About the Author
Stephen Webster has received the Association for British Science Writers prize and was funded by the Wellcome Trust to write the libretto for Darwin’s Dream.
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Charles Darwin Pocket Giants
By Stephen Webster
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Stephen Webster
All rights reserved.
I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.
Science looks forward: it anticipates rather than remembers. As a result, while the scientific future catches our imagination for its remarkable challenges and potential solutions, the scientific past becomes a hazy landscape, monochrome and flat, and almost never looked at by those who work in a laboratory.
Darwin is different. Darwin's name has never faded. When he died in 1882 he was the most celebrated scientist of his day, and he remains a vivid figure whose work still shapes biology and influences the way we know ourselves. His life was a combination of early adventure, of 'seeing everything', followed by years of contemplation on his favourite scientific problem: the formation of new species. He pursued his ideas with remarkable insight and diligence; Darwin is a giant not simply for the significance of his ideas, but also for the personal qualities he brought to science.
What marks out Darwin's imagination? For him there was no 'flash of genius'. He liked to work slowly and methodically on a range of particular but varied scientific problems – as various as the origin of coral reefs and the behaviour of bees. A cautious man, he built up intellectual credit over many years, which in turn sustained him as he carefully, almost secretly, moved towards a solution to the problem that preoccupied him above all others.
Darwin had an interesting mix of qualities. He was sensitive to others' feelings, yet candid about what he thought of people. He was fearful of causing controversy, yet spent a life drawing up one of science's most radical theories. He could be lively and sociable, but also reclusive and depressed. It was his great good fortune to be wealthy enough to live as a country squire, enjoying family and work for more than forty years in his rural fastness, Down House. He could pull on his boots and be tramping through the countryside in an instant, a valuable counterpoint to the intensiveness of the study where he wrote his books. His imagination depended on those walks, but he was near enough to London for scientific friends to visit him for enjoyably talkative dinners and weekends. He was prodigiously creative and hard-working, while also hampered by illness for long periods.
Darwin was far from the conventional image of a stern Victorian patriarch. He was a perceptive and loving father: he had ten children, and seven survived childhood. The illnesses that struck his family with fatal effect were devastating to him. More usually, as the children crashed around the house, Darwin absorbed their lively spirit and was a playmate. He never saw himself as impressively academic, and his formal education had a discernible limp. Yet he was always interested in nature and from the beginning flavoured his schooling with his own studies of science. By his late teens, he had expertise in botany, zoology and geology, a serious training in natural history which for years ran alongside his studies of the classics, medicine and divinity.
It was his own programme of learning, not his university degree, that got him a place on the scientific survey ship HMS Beagle for a five-year round-the-world trip. Once aboard, his relaxed and secure temperament helped him thrive in those cramped and stringent ocean-going conditions. He even managed to get on well with Captain FitzRoy, one of the Royal Navy's most difficult and intransigent characters.
The Beagle voyage lasted five years, taking him to South America, Australia and all points between. Those years, 1831 to 1836, were the making of Darwin: a raw mix of adventure, physical challenge and exciting intellectual and emotional discovery. It was on the Beagle that he first began to ask about the origin of species, questions that set him on his lifetime's path. And his account of this time, The Beagle Diary, is one of the great descriptions of travel – and of youthful endeavour.
Darwin made a name for himself during that trip. People he admired noticed his astute scientific commentaries, which he posted back to England during the voyage. When he eventually returned to London, and began to sort and describe his specimens, he could activate a ready-made network of scientists, roping them in for their expert opinions and for their patronage. Over and above all this, he came home with his own big idea: a vast project in mind, a more-or-less secret urge to explain how life on Earth had changed over time.
Darwin was a pioneer biologist but he didn't work alone. Fourteen thousand letters exist in the archives, and are available online. There is much documentation besides this correspondence. A collector from a young age, he was always meticulous in his record keeping – his household accounts are preserved, for example, as are his books, with all their revealing marginalia. The archive of 'Darwiniana' is vast. It is the reason we know so much about the way he lived and worked. And it is an archive which proves that science cannot be split from personality, or from society.
Darwin groaned when he wrote his books, and there are vivid descriptions of his toils. But on the Beagle voyage, with so many ideas pressing in, writing became an important part of his life. He could not draw well and photography did not exist yet. FitzRoy and Darwin discussed their ideas about science, but their conversations were sometimes fraught, for it turned out that Captain FitzRoy's political views included a tolerance of slavery, a practice Darwin and his parents had always abhorred. He took to writing down his ideas, and his intellectual development can be traced in the filling of notebook after notebook, the compilation of his great journal and in letters that might take days to write and six months to reach home. The climax of this endeavour was his book On the Origin of Species (known here simply as The Origin), published suddenly in 1859 after two decades of gestation and hesitation. Already a renowned scientist before the book was issued, The Origin was of such wide interest to society that Darwin quite quickly became world famous.
