Stories of Great Scientists - Charles Gibson

Charles Darwin

The Scientist Who was Bold Enough to Declare that Man has been Evolved from Lower Forms of Life

When considering the life of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley we made the acquaintance of Dr. Erasmus Darwin at the Lunar Society meetings. Another member of this select and interesting scientific Society was Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter. These two men were great friends, and it so happened that a son of Erasmus Darwin married a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, and these were the parents of our present hero, Charles Robert Darwin.

Charles Darwin is the first of our list of heroes who was born in the nineteenth century, although Eccentric Cavendish, Parson Priestley, Astronomer Herschel, Colour-blind Dalton, Chemist Davy, and Experimental Faraday all overlapped the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, just as most of us have lived in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Charles Darwin was born at Shrewsbury (England) in the year 1809, and consequently during the reign of King George III.

We are fortunate in having an autobiography of Charles Darwin, which he wrote for his wife and children, but parts of which have been quoted by his son—Francis Darwin. In the opening sentences of Charles Darwin's autobiography he says: "I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing."

Like some others of those great men whose lives we have considered in the preceding chapters, Darwin was not a brilliant schoolboy. "I have been told that I was much slower in learning than my younger sister Catherine, and I believe that I was in many ways a naughty boy." However, at eight years of age he was trying to make out the names of all the plants he saw, and he was busy collecting all sorts of things, such as shells, birds' eggs, insects, and minerals. He had an exceptional imagination, which, of course, is a very useful possession for a scientist, but sometimes apt to get a boy into trouble if he lets it take control of his words. Darwin tells us of several occasions when he allowed his boyish imagination to carry him beyond the bounds of truth in his desire to cause sensation among his playmates. For instance, when quite a little fellow, he told another small boy that he could produce coloured primroses by watering them with certain coloured fluids—"which was, of course, a monstrous fable, and had never been tried by me."

Charles Darwin


As a little fellow Darwin was what schoolboys describe as "easily taken in." He tells us how a boy of the name of Garnett took him into a cake shop one day and bought some cakes, for which he was not asked to pay, as he had an account there. But Darwin could not understand how his young friend got the things without payment, and he asked an explanation. His young friend was evidently gifted with a very lively imagination also, for he said: "Why, do you not know that my uncle left a great sum of money to the town on condition that every tradesman should give whatever was wanted without payment to any one who wore his old hat and moved it in a particular manner?" He then showed Darwin the secret of moving the hat, and offered to give him another practical proof of these facts. They went into another shop, where the boy or his people had an account kept, and he asked for some small article, moving his hat in the proper manner, and, of course, obtained his purchase without payment. Garnett then offered to lend Darwin the hat so that he might go into the cake shop and make a purchase without payment. "I gladly accepted the generous offer, and went in and asked for some cakes, moved the old hat and was walking out of the shop, when the shopman made a rush at me, so I dropped the cakes and ran for dear life, and was astonished by being greeted with shouts of laughter by my false friend Garnett."

By the time Darwin had finished school he says he was considered by all his masters and by his father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect. When quite a little chap he read Wonders of the World, and to this book he attributed his desire to travel in remote countries.

Darwin and an older brother used to make chemical experiments in a tool-house in the garden, and when it became known in school that Darwin could make oxygen, hydrogen, and other gases, he received the nickname "Gas."

This amateur chemistry was a great pleasure to Darwin. It is remarkable how keen boys get on chemistry if they are set off on lines which they can understand. On one occasion I sent some chemicals, apparatus, and notes of experiments to some little friends in a boarding-school. I was surprised to receive by post a few days later a packet containing two cases of shaving soap., purchased out of the boy's tuck money. When I was out at the school some time later I said to one of the young friends that I hoped they were not merely amusing themselves with the apparatus, but were taking an interest in the explanations accompanying the experiments, whereupon the youngster assured me that they were so keen about the whole subject, that he thought sometimes they were " just like men after drink." This is only one of many personal incidents showing how keen the average boy is in pursuing chemistry if it is made easily intelligible.

To return to our subject, we find that as Darwin was doing no good at school his father wisely took him away at a rather earlier age than usual and sent him to Edinburgh University. The intention was that he should study Medicine, but Darwin tells us that from various small circumstances he became convinced that his father would leave him property enough to subsist on with some comfort, though he did not imagine that he should be so rich as he became, and this knowledge did not give him any impulse to strenuous effort to learn Medicine. Darwin's father was a doctor, but that he was a man of wealth is evident, for we find him on one occasion lending a manufacturer ten thousand pounds without security to help him over some difficulty.

It is very pleasing to see Darwin's great admiration for his father. In the autobiography there are many repetitions of such remarks as these: "My father, who was by far the best judge of character whom I ever knew," declared—so and so. . . . "My father, who was the kindest man I ever knew." . . . "My father, who was the most acute observer I ever knew." And again, "My father, who was the wisest man I ever knew." These were not the expressions of a boy's limited knowledge, but the mature opinions of a man with a great brain.

