An Ugly Little Secret
Charles Darwin had a very dark secret, one made all the darker because he was a moneyed gentleman of polite society, a man of scientific leisure, and one with ties to England’s governmental, religious, financial and academic elite. That is to say, he was someone with a significant reputation at stake, and any such secret was unwanted and a general nuisance to an otherwise comfortable life.
This secret, in fact, was one probably too big for any man to bear. But, for twenty years, Charles Darwin valiantly bore his secret, nearly all alone in his knowledge. The secret—what we of course know today as the theory of evolution—made him, there seems little doubt, a very ill man. In fact, he was practically an invalid for much of the second half of his 73 years; for months on end he would be visited daily by severe headaches, violent stomach disorders, and endless vomiting.
He no doubt felt cursed by his knowledge. But knowledge it was, and as a man of reason and principle and belief in science, he could not easily ignore it.
Born in 1809, Charles Darwin entered his professional life in the sciences at about the same time that Queen Victoria entered her’s in the ruling of England. In fact, Darwin and his contemporary, novelist Charles Dickens, were inducted into London’s elite literary circle, the Athenaeum club, the same week in 1837 that the Queen was coronated. And Victorian England would prove to be a place and time, hindsight confirms, of repression, conservatism and restraint. To have the appearance of questioning God, church doctrine or the accepted social mores—all of which Darwin’s theory was necessarily to do—was a grave insult to propriety, if not, in some cases, out and out illegal. And, unfortunately for Darwin’s peace of mind, propriety was a virtue that he always held close to his heart.
Darwin was, in short, a torn man. Somewhere across the hinterlands of the sprawling British Empire, on a ship commissioned to chart the waters of New World ports, he had formulated his idea, this secret. And when in 1836, at 29 years of age, he disembarked from the HMS Beagle after five years and a circumnavigation of the world, he believed—rightly, it turned out—that he held the germ of the answer to what scientists of the day called “the mystery of mysteries.” The problem was that he couldn’t tell anyone. And so he began his life’s work in private.
For the next twenty some years, all the work he did—while in appearances “about” barnacles or “about” pigeon breeding or “about” climbing plants—was really work on his theory of evolution. The idea generally consumed him. Much of his correspondence—full of self-deprecation, courtseys, self-flagellations, insecurities—was really about his budding theory, even if his correspondents didn’t always know. Though over time, many of them began to suspect that Darwin’s research was leading to some dubious end.
The Origins of Charles Darwin
As a boy, it seems, nobody would have expected much from Charles Darwin. His family certainly didn’t. At Shrewsbury, the classically-focused boarding school he attended until age 16, he was an average student, and evinced very little facility with the ancient languages so integral to the curriculum. His one early academic interest came not through school, but via his elder brother and life-long friend Erasmus, in the form of chemistry. Charles and Erasmus’ maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgewood, owned a great pottery factory, and it was likely that the Wedgewoods’ recipe book of kiln-related experiments gave the Darwins their start in chemistry. The boys had a large (and expensive) set of apparatus and tools, replete with test tubes, stopcocks, crucibles, evaporating dishes, and burners, all of which they employed in a family out-building, where their father had “banished them and their noxious gasses from the house.”
Charles’ real passion during those adolescent years, though, was bird-hunting, at which he was in fact quite adept (and which came in handy when collecting species on the Beagle voyage years later). For a number of years, Darwin kept records of his bird kills, which were astronomical—slaughterous, even; his diary reports that in the first week of hunting season in 1826, he killed “fifty-five partridges, three hares and a rabbit,” keeping count by the number of knots on a string.
In his autobiography, Darwin recalls that at about this time, his father said to him, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” The words impacted young Charles a great deal; despite his perpetual lackluster academic performance, his father’s approval would always drive him to strive for success in other ways.
At sixteen, his father took him out of the school at Shrewsbury and sent him off to the medical college at the University of Edinburgh, where Erasmus was already studying. He was in need of some direction.
