The Love Song Of Charles Robert Darwin, Pt. 2

The Love Song Of Charles Robert Darwin, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I introduced Charles Darwin. Not the white-bearded old man, but a ruddy-faced loafer who preferred beetle collecting to school work.

When we left him, Charles had received a letter from his mentor recommending him for the position of naturalist on the HMS Beagle.

The only problem—he would have to pay his way, which meant asking his father, Dr. Darwin, for funds.

Dr. Darwin refused. He had just put his son through six years of college. He wanted Charles to find a vocation, preferably as a country parson. But he left a loop hole.

A Man Of Common Sense

Dr. Darwin told Charles, “If you can find any man of common sense, who advises you to go, I will give my consent.”

Charles rode for Maer Hall, seat of his Uncle Josiah Wedgwood, current patriarch of the Darwin-Wedgwood clan. Dr. Darwin deeply admired his brother-in-law, who headed Wedgwood Pottery, served as Member of Parliament and supported abolition.

Perhaps Charles also wanted to see his pretty cousin Emma. Like much of the Darwin-Wedgewood clan, Emma was something of a prodigy. She read Milton at age five and studied piano with Chopin. But that’s a story for later.

Uncle Josiah thought the Beagle voyage a grand opportunity, and won Dr. Darwin over.

Once convinced, Dr. Darwin became Charles biggest supporter. He even teased Charles about his wastrel years. Charles wrote,

I had been rather extravagant at Cambridge, and to console my father, said, “that I should be deuced clever to spend more than my allowance whilst on board the ‘Beagle’;” but he answered with a smile, “But they tell me you are very clever.”

A Voyage Of Wonder

Charles had one trait that compensated for his poor academic performance—wonder. Wonder and a fascination for all living things, no matter how lowly. The Beagle voyage honed that trait into brilliance and perhaps even genius.

Charles set sail on December 27, 1831. Despite constant sea sickness, his sense of wonder took him to locales most English gentlemen would avoid:

  • In Patagonia he rode with gauchos and excavated fossil bones, including his famous ground sloth;
  • In Peru, he scaled the Andes, where he found seashells and fossil trees that had grown on a sandy beach;
  • In Brazil, he traversed the rainforest, enchanted by each living thing. He wrote,

“The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind.  If the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butterfly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect, one forgets it in the strange flower it is crawling over…The mind is a chaos of delight.”

In the Galapagos, he saw individuals of the same species differ from island to island and wondered what it meant.

After five years, Charles returned to England a changed manin more ways than one. He would never again enjoy good health. His illness remains a mystery.

He farmed out his Beagle specimens to various specialists. Ornithologist John Gould reported that Charles had brought back “a series of ground Finches which are so peculiar [as to form] an entirely new group, containing 12 species.” The story made the newspapers.

Charles began to suspect that species were not be stable. He wondered about

…the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on…under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.

In June 1842 he wrote an abstract of his theory and in 1844, expanded it to 230 pages. Then he put it in a drawer for sixteen years.  Why?

Better Than A Dog Anyhow

Just before turning 30, Charles pondered his own mortality. He considered marriage and wrote a famous list of the pros and cons:

Not Marry“Freedom to go where one liked; choice of society and little of it; conversation of clever men at clubs; not forced to visit relatives.”

Marry“Children (if it please God); constant companion and friend in old age; home and someone to take care of house; better than a dog anyhow.” (He really loved dogs.)

Emma Darwin
The beautiful, intelligent, and open-minded Emma Darwin

Charles had become a minor scientific celebrity at this point. Dr. Darwin, convinced his son finally found his calling, gave him free access to his trust fund. Charles was a good prospect and had many admirers.

To the delight of his family, he asked his cousin Emma Wedgwood to marry him. They’d been friends all their lives.

But Emma was a devout Unitarian, and Charles knew his species theory would clash with her beliefs.

He needn’t have worried. Emma told him,

My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin…I thank you from my heart for your openness with me.

Charles and Emma’s marriage was happy and fruitful. They raised seven children to adulthood. He continued to catalog and publish his Beagle findings.

Charles worked on the barnacles for eight years. One day his son Lenny asked a neighbor boy, “Where does your father do his barnacles?” He naturally assumed all fathers had barnacles!

Heartbreak, Sickness, and Synchronicity

Then, in 1851, Charles and Emma’s oldest daughter Annie died at age 10, possibly of tuberculosis. They were stunned. Charles wrote,

We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age…Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face.

Charles threw himself into his work, corresponding with other scientists about his “big species theory.” Geologist Charles Lyell and botanist Joseph Hooker became avid supporters. They both urged him to publish it.

But Charles’ health went into decline. “All last autumn and winter my health grew worse and worse: incessant sickness, tremulous hands, and swimming head. I thought that I was going the way of all flesh.”

On June 18, 1858, a letter arrived from Indonesia. Alfred Russel Wallace, a young naturalist with whom Charles had been corresponding, enclosed a paper entitled “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.”

It echoed many of the ideas Charles had been chewing on since 1844, when he wrote his 230-page abstract.

He had waited too long. In a classic case of synchronicity, Charles had been upstaged.

What could he do? Find out in the conclusion.

5 Responses

  1. David Stevens
    | Reply

    Hi Elle
    Fascinating, I read every word (tend to be a skimmer). Charles’ “wonder” is something that we all can embrace.
    be good to yourself

    • Elle B.

      Thanks, David. Wonder is truly something that can keep us both young and growing!

  2. Fascinating and definitely in the well, I never knew that basket:) At school I had no interest in history or historical figures but now I find it fascinating – that’s what happens when you get older! Thanks for sharing:)

    • Elle B.

      Hey Annabel, thanks for stopping by! It is amazing how interests change as we grow up. Just shows how ageless and limitless our capacity for wonder is!

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