What was the significance of The Origin?
First, it launched biology as a modern science. Before it, there was no agreed-upon explanation for how new species were formed. Darwin changed that. He showed how something admittedly marvellous and enchanting – the way organisms fit their environment so beautifully – needs no supernatural creator, but can be explained by ordinary biological processes.
Second, The Origin put human beings into the frame of nature. No longer were people self-evidently separate from the natural world; the suggestion now was that they had emerged from that world through evolution and still bore its imprint. When Darwin published his great work in 1859 he was not confident enough to talk about human evolution, so he put his energy into arguing that modern species descended from ancient ones we see in the fossil record. That, he felt, was ambitious enough: the transmutation of species (the word 'evolution' gained its modern meaning later in the nineteenth century) was a highly controversial concept. He could not, however, resist making a brief comment right at the end of his book: 'Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.' No one could miss the point. Darwin argued with unassailable precision and steadfastness that modern organisms are similar to extinct forms in the fossil record because one was descended from the other. He called it 'descent with modification'; we all know it as evolution. If this was convincing for plants and animals – and Darwin took twenty-three years to make sure he got it right – it was hard to see why humans should be any different.
Third, The Origin launched ecology and ecological awareness. It is said that when, in 1968, the Apollo astronauts took a photograph of the Earth from space – a floating blue orb in a pitch-dark surround – the idea of nature as a whole became suddenly obvious. But The Origin made the point with equal clarity over a century earlier. It has an emphatic message: we all are linked together, and we all are linked to our environment. Darwin provided the intellectual roots for environmentalism.
Darwin is a giant because he provided science with one of its most powerful theories, and provoked humanity into new ways of thinking about itself and about planet Earth. In the years since his death, biology has been elaborating and adding to his scientific insights, and humans have begun to come to a sense of the importance of their stewardship of the planet. No single scientist has done more to remind us of our animal origins or of our moral responsibility towards the Earth we inhabit.CHAPTER 2
I have heard my father and elder sisters say that I had, as a very young boy, a strong taste for long solitary walks, but what I thought about I know not ... I was very fond of collecting eggs, but I never took more than a single egg out of a bird's nest.
Darwin was born into a thriving family. Around him were lively siblings, a father with a good income and a mother whose own family, the Wedgwoods, were busily growing their pottery industry in the north Midlands of England. Charles' paternal grandfather Erasmus was a physician and a famous poet, one smitten by the progressive aspects of technology. Evolutionary theory clearly ran in the family, for the great poet had believed that species transformed over time. He had described a theory of evolution in his Zoonomia, published in 1794.
It was Erasmus Darwin who had first forged the family link with the Wedgwoods, joining them in their campaigns to get London politicians to work harder for the industrial north – 'England's powerhouse'. The Wedgwoods were wealth creators, suspicious of the parliamentary powers of the English aristocracy, but their political interests were wide. They were convinced of the wrongness of slavery and were restless believers in the power of science and technology to improve the wealth of the nation and the happiness of its citizens. The shared Darwin–Wedgwood passion for technology and politics became a bloodline when the Wedgwood daughter, Susannah, married the Darwin son, Robert. It perhaps isn't a surprise, then, that their fourth child, Charles, always maintained a keen interest in the currents of political thought.
Darwin grew up in an atmosphere of progressive politics and optimism about the value of technology. A key part of this influence was the Wedgwood allegiance to the Unitarian Church. As Nonconformist Christians worshipping outside the Church of England, they were by definition dissident thinkers, convinced of the promise of science and reason, and inclined to question the powers of the political and religious establishment. A link between scientific work and religious belief had been established by the founder of modern Unitarianism, the eighteenth-century chemist Joseph Priestley, who worked with the Wedgwoods and was a friend of Erasmus Darwin. A pragmatic collaboration between religion and science formed the background to Darwin's upbringing and it meant that when he started thinking about the evolution of species, he was in tune with a free -thinking tradition already existing in his family.
Among the Unitarian doctrines Darwin absorbed as a child was a belief in the essential unity of all people. He lived in a household that saw humankind as indivisible and slavery a horror that must be campaigned against. Even if he was not directly involved in those campaigns, his mother had been. The Wedgwoods' tough-minded idealism must be a factor not only in Darwin's lifelong abhorrence of slavery, but also in his willingness to fight for his beliefs, however fierce the opposition.
