Indiana University Bloomington

Case no. 1: From the Voyage to the Origin.

In the popular imagination, Darwin’s life really begins with the publication of Origin of Species, when he was already well past middle age. But that is a misperception. At the beginning of Origin, Darwin assured his readers that, beginning with his experiences as a young naturalist on board the H.M.S. Beagle, his life had been one long, circuitous route towards the publication of Origin, from the first tentative notes he took on the “origin of species” to a longer “sketch of the conclusions” to, finally, the finished work: “I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.” The history of nature, as uncovered by Darwin, was inextricably intertwined with his own checkered individual history leading up to the publication of his life’s work, a book for which he had paid a high price: “my health is far from strong.”

Darwin was fifty when Origin appeared (as a reminder, the average life expectancy in Britain at that time was approximately forty-three years). Collecting, sorting, and interpreting his “facts,” to use one of his favorite words, he had grown old. Being a naturalist meant playing one slow, patient game of catch-up, with the facts of nature always slipping through the scientist’s grasp. “How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! ” he exclaims in the fourth chapter of Origin. The unstated premise of Darwin’s big book was clear: humans (and Charles Darwin, too) are part and parcel of the accidental processes in nature, too, processes by which aging parents are always replaced by their offspring.

The father Darwin replaced—inadequately, as he continued to feel even in his old age—was Dr. Robert Waring Darwin, an impressive man, 6 feet 2 inches tall, with broad shoulders and very corpulent, “the largest man whom I ever saw” (these and the following quotations are taken from The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, first published after his death in 1887). A highly successful physician in Shrewsbury, a medieval town in the West Midlands, just a few miles east of the Welsh border, Dr. Darwin was a kind man who could not bear to see a patient bleed, a “horror which he has transmitted to me.” Possessed of an extraordinary memory, he would never forget a date he had heard and remembered the day of birth, marriage, and death of any patient he had ever had. Dr. Darwin towered over Charles’s life, physically as well as mentally. For a while, Charles attended the Unitarian Church in Shrewsbury with his mother Susannah, the daughter of the famous porcelain manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood. But Susannah died when Charles was only eight. Growing up, young Darwin did much good fishing in the River Severn but did not apply himself in school where everyone considered him “a very ordinary boy.” In 1825, Dr. Darwin, tired of Charles’s lack of enthusiasm, sent him to Edinburgh University, where Charles did his best not to study medicine. He found the lectures intolerably dull and human anatomy disgusted him. But he also developed a taste for natural history, dissecting little mollusks he found in tidal pools and even giving papers about his findings to the local natural history society. During visits to his Uncle Josiah Wedgwood’s estate in Staffordshire, he became so addicted to hunting that he would leave his boots open by his bed-side “when I went to bed so as not to lose half-a-minute in putting them on in the morning.”

So that he would not become an “idle sporting man,” Dr. Darwin arranged for Charles’s transfer to Cambridge University, where he was supposed to study for the ministry, the other acceptable career path (besides medicine) for a youth with some money and no overriding ambition to amount to anything. While at Christ Church, Darwin continued his natural history collecting, notably of beetles: “I can remember the exact appearance of certain posts, old trees, and banks where I made a good capture.” After his graduation, when the prospect of joining a surveying expedition to South America as an unpaid naturalist arose, Robert Darwin objected. But Uncle Josiah got out his horses and intervened. Mused Charles in his autobiography: “The Voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career; yet it depended on so small a circumstance as my uncle offering to drive me 30 miles to Shrewsbury.”