematically through what we do know. From the shapes of flint knives and tools, to the standardised burials we find, surprisingly, that there tended to be common styles or fashions across what is now Wales. It is tempting to view this as a common culture, but Burrows argues that it is unlikely that there was a single unified cultural set of beliefs across the area. Rather there was an extensive trading and communication network throughout Wales and England, stretching into the European continent.
This network is best imagined through the enormous distances that the stones for Stonehenge were brought from Wales. But goods, ore, designs and on occasion funeral soil appears to have been moved, often great distances, to places of use or symbolic importance.
This cultural unity is unusal when compared to even a few years later. At the end of the book, Burrow's makes the point that by the time of the Roman arrival, they described Wales as being dominated by just four tribes or kingdoms. Very different to the period under consideration.
The book takes up many recent debates and arguments in archaeology. Burrow's argues that there probably weren't a specific "beaker people" for instance, despite the preponderance of this style of pottery across the region.
Despite the occasional academic feel to the book, this is a readable introduction to the period. It's a tragedy of modern nationalism that we feel the need to examine an areas pre-history through the lens of a country that didn't exist thousands of years ago, whose people and economy couldn't have been seperated out geographically in the way, say the British Isle and Europe can be. Nonetheless, this is a good book to read if you're trying to get to grips with early human history in these isles. I shall look forward to reading the authors, earlier, companion book.
Burrow - The Tomb Builders
Pryor - Britain BC
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Like many detective novels, there are coincidences aplenty. The author however gets away with alot because his descriptions of the destroyed city and the people who continue to survive there are amazing. Perhaps the author gleaned his knowledge of the streets from Google Maps, but I suspect that he has sat down at a cafe in the Oliverplatz.
More interestingly, Joseph Kanon is an expert at portraying the weird duality of life in postwar Germany. The struggle for food and survival, and for identity. He captures those who haven't quite comprehended what's happened. In a clever bit of dialogue a young German woman is hoping to escape to London with her lover, a British Soldier. She imagines it all destroyed, like the Berlin around her, and cannot believe Jake's assurances that London is not flattened. But they told us it was, she says, refering stubbonly to the wartime propaganda.
Oddly the rather strange and convoluted plot seem to matter little because, to use a cliche, the real hero of the novel is the city itself. Nonetheless, the complicated strands are drawn together well, and tightly, and the ending is unsatisfactory, because it is dealing with the contradictions of Berlin in 1945. The Potsdam Conference that opens the story is the beginning of the end of the wartime Allies. By the end of the story, the world's two superpowers are jokeying for position and often the pawns in their game are some of the Germans who made the war possible. Dealing with the consequences of that, meant ignoring some of the more unpalatable truths about wartime behaviour. The solution to Jake Geismar's puzzle is rooted in that, and it creates an excellent bit of tension.
This obsession with the destruction of Custer's army that took place in 1876, seems to have begun almost as soon as the last shot was fired. The defeat was an immense shock to the collective American psyche, then in the midst of celebrating its centennial, and hence its own national superiority. Philbrick also argues that the Battle marked a turning point, when American imperialism turned outwards, having conquered its internal lands, it began to gaze at territories abroad.
Even here in the UK, the Little Bighorn held an immense fascination for me. One of the earliest books I read was a Ladybird account of events. The image of the Indian about to kill a cavalryman on the cover is part of my own psyche now. Flashman's fictional account of his time on the battlefield is a surprisingly detailed story of what occurred at Custer's last stand. George McDonald Fraser, like Philbrick was able to draw on a wealth of accounts, transcripts and reports of those involved in the battle. Within a few weeks or months of the battle, reporters and amateur historians were already taking town the stories of participants. Philbrick uses many of these accounts, including the fascinating pictograph drawn by Native American participants, to give an eyewitness feel to the story.
|Native American pictogram depicting the battle|
Those who did survive, under the command of Benteen for instance, did so often because experienced troopers took control at key moments. What Philbrick also shows, is that many experienced officers failed the task. He dwells on Reno's drinking during the battle, but this is the most extreme example of the problem. Other officers, such as Benteen, clearly spent the crucial early parts of the battle stunned and unable to command. Reno though comes out of this book with a dark spot against his name, his cowardice at the start of the battle, almost meant that his own troop was routed like Custer's.
