The Love Song Of Charles Robert Darwin, Pt. 3

The Love Song Of Charles Robert Darwin, Pt. 3

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.

Publication of On The Origin Of Species

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 Darwin in 1881
Charles Darwin in 1881

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.


10 Responses

  1. Dave Doolin
    | Reply

    Lack of guidance has profound significance. Thanks for the back story, Elle!

    • Elle B.

      And just as bad, determined misguidance. Dr. Darwin pulled Charles out of high school to send him to med school, determined to mold him into a doctor like himself. How many late bloomers have had to buck determined parental misguidance, no matter how well-intentioned? (raises hand) Thanks for stopping by, Dave!

  2. Jeffrey Davis
    | Reply

    Thank you for this story of an avid wonder-tracker, indeed. I was unfamiliar with this narrative even though I’ve read his autobiography. The love story between Charles and Emma is enchanting. Perhaps not coincidentally, I’ve been reading his lesser-known but currently very influential The Expression of the Emotions in Man & Animals. It’s one of the earliest thorough studies of human emotions.

    And, Elle, thank you for the kind words about my blogs and Tracking Wonder handbooks.


    • Elle B.

      Hi, Jeffrey! For me, Charles’ story has always been the story of one man’s wonder and curiosity taken to the utmost, and I had your work at the back of my mind while writing it. You really see these traits in his Beagle diaries. His excitement about the plants and wild life he encountered are like that of a child!

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your work in this area we often neglect as adults.

  3. Marianne
    | Reply

    Great series on Charles Darwin, Elle. Very interesting! I love your “what late bloomers can learn” section. Timely advice for me as I deal with severe symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis because sometimes I feel like giving up. The tracking wonder handbooks sound interesting as well. Thanks!

    • Elle B.

      I love your blog and message, Marianne. Chronic pain has got to be one of the hardest things to deal with. So happy that Charles has inspired you. Don’t give up!

  4. David Stevens
    | Reply

    Hi ElleB,
    Intiguing to the very end. I have always had the image of the ‘older’ Charles Darwin. Covering his earlier years as you did was enlightening.
    be good to yourself

    • Elle B.

      Thanks, David! I’m still amazed at how many fascinating people had so-so starts in life. Charles was certainly one and it gives me hope!

  5. Linda DeLuca
    | Reply

    As I read the story (great storytelling, by the way!) I started to wonder about our notion of success and time. Many of our ideas are just sparks early in life and often need life experience to mature and then finally be expressed.
    It may be that I’m in favor of late blooming because I am mid-life myself, but I also recognize the importance of the life experience and journey in giving us the material to create.
    Just a thought.
    Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful storytelling and craft. It is always such a joy, an inspiration, a gift.

    • Elle B.

      Thanks, Linda! So glad you enjoyed it. I agree whole-heartedly (and I may quote you) — our early sparks need life experience as kindle.

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