The family house was a large mansion on the edge of Shrewsbury, close to meadows that Darwin was soon exploring. Built by Robert to mark his success as a doctor and family man, the Mount, as it was called, was his 'seat', and he was its undoubted patriarch. When Charles once described his father as 'the largest man I ever knew', he meant it literally as well as metaphorically, for Robert was indeed vast, weighing in at some 24 stone (336 pounds). But he was a big character, too, a respected physician who was attentive to his patients and good at his job.
The remarkable doctor had other professional interests. At a time when commerce and industry were expanding fast across rural England, he formed a kind of personal bank, loaning to individuals as they tried to grow their land or their businesses. It was something he was good at and wanted to do, for he respected these energetic innovators. He knew his clients well enough to intuit when to lend and when to decline. According to Darwin, his father's 'chief mental characteristics were his power of observation and his sympathy, neither of which have I ever seen exceeded or even equalled'. By the time Darwin was a teenager, the doctor was managing two successful practices, one in medicine, the other in banking. Both skills secured his importance and reputation across the county – and made the family rich.
Darwin kept his father in mind always. There is a story of Charles visiting the Mount as an old man, and being shown round by the new tenant, regretting all the while that the visit was so closely supervised: 'If I could have been left alone in that green house for five minutes, I know I should have been able to see my father in his wheel-chair as vividly as if he had been there before me.' When the time came for Darwin's own children to describe their memories of a notable father, they remembered how he was forever reminding them of their excellent grandfather – 'the wisest man I ever knew'.
Darwin's appreciation of his father is understandable. For beyond the helpful matter of Robert's financial success, it seems his undisputed power in all family matters was combined with some sensitivity to Darwin's ambling development. Robert was a shrewd man who acted decisively and presciently at critical moments in his son's student years. Darwin's false starts and waywardness never produced a family panic, and he became in due course a young man of determination and courage, well able to stand up for himself and with a firm sense of his true vocation.
Darwin had four sisters and one brother. Ras (full name Erasmus) was four years his senior, but the gap didn't seem to matter. They were fellow conspirators as teenagers and college companions later. They stayed fond of each other throughout their lives and it is significant that Ras is buried in the village churchyard at Downe, where Darwin settled and spent most of his adulthood. Ras never married – his sisters described him as too lazy for that – but he was a genial conversationalist, dryly humorous and much too worried about his health.
Darwin was the youngest boy, but not the youngest child. Chivvying from behind was Catherine, just fourteen months his junior. Catherine also was a friend. An attractive engraving exists of these two smallest additions to the family. Catherine and Darwin gaze out of the frame; they look good natured and happy, as though poised for a life made easier by privilege and doting siblings. Their mother, Susannah Wedgwood, and three older sisters formed the sturdy domestic backbone of the family.
Tragically, that backbone weakened over time. When Charles was 8 years old his mother died, hit by an infection that raced rapidly and painfully through her system. The doctor could do nothing. Aunts and sisters attended what fast became a deathbed. Charles was kept away. His Aunt Kitty reported back to the Wedgwoods: 'After a wretched night my poor sister yet lives, but the mortification is far advanced and must very soon be fatal.' Susannah endured this catastrophic illness – probably pleurisy – for three days before dying. It was an exhausting and pitiable end, and Charles was to see her only when she was relaxed once more in death. This shocking and disastrous event left him with only the faintest of memories, and years later he made this sad comment about her: 'My mother died in July 1817 when I was a little over eight years old, and it is odd that I can remember hardly anything about her except her deathbed, her black velvet gown, and her curiously constructed work-table.' The elder sisters, who from the beginning had doted on their little brother, were now in charge of the household and of their young siblings. Marianne, Caroline and Susan were 19, 17 and 14 respectively. They knew what to do.
Meanwhile, young Darwin developed a liking for collecting, albeit with no great focus: stones, insects and stamps would all equally catch his eye. It was a fresh-air childhood, and there were aspects of it that he never relinquished. The greater part of his life was spent away from any city, and the childhood passion for collecting grew as he did, pushing aside more formal education and leading in time to his systematic study of great swathes of the natural world. The greatness of Darwin has much to do his with his ability, when young, to maintain a polite interest in his studies, while at the same time allowing his true interests to flourish.
Excerpted from Charles Darwin Pocket Giants by Stephen Webster. Copyright © 2014 Stephen Webster. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Giant 5
2 Early Years 13
3 Student Life 25
4 World Traveler 37
5 New Thoughts 49
6 New Scientist 61
7 Marriage 73
8 Telling the World 87
9 On the Origin of Species 95
10 After the Origin 107
11 Final Years 119
Further Information 137