For those who are not obsessives, or experts on Custer's fight, Philbrick's book is a excellent introduction. It is full of the type of detail that shows how easy it would be to become an obsessive. Did Peter Thompson actually see General Custer, miles from his command at the height of the battle, or was he hallucinating due to lack of water? Thompson was now coward, and clearly not a man prone to lying. Surprisingly, Philbrick concludes that Thompson may have seen a General renowned for his ability to gallop off alone to see the lay of the land.
The Native American troops here are not forgotten. Philbrick puts their actions squarely in the context of what he calls Imperialism, the destruction and desecration of their lands and people. He is careful to show that while many, including Sitting Bull, clearly hoped for peace, they were not afraid to fight when it became clear that the Seventh Cavalry had no such interests. General Custer's arrogance towards the Indians, rooted in racial stereotypes of the different tribe led him to believe he was destined towards victory. Its clearly possible that many of Custer's battlefield decisions were rooted in attempts to maximise the scale of his own, personal victory. The Native Americans massacred the Cavalry. They also tortured them, and mutilated their corpses. This may seem shocking, but they were responding to genocide and hoped that a significant defeat of Custer might prevent their extinction. Sadly, it failed to alter the course of events significantly.
Tragically, Custer is remembered as an all American hero. The reality is very different. There were many heroes on that day in 1876, most of them were Indian, not a few of them were ranking troopers. Most of the latter died horribly, because of the self-serving dreams of generals, the cowardice of their officers and above all, a destructive set of military priorities that aimed for the destruction of an entire people. Nathaniel Philbrick's book is a brilliant introduction to this pivotal moment in US history which rescues the real story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn from the myths that have grown around it in the name of US history.
Philbrick - In the Heart of the Sea
Sunday, May 27, 2012
Such anecdotes make us smile today, though even in these enlightened times self censorship, or prudery pervades many public bodies. We might like to think of ourselves as better than the Romans or the Victorians, but despite the changes we have seen, much remains the same.
Fryer's book is mostly an account, if a structure-less one, of changing attitudes. He begins with language, early chapters trace the changing words, the way that the word belly (first used in 1340) became replaced gradually by stomach (1375). "Respectable Englishwomen" he tells us, were shocked by European doctors who used the word belly in the 1900s. Embarrassment about ones own body seems a particular affliction of the English speaking lands. The idea that one could be shocked by the use of the word belly seems strange, but far less strange than those Americans who could not bear to describe individual legs, as it drew attention to the shape of their bodes. Fryer includes stories of Doctors unable to treat patients who couldn't tell him which "limb" was hurting. Animals and inanimate objects suffered too, the "leg of a chicken became second wing in Britain, second joint or trotter, or the dark meat in the USA".
Fryer's history continues. On occasion it becomes mere lists of words, the succession of synonyms that came into favour, and then were considered offensive, reading like a line rude schoolboy poetry;
perform the work of nature (1607), ease nature (1701), obey the call(s) of nature (1747), do a job(for oneself)...pay a call, pay a visit, relieve nature, see a man about a dog and wash ones hands.
But there is much more than this to Fryer's history. The chapters on dancing and Sunday's in particular demonstrate the battle that took place between some in society (almost always those at the top) who wanted to restrict the behaviour of the masses. Even in Medieval times, the establishment was forbidding drinking and dancing on Sunday's though, in the case of Richard II this was more to encourage archery practise. By the time of the reformation and later, attacks on such behaviour was an attempt to regulate people into worship on their sole day off.
Its at this time that attempts to police behaviour increasingly come to the fore. Networks of informers and gossipers, spying on those who danced, made love, sang or had a glass of beer on Gods Day, led to more than one person being put in the stocks, imprisoned or ostracised.