Charles not only continued his academic mediocrity at Edinburgh, but seemed to find much of the medical practice too gruesome to even witness. But it was here that Darwin began in earnest to define his love for the natural world, its curious mysteries, and the delight of uncovering them. He began collecting and classifying all sorts of wildlife. He learned how to identify the habits and habitats of the birds he was so bent on destroying, and was generally introduced to new ideas on a range of subjects through vibrant intellectual clubs like the Plinian Society and the Wernerian Natural History Society, groups peopled by wealthy young men not unlike himself, who were interested, at least at the moment, in making natural history their avocation.
In Edinburgh, too, Darwin met Robert Edmond Grant, a sponge expert and scientific mentor, and the first bona fide evolutionist he would come in contact with in his adult life. Darwin would later repudiate Grant for his radicalism, but there is little doubt that the relationship left a lasting impression on Darwin’s character and ideas.
After three years in Edinburgh, it was becoming clear that Charles was not going to make it as a doctor, and so, at nineteen, he was enrolled at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where Doctor Darwin had proclaimed that his second son would study and prepare to one day work under the auspices of the Anglican Church of England. That the Doctor was a non-believer and Charles’ own faith in great question was neither here nor there. Charles Darwin was in need of a respectable position in the world, and, at least in his father’s eyes, he was running out of options. Over the next three years, Charles studied hard and earned his B.A. from Cambridge, making his father proud at last, though the theology he learned never took hold the way his obsessive collecting of beetles did.
The Voyage of the Beagle
In 1831, freshly graduated from Cambridge, Charles Darwin was at last forced to confront his future, and by this point it was a fairly clear picture: he would take over a country parsonage and become the preacher-naturalist he had for some time suspected was his destiny. Darwin foresaw this without regret or dread. Many of the scientific men he respected held such posts, including one of his closest compatriots from late adolescence, his cousin William Darwin Fox, who had graduated from Christ’s College a few years ahead of him. Charles worked hard to convince himself that this was what he wanted, and now that it was here, he was more than ready to assume the post his father would inevitably drum up for him.
But all of this was changed in one fell swoop. A Cambridge scientific mentor, Reverend John Stevens Henslow, secured a two-year voyage around the world for young Charles. The ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, a 26 year-old aristocrat, was in need of “a well-bred gentleman who could relieve the isolation of command” and share his dinner table. If this well-bred gentleman were a naturalist, that would be okay, too, as the ship was perfectly-outfit for such exploration. Charles Darwin, Henslow felt, was the obvious choice.
After returning from some geology explorations in Scotland, Darwin received a letter from Henslow explaining the details. He was in no uncertain terms ecstatic about the idea. He had dreamed of such travels from a very young age, and was a devout fan of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative, the 3754-page tome of von Humboldt’s early nineteenth century five year trip in South America. After an initial denial from his father (who would have to bankroll the trip), and the intercession of his Uncle Jos on his behalf, Darwin was permitted to go, and he began preparing at once, a gargantuan task, as he not only needed personal items, but an entire arsenal of scientific equipment to be used in his studies of the southern hemisphere.
By December 1831, after months of delays and bad weather, the ship was finally ready to sail, and Darwin was eager to leave behind his native land, where political turmoil was brewing and religious officials were being burnt in effigy in the countryside. He wrote in his diary, “may I hope excuse the total absence of sentiment which I experienced on leaving England.”
The journey took the men first to St. Jago, 300 miles off the coast of west Africa. Here Darwin—happy to stand on solid ground after his almost perpetual sea-sickness—did his first geologizing, and he instinctually understood that he was in his element in the field. He had never been happier, in fact, and he ran all over the island collecting samples and jotting down ideas and interpretations of the landscape. In general, this was the Charles Darwin who traveled around the world over the ensuing years: excited, filled with inordinate ideas and boundless energy. Every plant, every rock, every insect he came across seemed to open some window on the world for Darwin.
