Story Lives of Great Scientists - F. J. Rowbotham

Charles Darwin



"What a glorious day the 4th of November will be to me! My second life will then commence, and it shall be as a birthday for the rest of my life."

Thus wrote Charles Darwin to Captain Fitz-Roy, in October, 1831, when his appointment as naturalist on Board of the Beagle  had been settled, and he was looking forward with keen interest to realizing his dream of visiting tropical countries and seeing what a tropical forest was like.

His reading of Humboldt had fired him with a desire for travel, and in April of this same year he had written to his second-cousin and fellow-collegian, W. Darwin Fox:

"At present I talk, think, and dream of a scheme I have almost hatched of going to the Canary Islands. I have long had a wish of seeing tropical scenery and vegetation, and, according to Humboldt, Teneriffe is a very pretty specimen."

Darwin's whole course of life had been completely changed by the chance which fortune had thrown in his way of serving as naturalist on the Beagle. Taste and inclination had made him a naturalist before this event, but no branch of science had been seriously followed.

Born on February 12, 18o9, at Shrewsbury, where his father, Robert Waring Darwin, practised as a physician, Charles Robert early developed a taste for natural history, more especially for collecting, the passion for which, he says, was very strong in him. When at eight years of age he was sent with his elder sisters to a day-school in Shrewsbury, he collected everything that came in his way, "shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals." He also tried to make out the names of plants, and his mother had aroused his curiosity by telling him that he could find out the name of a plant by looking inside the blossom. This information he imported to a little schoolfellow, who was eager to know how it was done, but the secret was beyond Charles's powers to reveal. Inventiveness seems to have been likewise strongly developed in him as a boy, and he was given to concocting stories, or rather fibs, for the sake of causing excitement. Thus he relates, "I once gathered much valuable fruit from my father's trees and hid it in the shrubbery, and then ran in breathless haste to spread the news that I had discovered a hoard of stolen fruit." On another occasion he boasted to a schoolfellow that he could "produce variously coloured polyanthuses and primroses by watering them with certain coloured fluids, which was of course a monstrous fable, and had never been tried by me."

After spending a year at the day-school Darwin was sent as a boarder to Dr. Butler's great school in Shrewsbury, where he remained till he was sixteen. Beyond "living the life of a true school-boy", however, he derived little advantage from his schooling. "The school as a means of education to me," he says, "was simply a blank." In one thing only he excelled, and that was in learning verse by heart, getting off forty or fifty lines of Virgil or Homer whilst attending morning chapel; but as he forgot all he learnt in forty-eight hours this exercise was useless. His schoolmasters had a poor opinion of him as a scholar, and his father, in a fit of anger, declared that he "cared for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and would be a disgrace to himself and all his family".

Charles's brother Erasmus, however (who was his senior by more than four years), spent much of his time studying chemistry, for which purpose he had fitted up the toolhouse in the garden as a laboratory. Here the brothers worked together often till late at night, Charles being allowed to assist in the experiments as a servant. The subject interested him greatly, and he read up several large books on chemistry. In after-life he regarded this time as the best part of his education at school, for it showed him practically the meaning of experimental science. The chemical experiments got to be known at the school, where they earned for Charles the nickname of "Gas", besides bringing down upon him a public rebuke from the headmaster for wasting his time on such useless subjects.

Outside science, Darwin was fond of reading, more especially books of poetry. Shakespeare's historical plays were read in hours of leisure, seated in one of the old windows of the school. The earliest dawning of his wish to travel came with the reading of a book owned by one of his schoolfellows—The Wonders of the World—the statements contained in which were the subject of many disputes with his fellows. The passionate love of sport, which had its beginnings in the latter part of his school life, and which held him in its thrall during his early manhood, was no doubt an outgrowth of his deep interest in natural history pursuits. "I do not believe," he writes, "that anyone could have shown more zeal for the most holy cause than I did for shooting birds. How well I remember killing my first snipe, and my excitement was so great that I had much difficulty in reloading my gun from the trembling of my hands."

In October, 1825, Darwin, who was then sixteen was sent with his brother to Edinburgh University, the one to complete his medical studies, the other to begin them. The teaching was wholly by lectures, and these made no impression on Darwin's mind except by their intolerable dullness. Long afterwards he wrote of this time: "Dr.— made his lectures on human anatomy as dull as he was himself, and the subject disgusted me." "I shall ever hate the name of the Materia Medica, since hearing Duncan's lectures at eight o'clock on a winter's morning—a whole, cold, breakfastless hour on the properties of rhubarb!" But he always regretted that he was not urged to continue dissection, for "the practice would have been invaluable for all my future work". This, as well as his inability to draw, was regarded by him as an "irremediable evil". The sight of suffering patients in the hospital wards distressed him greatly, and he rushed away from two serious operations (they were long before the blessed days of chloroform) which he was called upon to witness, and never attended again.