The most entertaining chapter is that which deals with attempts to reduce drinking. Drink, the curse of the devil, was supposed to destroy morals and set people onto a road of wickedness. Fryer tells use the stories of debaters and pamphleteers who set up stall against the brewers and publicans. Of huge campaigning organisations that tried to force pubs to close on Sundays and educate the masses about the dangers of drink. Many of these books and stories raise a wry smile:
Another curiosity of teetotal prose, standing out even in a genre where eccentricity of presentation is never unexpected, is 'Tippling and Temperance' (1890) by Charles Bateman. Everyone of its 1289 words begins with the letter t, and 'this terse treatise... trenchantly traverses tattling, time-serving table-talkers; temerarious tolerance to the trivial, trifling, truckling toss-potSadly, this is really all there is too the book. In Fryer's introduction he declares what he won't do:
different classes tend to have different standards of sexual morality; it would be an arduous undertaking to study the changing class attitudes to sex in this country over the last four hundred years...Which is disappointing, because such a study would have been of great interest, and Fryer, the man who wrote the monumental "Staying Power" a history of Black people in Britain, would surely have been capable of such a work. So despite Fryer's 1960s warning that there is "no reason Mrs Grundy is incapable of returning to a position of influence", his book lacks any attempt to understand the root causes of changing social attitudes. There is nothing here, for instance, which tries to explain why, in the 19th century, male doctors suddenly were expected to assist at childbirth without a woman removing her voluminous dresses. Why were medical men no longer able look at a woman's naked body? What had changed in attitudes to women, and why? Sadly, the lack of such social context, turn this history into little more than an entertaining smirk at the prudes of the past. Without offering any analysis of why things were like Fryer describes. Given Fryer's Marxism and other radical writings, this is a surprising omission.
Fryer - Hungarian Tragedy
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Molyneux begins by looking at some of the core ideas of Marxism. The way that society is structured into classes, with exploitation at the core of the economic process. He then looks at the way that Marx believed it was possible for the mass of the population, the working class, who create wealth for the bosses, to overthrow the system and build a new one based on need not greed.
However Molyneux points out that Marx also understood there was a gap between the potential for the workers to be a class "in itself" and one "for itself". There were significant barriers to the creation of a revolutionary leadership that could lead from within. Molyneux takes us through a potted history then of attempts to create such revolutonary organisation. Marx himself, together with Engels engaged in a series of political organisations, finally abandoning them when the revolutionary wave of the late 1800s ebbed.
In the revolutionary movements that marked the early 20th century, and in particular the revolutions that followed World War One, there were a number of individuals who contributed to the theories of revolutionary organisation. Chief amongst these, was Lenin and Molyneux devoted substantial space to examining how Lenin's ideas of the party developed and grew. Lenin's early writings, influenced by the political realities of Tsarist Russia meant that he saw the party as being made up of professional revolutionaries. Under the experience ofthe 1905 revolution, Lenin adapted and transformed his views, developing the Bolshevik party into an organisation that was organically linked to the mass of the working class, was led by workers in every area, yet was a democratic, disciplined party.
Molyneux looks at the other visions of party organisation that existed at the time. He examines why the mass socialist parties of the 1800s had become, by the early 20th century, reformist organisations that were no longer capable, or willing to lead revolution. But he also looks at the debates between revolutionaries themselves - in particular Rosa Luxemburgs critique of Lenin. He sees these debats as a fraternal debate between socialists committed to overthrowing capitalisms, and unlike many who call themselves Leninists, he doesn't dismiss out of hand Luxemburgs emphasis on revolutionary spontaneity. Yet he concludes:
"Luxemburg's theory of the party and its relationship to the working class remains a useful weapon in a labour movement which, throughout the world, has suffered decades of bureaucratic domination by social democracy and Stalinism alike. But ultimately, it is a useful weapon only insofar as it is integrated into the framework of Leninism. As an alternative to Leninism, Luxemburgism must be judged invalid."
