Teaching Evolution

A blog devoted to teaching evolution, both in our schools and in our communities.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, Part 3--Celebrity

Janet Browne's epic biography of Darwin concludes with an examination of his life after his theory of evolution by natural selection turned him into one of the world's most admired men.

A writer in 1876 asked Darwin for some personal information about himself for a book for young people about scientists. I found Darwin's responses fascinating:
Politics? -- Liberal or radical.
Health? -- Good when young -- bad for last 33 years
Temperament? -- Somewhat nervous.
Energy of body? -- Energy shown by much activity, and whilst I had health, power of resisting fatigue….An early riser in the morning.
Energy of mind? -- Shown by rigorous and long-continued work on same subject, as 20 years on the "Origin of Species" and 9 years on Cirripedia
Memory? -- Memory very bad for dates, and for learning by rote; but good in retaining a general or vague recollection of many facts.
Studiousness? -- Very studious, but not large acquirements.
Independence of Judgement? -- I think fairly independent; but I can give no instances. I gave up common religious belief almost independently from my own reflections.
Strongly marked mental peculiarities? -- Steadiness, great curiosity about facts and their meaning. Some love of the new and marvelous.
Special Talents? -- None, except for business, as evinced by keeping accounts, replies to correspondence, and investing money very well. Very methodical in all my habits.

What most separated Darwin from evolution's co-founder, Alfred Russel Wallace, was that Darwin was much more skeptical of his own hunches and careful about testing his hypotheses. (It's always hilarious to hear creationists say Darwinism is "just a theory" and "can't be tested in a lab." Darwin actually spent decades doing every experiment he could think of as he honed his theory.) As Browne writes, "Darwin regretted what he deemed Wallace's lack of caution in scientific affairs." No one could ascribe the trait to Darwin.

Darwin had a fascination with how breeding of close relatives -- in plants, animals, and humans -- affected their offspring. No doubt this was in large part because he married his own first cousin, Emma. Unfortunately, he could never persuade enough people to provide him with the detailed information necessary to study how the children of cousins fared. Questions related to that research were involved in the British census but the vast majority of citizens refused to answer. From the anecdotal evidence of his own children, some of whom had serious health problems, Darwin was concerned. But today researchers agree that there's no reason to prevent first cousins from marrying and having children.

Darwin's account of his college years will sound familiar to many: "My time was wasted, as far as the academical studies were concerned…we sometimes drank too much, with jolly singing and playing at cards afterwards."

Darwin turned completely away from religion toward the end of his life, writing in his autobiography, "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic." Darwin's wife, Emma, was a religious woman and horrified that her husband had no faith because it meant they couldn't spend eternity together, but Darwin called the idea that nonbelievers went to hell "a damnable doctrine."

Despite his aversion to religion, Darwin died thinking he would be buried at Downe churchyard. Instead, when other scientists learned of his death, they requested he be buried at Westminster Abbey, a few feet away from Isaac Newton, and that's where he rests to this day.

Browne's biography is one of the great achievements of the history of science. It should be read by all those who have an interest in evolution, Victorian England, or great writing.


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