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.
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.
maternal grandfather was the china and pottery entrepreneur Josiah
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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:
theory of evolution is that Darwin was adopted.
those bits and pieces. Beware, though: at least one item is no more than
urban legend. But which?
walking-stick was of a spiral shape, and was made from a climbing plant.
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.
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.
a largish crater on Mars named after Darwin.
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.