Some of the book is dated. As the last quote implies, the work is in part a critique of the "official" Communist Parties that claimed to carry Lenin's banner into the 1960s and 1970s. These Molyneux shows have little to do with genuine revolutionary organisation, pandering to reformism in many parts of the globe. Today the bulk of those parties have vanished into obscurity, and the sharpness of the debate with them is less needed, though readers will find the critiques of interest as new organisations and ideas are thrown up by mass movements today. Others, particularly those used to seeing Gramsci's name in association with debates around ideology in society may find the chapter on Gramsci's contribution to revolutionary organisation interesting. I would also suggest that it is read along side Molyneux's more recent book on Marxism and Anarchism.
Despite the dated sections and even in the introduction to the 1986 edition, the author indicates that he would re-write certain sections, this is a short book which has much to offer those of use looking to the new mass movements around the world, in the hope that they can finally bury capitalism.
Molyneux - Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism
Molyneux - Will the Revolution be Televised? A Marxist analysis of the Media
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
In this final complete novel, Philip Marlowe returns. Now his amusing cynicism is deeply ingrained. His frustration and short-temper bringing sometimes violent confrontation with those he encounters. As with other Marlowe novels, the story itself matters only a little, the language and style being far more stimulating. Unusually for Marlowe though, the plot twists on our hero turning on his employer and siding with the victim. Also unusual is the lead character Eleanor King, who appears to be both vulnerable and scheming. Running from her own past, she's pursued by several others, each hoping to get her money or their own vengeance. Only Marlowe, who knows little about the back-story, stands between her and them.
There's a high body count, as well as a beautifully crafted love scheme between Marlowe and the secretary of his employer. The beauty here is not in any detailed erotica, but the passion of a couple both highly alienated and depressed, coming together for mutual support and satisfaction, albeit for only a few hours.
The novel itself finishes with a surprising continuity for this type of book. The tying up of lose ends feels like Chandler himself was finishing off some little details. Its hard not to think he knew the end of his life was approaching and didn't want to leave his most famous creation hanging cynical and alone. The tragedy of Chandler's life is that is exactly how his ended.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
On the other hand, Ian Kershaw's latest book is a very different work. Kershaw is famous for his studies of Hitler, including an exceptional two volume biography, which is reviewed in detail here, by the British Marxist Alex Callinicos. In The End Kershaw turns his hand to the last year of the European war. His approach is to ask a seemingly obvious question, which, it turns out, is remarkably difficult to answer simply. Why did the Germans keep on fighting despite the obvious facts that they were military defeated?
Kershaw makes the point that most countries, faced with military defeat eventually seek terms. Germany didn't. The fact that they kept fighting right up to the moment that Russian troops arrived near Hitler's bunker and the Dictator finally shot himself, brought immense destruction upon the German people and country. Kerhsaw sums it up:
"In the ten months between July 1944 and May 1945 far more German civilians died than in the previous years of the war, mostly through air raids and in the calamitous conditions in the Eastern regions after January 1945. In all, more than 400,000 were killed and 800,000 injured by Allied bombing... The Soviet invasion then occupation of the eastern regions of Germany after January 1945 resulted in the deaths.... of around half a million civilians... Had the attack on Hitler's life in July succeeded and the war been promptly bought to an end, the lives of around 50 per cent of the German soldiers who died would have been saved."
There are many more similar statistics that Kershaw uses, that only underline this point. The attempt on Hitler's life in July 1944, was a turning point and its right that Kershaw uses this as the pivot point of his book. Its not so simple to suggest that had that succeeded, all would have been ok. Kershaw himself points out that at that point in the war there were sufficient numbers of fanatical Nazis alive who could have precipitated civil war in an attempt to keep the wishes of the Dictator alive. But Hitler was a lynch pin. Kershaw describes his rule as charismatic, and puts him, as he did in his earlier works, at the centre of a network of belief and bureaucracy that generated its own momentum.
This momentum meant, that in the midst of collapse the bureaucratic state machine that Hitler headed up, continued to function. During the last seconds of the war, civil servants sat at their desks under a hail of Russian missiles, completing meaningless paperwork. On the Western Front, police men filled out requisition forms for replacement buckets damaged in bombing.