From St. Jago, they sailed to South America, where they were to spend the better part of the next three years. While the ship’s crew was hard at work sounding the harbors of all the ports of Brazil, Argentina and Chile, Darwin was familiarizing himself with the land of South America, its flora, fauna and inhabitants. Sometimes, he disappeared into the countryside for weeks at a time while the ship mapped the coastal regions near a city. Other times, he set rendezvous points with the ship, and traveling overland by horse or mule or foot (and usually with guides and assistants), he set off to dig what he could out of the land, finding among other things, several extinct mammal fossils, including mastadons and giant armadillo-like creatures.
He witnessed Fuegian natives in their barren natural environment near Cape Horn, and they left an indelible mark in his mind for all time. Throughout the rest of his life, he frequently remembered them in his notebooks, speculating on where they fit into the evolution of man, trying to understand what differences lay “between the faculties of a Fuegian savage & a Sir Isaac Newton.” He was present at a catastrophic earthquake in Chile (which he rightly deduced played a part in the rising of the Andes Mountains), and he climbed high into the mountains and took readings and collected plants and animals, all of which he periodically shipped back to England.
The two years initially promised eventually ballooned to four and then five, and finally in the spring of 1836, the crew was making their way back toward England, by way of the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand, Australia, a series of Indian Ocean islands, South Africa (where he met Sir John Herschel, the son of Sir William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus) and back then—to the collective groan of the ship’s occupants—to Brazil, where Captain FitzRoy felt he needed to double check some earlier measurements. And finally, in the fall of 1836, they reached England.
“The stupid people on the coach did not seem to think the fields one bit greener than usual,” he wrote, traveling to his family’s manor, but Charles Darwin certainly did. He had been transformed from a boy at risk for a directionless life to perhaps the most inspired man in all of England. His name and ideas were already on the lips of the nation’s most important naturalists, and Charles Darwin was well on his way in the world.
The Fuss about Evolution
Evolutionary theory was not a new idea in the nineteenth century, even at the time of Darwin’s birth. His own paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was one of evolution’s loudest Enlightenment-era spokesmen, extolling the wonders of evolution in his book Zoonomia, with which, Darwin was to say the least, quite familiar.
It was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, however, a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century French scientist—and the creator of the very term “biology”—whose ideas about evolution, published in 1809, proved to be the frame upon which Darwin’s evolution was to be built.
“Transmutation…insinuated something heretical: that all species came from the same germ of life. That is, God had not created the billions of species on earth; they had separated from each other from some central point of origin.”
Lamarck’s vision of evolution was an attempt to answer the question of how new species are formed. His answer—and one not satisfactory to most respectable scientists of the day—was that species formed from one another. “Transmutation,” the idea was called. When Darwin secretly became a transmutationist in the months and years after the Beagle expedition, he felt as if he crossed over to the enemy camp, as Lamarckism was the object of much ridicule and scorn. Transmutation—and this was the problem, or, at least, part of it—insinuated something heretical: that all species came from the same germ of life. That is, God had not created the billions of species on earth; they had separated from each other from some central point of origin.
Transmutation, though, was just about the extent of common ground between Darwin and Lamarck. Lamarck’s theory was based on a sort of ladder of evolution, leading from those invertebrate species on the lowest rung—sponges one could barely call animals—up an ever ascending line of species, all the way to the top, where man comfortably stood as master.
Darwin’s line of thinking was, in fact, more radical. He believed that the diagram was not at all a ladder, but a tree, much like one of the peerage family trees aristocrats kept track of to assure their bloodlines. Mankind, in Darwin’s theory, did not really sit at the top of anything but its own branch. The upshot of this, Darwin understood, was that man was to lose his elevated status among beasts, and that he fit into this chain of development just as did mollusks, monkeys, and—appallingly enough—trees.
Furthermore, Darwin’s evolution relied upon a revolutionary, and, to most, absurd idea that there was no design to nature, not a guided one, anyway. Nature, as we know it, was the result of thousands of millennia of chance occurrences. New species were formed from genetic mutations. If those mutations were advantageous, then the survival of that particular organism was assured, and eventually, the survival of its descendents.
