Charles Darwin
[ Issue 36 ]

Charles Darwin intrigues Emily Bronto

Permit Bikwil to acquaint you with the fascination of Charles Darwin

The Man Behind the Theory: the Evolution of Charles Darwin

Tony Rogers examines some "Darwiniana fragments that seem worthy of inclusion in an idiosyncratic magazine like Bikwil".

Beetles, fossils, rocks and barnacles — and that’s just for starters.
 

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The Man Behind the Theory:
the Evolution of Charles Darwin
— Tony Rogers

Copyright


This is not a review of Darwin’s work, let alone of any controversies arising out of it. It is simply a collection, in approximately chronological order, of Darwiniana fragments that seem worthy of inclusion in an idiosyncratic magazine like Bikwil. They might even be used as the basis for a special box of Trivial Pursuit cards, and, if absolutely necessary, for a brand new sort of Mastermind.

Charles Robert Darwin was born in 1809 into a successful and prosperous family. His grandfather on his father’s side was the eminent physician and poet Erasmus Darwin, who through his second wife was also the grandfather of scientist Francis Galton, among other things the inventor of the fingerprint identification system.

Charles’ maternal grandfather was the china and pottery entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood.
After his restrained schooling at Shrewsbury Grammar, the pursuits he developed as a young man seemed to predict Charles’ life as little more than that of an idle country sportsman. Indeed, his father, a physician, once vehemently informed him, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family”.

Young Charles certainly loved shooting, and he also liked music, reading novels and playing backgammon. As a child, on the other hand, his fantasies had been concerned with fabulous discoveries in natural history, which explains the career for which he became famous. Not before a couple of false starts, however.

His first attempt at a career was dictated by his father, that calling being medicine. He persevered for three years of the course at Edinburgh, but he was too sensitive for the medical profession, principally surgery with no anaesthesia. Next he began studying at Cambridge to become a clergyman, but he found himself unable to stifle his interest in science, and soon grew to be a passionate entomologist.

At Cambridge he met J.S. Henslow, the Professor of Botany, who encouraged his interest in zoology and geology. It was Henslow who organised Darwin’s appointment in 1831 as naturalist on the government ship H.M.S. Beagle which was about to set sail around the world on a surveying expedition.

When taken on the Beagle the 22-year-old Darwin had no scientific qualifications whatever. He had, however, made large collections of beetles, fossils and rocks and knew how to stuff animals.

Apart from scientific works, one of the books he took with him was Milton’s Paradise Lost, which often read before falling asleep in his only bed, a hammock. Inevitably, he suffered severe seasickness during the five-year voyage. His daytime working space was a cramped corner of the chart room.

In 1839 he married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and they moved to Down, in Kent, where until his death he lived a privileged existence as a well-off independent scientist and country gentleman among his garden conservatories, pigeons and fowls.

His first great undertaking was the laborious classification of barnacles, for which he collected and kept in his house ten thousand specimens. This investigation took him eight years, and resulted in his first published work, a monograph in four volumes.

Having explored the workings of a single biological group he next devoted himself to the more difficult question of speciation generally. His efforts here would eventually result in the book that changed scientific thinking forever, On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The first edition of 1859, in 1250 copies, sold out in a day.

Although he lived in seclusion and worked alone, Darwin was by no means a hermit, often attending scientific meetings in London. Yet I recall a TV documentary of a few years ago which distinctly promoted the impression of Darwin as recluse, pampered by wife and daughters, irritable and much given to hypochondria.

It is certainly true that Darwin treated the adult females in his family like children, insisting for example that Emma “ask him for the only key to the drawers containing all the keys to cupboards and other locked depositories”.

Even so, he seems to have been genuinely devoted to his family, with his son Francis writing of his “affectionate and delightful” manner and wondering how he could preserve it “with such an undemonstrative race as we are”.

Emma, loyal though she was to his work, failed to share his enthusiasm for it. He once apologetically asked whether a particular lecture of his she had just attended might have been rather boring for her, her resigned response was, “Not more than all the rest.”
But boredom was not the only thing that worried him on Emma’s behalf. He awaited the publication of The Origin of Species (and even more so The Descent of Man) in great trepidation, for he knew the hurt his ideas would cause her, a devout Christian, for whom his theories would be heresy.

Darwin was frightened of his ideas in a wider sense also. By the late 1830s he was already satisfied that all animal species, including humanity, had evolved from a common ancestor. But the betrayal of Christianity and of human nobility implied by his theory would, he feared, give comfort to atheists and socialist revolutionaries.

So, faithful to propriety and social order, he held back from publishing The Origin of Species for an astonishing 20 years. It was only when he learned that a younger biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), had reached similar conclusions that he allowed himself to be persuaded by friends to brace himself and go public.

Another researcher who was destined to play a part in Darwinism (more strictly, neo-Darwinism) was Gregor Mendel. Although Darwin had received a copy of Mendel’s work, it lay unopened on his desk, and he never learnt of the vital mechanism of inheritance that makes natural selection work by transmitting those units of information we now call genes.
I used the word “hypochondria” above, but I need to stress that Darwin did actually suffer from more than just mal de mer — and often. Indeed, he became a semi-invalid before he turned 40, predisposed to painful flatulence, vomiting, insomnia, palpitations, heart trouble, lethargy and fainting attacks.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, over the last hundred years his illnesses have been the subject of wide-ranging speculation. At one time it was thought that while on the Beagle he had contracted Chagas’ Disease (from exposure to South American insects) or some other tropical ailment. Today the consensus seems to be that his maladies were psychosomatic, going back at least to his days in medical school and brought on specifically by acute anxiety, usually relating to his work. For instance, some of his attacks began in force in 1837, when he began his first notebook on species transmutation.

Whatever the true origin and nature of his ill-health, Darwin’s life at Down was particularly adapted to preserve his energy, with Emma continually dedicating her efforts “to shield him from every avoidable annoyance”.

For nearly 40 years he followed the same routine, his day being carefully apportioned into times for exercise and light reading “in such proportions that he could utilize to his fullest capacity the [few] hours he devoted to work”.

Additionally, his experiments and scientific reading were structured with “the most rigorous economy”. Indeed, he worked only for short periods — two hours in the morning, then a rest and a midday walk, then two hours’ more work, then rest again.

In his modest autobiography Darwin refers to the drying up in later life of his tastes for literature, painting and music. On the latter he wrote, “Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure.” The atrophy of such work-unrelated intellectual pastimes he regretted as “a loss of happiness”. Any non-scientific reading he did do was purely for relaxation, and even then he believed that “a law ought to be passed” against sad endings in novels.

Before I wrap up this piece with a handful of unrelated odds and ends, I ought to share with you a modern quote that helps keep the great man in perspective. It’s from comedian Steven Wright:

My theory of evolution is that Darwin was adopted.


Finally, those bits and pieces. Beware, though: at least one item is no more than urban legend. But which?

Darwin’s walking-stick was of a spiral shape, and was made from a climbing plant.

The famous “survival of the fittest” phrase was not Darwin’s at all, but was coined by the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in his Principles of Biology.

Although his own doctrines were in some respects pre-Darwinian, Karl Marx admired Darwin greatly and wanted to dedicate the English translation of Das Kapital to him. Darwin declined.

There is a largish crater on Mars named after Darwin.

When he died in 1882 the Darwin family expressed the wish that he be buried at Down. Public feeling, however, was such that a petition was organised and presented to Parliament, which decreed that he should be interred in Westminster Abbey. His tomb is next to that of an earlier scientific trailblazer, Sir Isaac Newton.

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