So were the German people simply mesmerised by Hitler? Kershaw argues not. He points out that in places people did rebel against the regime (though usually in an act of last minute desperation, rather than an organised uprising. One exception seems to be Cologne, where a small scale rebellion took place, which was ruthlessly put down). Central to Hitler's ideology, and indeed to much of the inter-war year German Nationalist arguments was the concept of the "stab in the back" that took place at the end of the First World War. The German Revolution of 1919, that effectively ended Germany's part in the First World War and brought the conflict to a close involved millions of people in a genuine mass revolution. Hitler was terrified that this would reoccur and much of his activity in the last months of the war was geared to preventing this.
So, in addition to the ruthless nature of the regime, and in particular in the aftermath of the attempted coup in July 1944, Hitler removed even more of those who, from top to bottom of the system, might be seen as potential internal enemies. By doing this, he selected, particularly in the armed forces, for even more fanatical and brutal officers, which helped to make the war even more prolonged. In addition, the reality of war, particularly on the Eastern Front meant people fought, because they had nothing to lose. Soviet territories had been subject to a horrific onslaught by the German army, and their response, was brutal. German propaganda portrayed the "Bolsheviks" as brutal monsters, though the reality for many wasn't far off. This helped to provoke individual Germans to even more bitter defence, prolonging the war and making fear of occupation even greater.
Those who ran away were killed or returned to the front. The top of the German hierarchy, in particular the Nazi party ensured that continued right to the last moment. Those immediately below Hitler were all, at particular moments, convinced that the end was near. Interestingly, Kershaw points out that the particular nature of the dictatorship meant that there was no easy way that this could be achieved. The need for the individual leaders to build their own power base, at the same time as jockeying for favours from Hitler meant they were a band of warring brothers. Constantly worried about their own position and never able to form a block against the Dictator. This contrasts, Kershaw points out, with Italy, where the monarchy and Fascist party formed a block which could oppose Mussolini at times, and did, eventually stop him. Despite the misgivings of the German leadership, few acted in ways that would have curtailed the war, saved lives, or challenged Hitler's madness. This condemned millions of death, injury and suffering.
The End contains much more. The stories of the last days of particular towns can be heartbreaking. The senseless murder of individuals who had had enough and wanted to stop. The continued murders in the Gas Chambers and the death marches of concentration camp victims, that took tens of thousands of lives, right up to the last moments of the war, the stories of refugees and bomb victims, as well as the soldiers who lost their lives trying to capture some last redoubt, where some fanatical Nazis refused to give in, are horrific, and perhaps unique to this conflict. Also telling are the stories of the higher ups, who used their position to better themselves and save their families even to the last moment, then abandoned their principles rapidly when all fell to pieces in front of them.
Ian Kershaw's brilliant writing makes this a stunning read. His eye for detail and story mean that it is not an overwhelming book, though it is difficult to read in places. His final answer to the question posed at the beginning is a dialectical one. All the factors that meant individuals might continue to fight, or undermined their desire to surrender combined together in a particular set of circumstances, created by Hitler's ideology and the structures of the Nazi Party. When we say "Never Again!" today, and organise against modern fascists, we do so, on the understanding that those tiny movements today could contain the seeds of future war and holocaust. Kershaw shows the ultimate horror of what happens when they aren't stopped.
Black - IBM and the Holocaust
Sereny - Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Boll - And Where Were You, Adam?
Grossman - Life and Fate
Monday, May 14, 2012
This early book was published in the aftermath of Lula's failed attempt to win the Presidency in 1989. Lula tried again in 1994 and 1998 before winning in 2003. As such, the book is very dated. But its usefulness in part stems from its examination of the Lula's own early politics and the development of the Workers Party. For those of us who are engaging with Brazilian radical politics for the first time, this history is invaluable. Though I would suggest that people who would like a more up to date discussion of Lula, Brazil and the Workers Party look at more recent publications, such as Sue Branford and Bernardo Kucinski's book Lula and the Workers' Party in Brazil.
Lula took office declaring that ""my government will be for the excluded, the discriminated, the humiliated and the oppressed." While those hopes rapidly diminished, his statements reflect the radical origins of his party and his own politics. Lula comes from a poor, indigenious background, he rose to help found and lead the Workers Party as a reaction to the poverty and oppression that he saw. This short book examines well the recent history of Brazil, the time of the dictatorship that saw living standards crash and rights eroded. The growth of the Workers Party organically from a series of mass strikes and systematic campaiging are one of the reasons the party had such a root amongst the working class. The authors detail both the hard work that Workers Party activists engaged in, as well as the problems their approach took.
