In Part 1, I introduced Charles Darwin. Not the white-bearded old man, but a ruddy-faced slacker who preferred beetle collecting to school work.
In Part 2, I described how Charles’s sense of wonder transformed him during his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. It gave him a grand new idea about species formation.
He outlined his theory in a 230-page treatise, then put it away for 14 years while he pursued other studies, suffered through illness, and mourned death of his 10-year-old daughter.
We left Charles reading a letter from a young acquaintance in Indonesia. Alfred Russel Wallace had enclosed a paper that echoed Charles’ own theory, that new species formed through natural selection.
It was a classic case of synchronicity. What should Charles do?
Luckily, many years earlier, Charles had given his treatise to two eminent scientists, geologist Charles Lyell and botanist Joseph Hooker. They became close friends and supporters. Charles turned the matter over to them, for he had more pressing concerns.
On July 1, 1858, Lyell and Hooker presented a joint paper to the Linnean Society entitled “On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection” on behalf of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.
Both men received credit for the theory, which met with resounding — yawns. No one got it.
On the same day, Charles and Emma buried their 18-month-old son, Charles Waring Darwin, who’d succumbed to scarlet fever.
Despite his sorrow, Charles set to work. After sitting on his treatise for years, he expanded it to book length in thirteen months.
On The Origin Of Species was published on November 24, 1859, three months shy of Charles’ 51st birthday.
What Took Him So Long?
So why did Charles take so long to publish Origin?
Probably a combination of factors typical to late bloomers: Lack of guidance, multiple passions, hardship, and an experimental learning style.
In Why Are Some People Late Bloomers, Part 1, I identified lack of guidance as one reason some people become late bloomers. Charles had no one to guide his many passions until he met botany professor John Henslow, who recommended him as naturalist on the Beagle.
And though Charles didn’t need to work, he suffered through many hardships, including chronic illness and three children’s deaths (I only mentioned two).
In Why Are Some People Late Bloomers, Part 2, I summarized the work of David Galen on late bloomers. He identifies them as “experimental innovators” who
- work slowly and incrementally,
- consider their creative endeavors a form of research,
- value accumulating knowledge over its end result,
- become totally absorbed with an ambitious, vague and elusive goal, and
- become frustrated that they’re chasing an unobtainable goal.
That perfectly describes Charles’ path to writing On The Origin Of Species.
And finally, there’s Charles’ deep love for Emma, a devout Unitarian. He knew his theory countered her beliefs.
The Love Song Of Charles Robert Darwin
In the 2009 movie Creation, Charles finishes Origin and gives it to Emma. She reads it late into the night while he paces in his room. Emma clearly understands its import.
The next morning, Charles finds her in the yard burning something. “Well,” she says, “you said it was my decision.”
Emma strides into the house. Charles runs after her. “Emma?!” She takes a package from the entry hall table and hands it to him. “To John Murray, publishers. Do I have it right?”
On The Origin Of Species was a love song that Charles had to publish, and Emma understood. To suppress it would destroy the very source of his being — his wonder and curiosity. Origin concludes:
“There is a grandeur in this view of life . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Charles lived to age 73 and wrote many more natural science books. Origin was his masterpiece, but he was just as proud of The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.
Not surprisingly, his mysterious illness abated after the publication of Origin, but he grew a beard to hide skin lesions, perhaps eczema. So I leave you with the image of a white-bearded old man everyone recognizes.
But I hope you’ve grown fond of the young “slacker” who left an operating theater to comb the sea-shore, put beetles in his mouth, rode with the gauchos, waxed poetic about a rainforest butterfly.
And whose sense of wonder transformed him into the late-blooming author of an idea that rocked the world.
What Later Bloomers Can Learn From Charles Darwin
- Keep on keeping on, through hardship and controversy, frustration and incremental progress.
- Let your sense of wonder guide you. I recommend the work of Jeffrey Davis: Tracking Wonder at Psychology Today and his blog, where you can get two beautifully written and designed Tracking Wonder handbooks by signing up for his newsletter.
- The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online
- The biographies Darwin, His Daughter And Human Evolution by Charles’ great-great-grandson, and Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman
- The movie Creation
- Artwork: HMS Beagle by Conrad Martens