Even to Charles Lyell, another Darwin mentor and close friend, who himself had been in his time a bit of a radical, arguing in The Principles of Geology that life predated the deluge by hundreds of thousands of years, could hardly stomach what Darwin was suggesting. It seemed to him and many others that God had no part in a world of random selections and interminable struggle. If Darwin was right, then Christianity was once again on the ropes, and man’s eternal soul an ominous question mark.
For much of Darwin’s life, it was unthinkable to reveal his theory to anyone but the closest of allies, and then only in vague terms. The historical context of the era is paramount to understanding this: the French Revolution was still fresh in the minds of Europeans, particularly conservative England, where the gentry feared the anarchy that had happened in France, and the poor welcomed such an idea.
By the 1820s, radical politics was spreading across England like a storm front. People were beginning to speak out against the church and aristocracy, against privilege. Population growth made resources increasingly scarce, and working conditions in the new factories were atrocious. Protests were commonplace, and banned books were pirated and devoured by a new breed of revolutionary, anxious to have their radical ideas endorsed by the truths of science and philosophy. The Enlightenment was not dead after all.
Amidst this backdrop stood Charles Darwin, aristocrat, independently wealthy, a man who had never worked a day in his life out of necessity. He was a respectable gentleman, growing in the esteem of the world’s scientific community for his rapidly expanding oeuvre on matters of geology, biology and botany—and known too to lay readers as the author of a riveting travel book of his voyage around the world (with the quintessentially nineteenth century title of Journal of Researches Into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage Round the World of H.M.S. ‘Beagle’ Under Command of Fitz Roy, R.N.).
It seemed ludicrous to jeopardize his standing and sway with the leaders of the day by declaring that man sprung from apes. All this not to mention the friends—many of them clergymen, political leaders, religious scientists, some of them even knighted—he would inevitably lose because of his theory. Here was the man in possession of the ultimate fuel to the fire of those eager to turn the tide of history. He was an unlikely and reluctant revolutionary.
But then again he did not see himself as a revolutionary. He saw himself as a scientist seeking the truth he was sure existed, and really, he couldn’t help himself but to marvel at the handiwork of Nature. That his truth happened to endanger the safe world he had always inhabited was a matter, he seemed to feel, quite out of his control, and to some degree, out of the realm of his cares.
The Man Lionized
As difficult as it all was for Charles Darwin, the fact is that no one could have pulled it off as well or as easily. No lesser a scientist, nor royal dilettante, nor perfectly accomplished man from a lesser social class could have demanded the ear of so many. Darwin’s independent wealth made him that much more secure from such reprisals as a firing, which many a radical thinker had been handed in those times.
Because of his life’s arduous work in nearly every imaginable area of the sciences, nobody could discount him—as other evolutionists were discounted—for a lack of credentials or expertise or for dubious political motivations; as a rule he avoided politics altogether. He had to be dealt with, then, and when people began to examine the evidence, the turn toward Darwinism, initially a slow trickle, became a torrent in less than ten years. Even those who couldn’t bring themselves to accept Darwin’s evolution—what he called “natural selection”—were forced to admit that there was something to the theory.
When he was pushed into publishing his ideas by Alfred Russel Wallace, who had independently come up with very similar views, Darwin was fifty years old. He had been battling illness for twenty years, and didn’t expect to live much longer (though he would, for almost another quarter century). He hardly ever left his home by fifty, turning down all manner of invitations and award ceremonies. But he became a sort of living landmark in the years after the publication of The Origin of Species, (1859) and people—scientists, mainly, but others too—would journey to his backwater home, in Downe, England, to see this man, to speak to him if only for a moment, to just generally be in his presence.
He had become scientific royalty, in spite of his crimes against the church. And when he died, he was memorialized thus, in a Westminster Abbey funeral and burial. He would have been thrilled to know it, been elated, really, to know that people had thought his life worthy of such an honor, and to know that people believed what he had done for the world had been for its betterment.