The Workers Party prided itself on breakign with that they saw as old forms of organsing the left. The authors are keen to describe part of the success of the party, as being due to Brazil lacking a large, leftist tradition. While in its early years, the Workers Party was absolutely clear that it was fighting for a transformation of Brazil towards a socialist economy, it lacked a clear theoretical understanding of how that would be achieved, and what it meant. Since much of its work concentrated on electoral success, this lead to major problems, particularly when Workers Party mayors found themselves clamping down on strikers in the cities they controlled.
The story of Lula's 1989 defeat makes up the final pages of this book. It's a fascinating story, because it shows the fear with which the ruling class of Brazil, and the United States had for a potential Lula victory. The Brazilian establishment closed ranks around its chosen candidate and Lula was defeated, in part by a series of dirty tricks. However, it was also clear that the Workers Party had failed to build deep enough roots in the wider non-working class population. In this regard, the sections on the Workers Party's early rural programme are particularly useful.
Sadly Lula's eventual victory in 2003 did not hold up to the ideals that are described in the short interview with him in the back of the book. This interview is probably worth digging out, for it shows the principles with which Lula fought the 1989 election. Early allegations of corruption and his pro-business policies that led to Lula clamping down on left wing deputies marred the first few months of his presidency. The mild reformism with which he governed has done little to benefit the ordinary people of Brazil, though it didn't stop him winning a second election and the Workers Party winning a third. The formation of the PSOL as a radical alternative to the Workers Party was one response, but that story is far ahead of the period covered by this early work.
Robb - A Death in Brazil
Galeano - Open Veins of Latin America
Chappell - Beginning to End Hunger
Sader - The New Mole
Wednesday, May 09, 2012
As a result of this, Darwin has had many biographers and Desmond and Moore's book at first seems like an attempt to find a new hook on which to hang yet another book about his life. The central idea of their work, is that Darwin's science and life cannot be separated from one of his great "passions", the movement to abolish slavery. From the desire to end slavery, and prove that all humans descended from the same origin, the authors argue, all the rest of Darwin's work flows.
What initially seems a convenient hook rapidly becomes a very readable and convincing biography that puts Darwin's genius in the midst of the intellectual and scientific debates of the 19th century, rather than locating the man, simply as a scientist with particularly brilliant insights.
The boo, and Darwin's life, can be split into two parts. The first centres of Darwin's upbringing. His family were rooted in the liberal anti-slavery movement. The authors show how Darwin's childhood and early adult years would have been seeped in political discussions about slavery. The accounts of the barbaric mid-Atlantic passage, the murder of slaves and life on the plantations were something that Darwin would have known well. His family were subscribers to a number of political campaigns on the question, attending meetings and supporting candidates that pushed for abolition and reform. By the time he got to university, Darwin's blood was thoroughly abolitionist. At university Darwin worked closely for some weeks with an ex-slave. The authors speculate, with some basis, on the way that their conversations would have turned to the realities of slavery. Interestingly, Darwin's notebooks and diaries contain no hint of racism or prejudice. To him, the black man teaching him to stuff animals was another man, slightly lower on the social scale, but in no way unequal. This contrasts, the author's point out, with the reality of life in the cities as viewed by many from the United States. Visitors from the other side of the Atlantic were appalled to see white and black couples parading the streets, arm in arm.
Darwin's experiences on the Beagle are well documented, as are his disagreements with his Captain over the question of slavery. Less well know, are the way that these experiences and what he saw of the reality of slavery helped steel his anti-slavery position. This might seem unsurprising, but several of Darwin's contemporaries later in life, visited the states and came to opposite, pro-slavery positions. Darwin's experience with indigenous people in South America also bore fruit later in his life, as he took up the political and scientific arguments associated with the origins of humans.