Young Darwin never got over the "creepy" feeling in the practical work in his medical career. He tells us that he attended two very bad operations in the Edinburgh Hospital. One of these was on a child, but he rushed out before it was completed, and never again could he be induced to be present at another operation. Of course, an operation in these pre-chloroform days must have been very different from what it would be to-day. Quite recently a famous surgeon, on coming out from performing an operation on a lady to whom no anesthetic could be given, remarked to my brother, that if surgery had to be without chloroform, he for one could not do it, and it was quite apparent that the ordeal had been most trying even to this man of great nerve.

Darwin began to take an active interest in Science while resident in Edinburgh, and he tells us of one occasion when he was taken to a meeting of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, where he saw Sir Walter Scott in the chair as President. "I looked at him and the whole scene with some awe and reverence." The one subject which became of absorbing interest to Darwin was Natural History. He paid a negro to teach him how to stuff birds; he went out with the Newhaven fishermen to trawl for oysters, so that he might examine them; and he became acquainted with the curator of the museum.

In the summer vacations Darwin became a keen sportsman. On one occasion, when staying with his uncle, Darwin rose before daybreak, slipped into his shooting boots, which he always kept ready by his bedside, so as not to lose a moment in putting them on in the morning, reached a distant part of the estate before it was light enough to shoot, and toiled with the game-keeper the whole day through thick heath and Scotch firs.

Although young Darwin was to be an independent gentleman, his father wished him to be of some definite service in life, and not to become an idle sporting man. When his father heard that his son disliked the idea of becoming a physician, he proposed that he should become a clergyman. The young man felt rather attracted towards the life of a country clergyman, but he asked time to consider the subject, as he doubted if he could subscribe to all the dogmas of the Church of England, although he "did not in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible." In recording these facts Darwin says, "Considering how fiercely I have been attacked by the orthodox, it seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman."

As Darwin was to be a clergyman he was sent to Cambridge University at the age of nineteen years, but he did not prove a success in Classics nor in Mathematics, and he got on very slowly.

Darwin, like Sir Humphry Davy, could not perceive a discord in music, nor could he hum any tune correctly. Just as with Davy, even to distinguish "God save the King " was a complete puzzle yet, strange to say, Darwin was fond of music and would hire the chorister boys to sing in his rooms.

One is surprised to learn that although Darwin was a great collector of beetles at this time, he merely collected them and made no scientific study of them whatever. His keenness as a collector, however, is well illustrated by the following remark in his autobiography: "One day on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one that I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue, so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one." Speaking of these days of beetle-catching, Darwin has said: "No poet ever felt more delighted at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing, in Stephen's Illustrations of British Insects, the magic words 'captured by C. Darwin, Esq.'"

Darwin tells us that the one thing which influenced his career more than anything else was the friendship of Professor Henslow, at Cambridge. This professor, who had a great knowledge of Natural History, kept open house for the students once every week, and young Darwin became so great a favourite that he was known among the dons as "the man who walks with Henslow." One of the books which had a great influence upon Darwin's mind was the Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy, written by Sir John Herschel, son of our old friend Sir William Herschel (Chapter XVII).

After having been three years at Cambridge, Darwin went on a short geological tour during the summer vacation. On returning home he found a letter from his friend Professor Henslow telling him that Captain FitzRoy of the British Navy, who was going on a voyage to explore the Southern Seas on behalf of the Government, was willing to give up part of his own cabin to any young man who would volunteer to go with him without pay as Naturalist on board H.M.S. Beagle. Darwin was instantly eager to accept the offer, but his father did not think it would be wise, and so the young enthusiast wrote that evening declining the offer. Next morning he went out shooting on his uncle's estate, when his uncle sent for him, offering to drive home with him and talk the matter over with his father, as the uncle thought it would be a wise occupation. Darwin's father frankly accepted the advice of his brother-in-law, and by way of consolation, young Darwin, who, strange to say, had been rather extravagant at Cambridge, said, "I should be deuced clever to spend more than my allowance whilst on board the Beagle,"  whereupon the father answered with a smile, "But they tell me you are very clever."

Darwin had an interview with Captain FitzRoy and all was arranged, but later on he learnt that he had run a risk of being rejected on account of his nose. The Captain believed himself to be an able judge of character by the outline of a man's features; and he doubted if any one with a nose like Darwin's could possess sufficient energy and determination for the long voyage. It is interesting to note in this connection that the old-world philosopher Pythagoras, whose life we have considered in Chapter II, had the same belief in a man's character being in accordance with his features. Dacier, writing three hundred years ago, says of Pythagoras: "First he considered their physiognomy, and from thence drew the general trend of their inclinations."