In 1828, the idea of becoming a doctor having been abandoned, Darwin went to Cambridge and entered Christ's College, with the intention of studying for holy orders, and by associating with young men of a different stamp he acquired a taste for pictures and music. As regards music, he says that while he derived intense pleasure (including a shivering sensation down the backbone) from listening to a good performance, he was so utterly destitute of an ear as to be unable to hum a tune correctly. Of this defect his musical friends were not slow to take advantage by making him pass an examination to see how many tunes he could recognize. He came off badly at such trials, for even "God Save the King" puzzled him sorely when played more slowly than usual!

But his chief occupation, and that which seemed to fulfil best his keenness for out-of-door pursuits when not scouring across the country on horseback, was the collecting of beetles. He gives the following proofs of his zeal In securing specimens: "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 which 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." By employing a labourer to scrape off the moss from old trees in the winter, and likewise to collect the rubbish at the bottom of the barges which brought reeds from the fens, he secured some very rare species. "No poet," he says, "ever felt more Delighted at seeing his first poem published than I did in seeing, in Stephen's Illustrations of British Insects, the magic words, 'captured by C. Darwin, Esq.'"

In his final B.A. examination he was fourth on the list, and in 1831 he was offered an appointment on the Beagle. Captain Fitz-Roy, who had been engaged by the Government to survey the southern extremity of America, required a companion who would be qualified to act as naturalist with the expedition, the ship being fitted out expressly for scientific purposes combined with the survey. The captain was represented as a young man of pleasing manners and very zealous in his profession. Though no salary was proposed, the naturalist would be given an official appointment and every accommodation, while the ship would be at his disposal for natural history researches. The object of the voyage was to complete the survey of Pantagonia and Tierra del Fuego, commenced under Captain King in 1826 to1830; to survey the shores of Chile, Peru, and some islands in the Pacific; and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the world. The Beagle  is described as a "a well-built little vessel, of 235 tons, rigged as a barque, and carrying six guns," and in after years Darwin used to say that it was the absolute necessity of tidiness in the cramped space on the Beagle  that helped to give him his methodical habits of working.

His letters contain glowing descriptions of tropical scenery. Writing from Rio de Janeiro, in June 1832, he says: "We have already seen Teneriffe and the Great Canary; St. Jago, where I spent three most delightful weeks, reveling in the delights of first naturalizing a tropical volcanic island; and besides other islands, the two celebrated ports in the Brazils, viz. Bahia and Rio. I was in my hammock till we arrived at the Canaries, and I shall never forget the sublime impression the first view of Teneriffe made on my mind."

Geology, which of all the branches of natural science had first interested him least, now occupied the largest share of his attention. He writes to Henslow: "Tell Professor Sedgwick he does not know how much I am indebted to him for the Welsh Expedition; it has given me an interest in geology which I would not give up for any consideration." And to another college friend, C. Whitley: "I find in geology a never-failing interest, as it has been remarked, it creates the same grand ideas respecting this world which astronomy does for the universe." To his cousin, W. D. Fox, he writes: "I am glad to hear you have some thoughts of beginning geology. I hope you will; there is so much larger afield for thought than in the other branches of Natural History. J am become a zealous disciple of Mr. Lyell's views, as known in his admirable book. . . . Geology is a capital science to begin, as it requires nothing but a little reading, thinking, and hammering."

On October 2, 1836, the Beagle  arrived at Falmouth, and two days later Darwin found himself at Shrewsbury after an absence of five years and two days. From this date till his marriage in January, 1839, he was busily at work arranging his collections and notes. "These two years and three months (he says) were the most active ones I ever spent, though I was occasionally unwell, and so lost time."

Darwin House


On January 29, 1839, he married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, the daughter of his uncle Josiah Wedgwood, and the granddaughter of the founder of the Etruria Pottery Works. The first few years of their married life were spent in London, at No. 12 Upper Gower Street. His health, however, necessitated frequent short holidays, the result of which seemed to be to convince him that work was the only cure for his discomfort. "I have derived this much good," he wrote after one of these absences, "that nothing is so intolerable as idleness." It was finally determined to leave London and settle in the country, and in 1842 he removed with his family to a house at Down, in Kent, which at that time was distant from town some twenty miles by coach.

Darwin had kept a careful journal of the voyage, and the intervals of arranging and classifying his specimens were devoted to preparing the MS. for publication. The Journal and Remarks appeared in 1839 as the third volume of Captain Fitz-Roy's Narrative. In 1845 the Journal was republished (with corrections) as a separate volume, under the title of Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the World, under the Command of Capt. Fitz-Roy, R.N. From having been buried in the official narrative, the book now came before the public as an independent work of travel, and its success was at once established. Darwin in his Autobiography  says of this book: "The success of this my first literary child always tickles my vanity more than that of any of my other books."