The second part of the book, and, it could be argued Darwin's life, is associated with the work that he began towards publishing his two masterpieces, the Origin of the Species and the Descent of Man. These two works are the culmination of a lifetime of study and research, and I will not repeat the science here. But the authors of this biography put them squarely at the heart of the changing debates that took place in England in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery.
During the campaign to free the slaves and end the slave trade, the notion of equality between black and white was taken as read. In the aftermath though, there was a increasing tendency to argue that the "races" were different. White people were superior, and blacks represented either a different race, or an earlier place in the development of humans. These debates were tied up with political questions justifying the existence of Empire, or the supposed lack of civilisation in Africa, for instance. They were also rooted in some of the new science that was developing, around the questions of brain size and head shapes.
Darwin placed himself in the camp of those who argued for a common ancestry for humans. But to explain this took Darwin decades of work and study. His reading was enormous, on everything from geology to the breeding of pigs and sheep. He ordered specimens from around the world and, in order to make sure that his scientific credentials were valid, he made himself a world expert on barnacles. Most interestingly, as the authors document, he engaged in the great debate about the origin of domesticated animals. In order to prove that domesticated pigs, sheep, cows and pigeons came from single origins, rather than multiple locations he needed to demonstrate that the great variety of life was possible from a single pair on animals. In order to do this, Darwin became an expert pigeon breeder. He spent time with working class breeders in their homes, to learn all he could and finally proved beyond doubt that it was possible to create enormous variations in animals from a single breeding pair.
This obscure work on pigeons was greatly important, because it undermined that argument that different "races" of humans, with their different coloured skins and different body shapes must have originated from different apes around the globe.
"After setting up his [Darwin's] target,
'The doctrine of the origin of our several domestic races from several aboriginal stocks, has been carried to an absurd extreme by some authors...he would let pigeons lead the fight-back. The social context of Darwin's offensive has slipped away and been subsequently lost, but recovering makes sense of the project in Darin's moral world. It scientifically undermined the ethnographic drive for segregation and 'aboriginal' homelands so comforting to the 'slave holding Southerns'."
As America descended into Civil War, intellectuals on both sides grasped different aspects of the argument to polemicise in favour or against slavery. Darwin found himself part of that debate, his publications being quoted in the arguments and used against the pro-slavery side. But Darwin was propelled to his work by the growing crisis. He understood that part of winning the war, was undermining the idea that black people were suited to slavery because they were not biologically equal for Darwin "Slavery, race and evolution remained inseparable."
This is a rather astounding book. At times it reads like a scientific thriller, as you will Darwin to publish his book and damn those establishment figures he's concerned about upsetting. At others, it is a clear and readable introduction to the ideas at the heart of Darwin's science. Above all though, this is a masterful explanation of why at a certain particular moment in history, Darwin (and to a certain extent other scientists) were able to make the intellectual leaps that meant that evolution could become a live scientific idea. Ideas cannot be separated from the society in which they develop. The world around Darwin was changing. Slavery had been morally repugnant, and then was in danger of becoming scientifically supported. Darwin's work was a result of that world and a response to it.
As I read this book, I was reminded of biography of another, similar figure that I recently read. Karl Marx's life shares many similarities with Charles Darwin. This is not to say I am trying to claim Darwin as a Marxist - that would be laughable. But both men were engaged in a struggle to better understand the world they lived in. They were also in different ways, trying to change it. Both engaged in bitter polemics and struggles with friends and people on the other side of the world. Both were driven to despair at their work and frustration at other thinkers. Karl Marx dedicated the first volume of Das Kapital to Darwin, in part because of his great respect for The Origin of the Species. While there is no evidence that Darwin read Das Kapital, he would have understood the blood, sweet and tears that went into producing it, because it mirrored in many ways his own life's work.
Adrian Desmond and James Moore have produced a fascinating, readable and passionate look at Darwin's life and ideas. For its clarity in explaining both his thought and its origin, it should be read by everyone who wants to better understand the world we live in, and evolutionary science today.
Darwin - Voyage of the Beagle
Simons - Darwin Slept Here
Rediker - The Slave Ship - A Human History