Darwin's enthusiasm in setting out on this voyage was so great that although he secretly believed that he had heart disease, he would not consult a doctor lest he should order him to stay at home; he was determined to go at all costs. The heart trouble fortunately turned out to be a simple case of palpitation.

Darwin was on board H.M.S. Beagle  for five years, and during this long voyage he collected an enormous number of facts in Natural Science. He shot specimens of all the different kinds of birds, he examined all the marine specimens he could find, he made a geological survey of each country they visited, and collected a large number of tell-tale fossils.

Darwin was twenty-seven years of age when he returned home. He was kept busy writing for two years, preparing his Journal and other books. During the greater part of this time he was resident in London. After this he married, and a few years later he bought an estate in Kent, and retired there, not to rest, but to work earnestly during the remainder of his life. Unfortunately, his health became a trouble to him, so that he had to give up dinner-parties and other social gatherings, nor could he and his wife entertain their friends for the same reason.

Darwin counted his Origin of Species  the chief work of his life, and we know what a tremendous influence it has had upon modern science. The book had an enormous sale, and was translated into almost every European language. It was no rash publication; it was twenty years in the mind of Darwin before it was published. When he set out on his voyage of exploration he was a firm believer in the general idea that the Creator had made each separate species of animal once for all. This idea had been questioned by several great minds half a century before Darwin's time, and our old friend Dr. Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of our present hero, was the first to state a definite theory of the law of descent. Charles Darwin had read his grandfather's books, but the proofs were so slender that he was not impressed with the theory. Unfortunately, the followers of these early evolutionists had not been content to deal only with what few facts were known, but had allowed their imaginations to run away with their judgment, so that the theory of evolution had lost all credence. Not many years before Darwin's famous voyage two learned scientists had debated the question of evolution before the Paris Academy, and the one who upheld evolution was defeated so completely that the question was supposed to be settled for all time.

During the voyage of the Beagle  Darwin became impressed with certain facts which seemed to him difficult to reconcile with the idea that God had created each species separately. As the voyage proceeded and facts accumulated Darwin was convinced that the old dogma could not be upheld. He saw quite clearly that all living things had been evolved through long ages from simpler forms of life.

There can be very few thoughtful people who doubt the general principles of evolution to-day. It is surely quite needless to remark that although man's body has been evolved in a gradual way, Man is quite distinct from other creatures; the Creator "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

One cannot but admire the quiet way in which Darwin brought forward his definite theory of evolution; there was no attempt whatever at sensationalism. Indeed, in the Introduction to his later book, The Descent of Man, he says, "It seemed to me sufficient to indicate, in the first edition of my Origin of Species, that by this work light would be thrown on the origin of man." His only reference to man occurs in this one short sentence on the last page but one of this great book; when referring to future researches he says, "Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history."

Although there was no attempt at sensationalism in Darwin's book, it could not be expected that people would calmly throw over the long-embedded ideas of special creation without grave consideration. Strange as it may seem, there are intelligent men to-day who still picture the world as having been created in seven days of twenty-four hours each. I know a few such men, but they have never studied the question, and in each case I believe it is religious scruples that prevent them going into the matter for themselves. Some people, I trust very few, imagine that Darwin was an atheist, and that the theory of evolution is opposed to any proper religious beliefs. Are we to imagine that the Creator will be displeased if we study His works and discover His plans? If so, we have no right to all practical applications of scientific discovery; the steam-engine, the dynamo, the motor, all are the outcome of our discovery of the forces which the Creator has placed in the world. The more we study His works, the more reverence do we acquire.

The Church did believe at first that the new doctrine of evolution was dangerous to religion, but Darwin was content to wait; he knew that in the end the truth must prevail. Our hero did not strive to become famous; his desire was to advance man's knowledge; he was, indeed, a true Hero of Science.

Charles Darwin had a lofty, noble spirit; he was truly unselfish; he was modest, simple, and sincere, a great lover of truth and fair play. Like a wise father, he made companions of his children. "He allowed his grown-up children to laugh with and at him, and was, generally speaking, on terms of perfect equality with us." So wrote one of his sons, four of whom occupy high places in the scientific world, and are honoured and respected by their fellow-men.

I do not think it necessary to touch upon the religion of Charles Darwin, except to remark that, despite all his frank statements of doubt, he appears to me a good Christian, for he acted honestly and uprightly according to his serious beliefs.

Darwin had never enjoyed very robust health, and in later years had suffered much. After a short but painful illness he passed away at the age of seventy-three. So retired was the family life in Kent that the news of the great scientist's death was not known in London till two days after he had breathed his last. It was the desire of the family to have the burial a local and private one, but the nation showed the very high regard in which they held this great Biologist, and all classes of men were anxious that the funeral should be national, and that the burial should be among Great Britain's illustrious dead in Westminster Abbey. The sympathy of the public was so great that the family felt bound to accept this tribute to his memory.