The 12th of February is the birthday of Charles Darwin, and in his honour the world celebrates Darwin Day. So it seems only appropriate to write about the great man himself, a gentleman hero. For me personally there is a strong connection as I studied anthropology and evolutionary theory at university and, as you will read later, one of my direct ancestors was connected to Darwin.
Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, UK. His father was a doctor and financier, and his grandparents were well known abolitionists; they opposed and sought to end slavery. His maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, who founded possibly the most famous pottery in England, still making high quality goods today. His upbringing was one of liberal-mindedness and intellectualism. From a young age he learned to think for himself and challenge existing knowledge.
At 16 years of age he apprenticed his father as a doctor then went on to medical school in Edinburgh, which he actually found rather dull. He enjoyed a hobby of taxidermy, which he learned from a freed black slave. Darwin was not remotely bothered about thinking or behaving as the society of the time expected. In his second year he joined the Plinian Society, for natural historians who were edging towards radical materialism, which is the belief that matter is the fundamental substance in nature.
Unfortunately, Darwin’s father grew angry at his neglect for what he consider academic study and sent him to read a Bachelor of Arts degree at Christ’s College, Cambridge in preparation for becoming a parson. True to form, Darwin opted for spending his time riding, shooting and beetle collecting. He was destined to forge his own path and go on a journey of self-education. And this journey would go from metaphorical to actual when, in August 1831, he was selected as the “gentleman naturalist” on the HMS Beagle, due to leave for South America four weeks later.
Darwin ended up spending 5 years travelling the world, investigating geology and making natural history collections. These years of focus and freedom from traditional academic thinking were exactly what he needed, and combined with keen mind and meticulous note taking, was what lead to his infamous first book “On the Origin of Species.”
You can actually visit Darwin’s home (see photo right), Down House, in Kent, where the National Trust have made every effort to maintain the house it was kept by the Darwin family and it is now a mini museum that is well worth visiting.
On his return, his focus was on writing the ‘Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle’, for which he had significant treasury grant. But he felt under pressure and was plagued by ill-health that affected his ability to work. To this day we do not know what the illness was, but it could have been Chagas disease, a tropical parasitic disease, which he may have contracted while travelling.
Eventually he recovered and in 1858 made his first publication on what could be termed Evolutionary Theory, which was entitled On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection. There is a common misconception that Darwin’s theory caused laughter, outrage and other strong responses, whereas in fact the Linnean Society barely took note of it at all.
When his full book On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 it garnered international interest, was translated into many language, was sold out almost immediately and very quickly became a key text in the world of science.
He went on to write The Descent of Man, which actually upset many more people in the religious community because it argued that we are descended from ape-like creatures rather than a divine origin.
Darwin was always a family man, he had 8 surviving children, and did not attend the first presentation of this theory as his baby son had just died and he was too distraught to think of work. In 1882, when he died of heart disease at home, his last words to his wife were “I am not the least afraid of death – Remember what a good wife you have been to me – Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me”. The week after Darwin died, one of his son’s commissioned artist Axel Haig (my own great-great-great grandfather) to complete an etching of Darwin’s study just as he had left it – see photo.
Along with the likes of Einstein and Newton, he is now considered one of the greatest scientists of all time. He was always gentlemanly in his thoughts and deeds; kind, softly spoken and did not crave attention. He did not seek to prove others wrong, but to bring knowledge to them. He loved knowledge and science for the joy that they brought him and what to share that with others.