He was now free to give his undivided attention to a subject which had been fermenting in his mind for many years, and which under his masterly treatment was destined to form not only the greatest achievement of his life, but also the greatest work on natural philosophy which the present age has produced. From September, 1854; he says,

"I devoted my whole time to arranging my huge pile of notes, to observing, and to experimenting in relation to the transmutation of species. During the voyage of the Beagle  I had been deeply impressed by discovering in the Pampean formation great fossil animals covered with armour like that on the existing armadillos; secondly, by the manner in which closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southwards over the continent; and, thirdly, by the South American character of most of the productions of the Galapagos archipelago, and more especially by the manner in which they differ slightly on each island of the group; none of the islands appearing to be very ancient in a geological sense.

"It was evident that such facts as these, as well as many others, could only be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified; and the subject haunted me. But it was equally evident that neither the action of the surrounding conditions nor the will of the organisms (especially in the case of plants) could account for the innumerable cases in which organisms of every kind are beautifully adapted to their habits of life—for instance, a woodpecker or a tree-frog to climb trees, or a seed for dispersal by hooks or plumes. I had always been much struck by such adaptations, and until these could be explained it seemed to me almost useless to endeavour to prove by indirect evidence that species have been modified."

After his return to England it occurred to him that by following the example of Lyell in Geology, and by collecting all facts which bore in any way on the variation of animals and plants under domestication and nature, some light might perhaps be thrown on the whole subject, and it was on the advice of Lyell, in 1856, that he began to write an abstract of his views on a scale three or four times as extensive as that which was afterwards followed in the Origin of Species. His letters to his correspondents tell us a good deal about his doings during this period. His time is fully occupied with his writings, and with breeding pigeons, experiments with floating seeds in salt water (to illustrate the distribution of plants), preparing skeletons and measuring the bones of different animals at different ages, and so on. He is comparing the structure of animals at different ages, and writes to Fox: "Should an old wild turkey ever die, please remember me; I do not care for a baby turkey, nor for a mastiff. Very many thanks for your offer. I have puppies of bull-dogs and greyhounds in salt, and I have had cart-horse and race-horse young colts carefully measured. Whether I shall do any good I doubt."

Darwin got through about half of his Abstract  on the enlarged scale begun in 1856. "But" (he says) "my plans were overthrown, for early in the summer of 1858 Mr. Wallace, who was then in the Malay Archipelago, sent me an essay On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type;  and this essay contained exactly the same theory as mine. Mr. Wallace expressed the wish that, if I thought well of his essay, I should send it to Lyell for perusal."

As may be imagined, this extraordinary coincidence of ideas in the minds of the two naturalists was something of a blow to Darwin, whose only consolation was the knowledge that he owed none of his own thoughts to his rival. In the letter to Lyell accompanying the Wallace essay, Darwin says "Your word's have come true with a vengeance—that I should be forestalled. . . . I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my MS. sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better abstract I Even his terms now stands as heads of my chapters. Please return me the MS., which he does not say he wishes me to publish, but I shall, of course, at once write and offer to send to any journal. So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed, though my book, if it will ever have any value, will not be deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of the theory."

Eventually the two papers were read together at a meeting of the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858. "The interest excited was intense," writes Sir J. Hooker, "but the subject was too novel and too ominous for the old school to enter the lists, before armouring," and the joint papers were afterwards published in the Society's Journal, but attracted very little attention, owing no doubt to the abbreviated form in which the theory as presented.

Darwin now set to work to prepare a summary, or as he called it abstract, of his previous extended work for publication; and after thirteen months' hard labour he completed the MS. on this reduced scale. The book was published on November 24, 1859, under the title, On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle of Life.

The success of the book was instantaneous: the first edition of 1,250 copies being sold by Murray on the day of issue. A second edition of 3,000 copies was at once prepared, and was published in January, 1860; this likewise was soon disposed of, and other editions rapidly followed. By 1876 16,000 copies of the book had been sold in England alone, and it was translated into almost every European tongue. "Even an essay in Hebrew appeared on it, showing that the theory is contained in the Old Testament!" Darwin himself attributed its success (from the scientific standpoint) to the fact that "innumerable well-observed facts were stored in the minds of naturalists ready to take their proper places as soon as any theory which would receive them was sufficiently explained".

Only the briefest description of Darwin's great work can here be attempted; and this description must be limited to the main idea on which the argument is based, leaving it to the reader who desires to follow up the subject to do so by careful study of the book itself.

In the first place a few words must be said regarding the methods adopted by man in controlling the production of domesticated animals and plants. This control has been exercised in two ways, viz. consciously  and unconsciously. In the first case man selects for breeding purposes those individuals which present the modifications he requires; and by keeping strictly to this rule of breeding only from selected individuals and rejecting all others, he gradually alters the stock.

In the second case the breeder works upon a different plan. He merely chooses the best Individuals, or those which in his eyes represent the most perfect type of the animal; and by breeding only from such individuals and from their offspring, he gradually improves the stock. This is Unconscious Selection.

What does Darwin mean by "Natural Selection?" In the first place, species in a state of nature, like domesticated animals and plants, though in a lesser degree, are liable to vary; the variations thus produced tend to be inherited by their offspring at a corresponding, or somewhat earlier, age. Every species tends to multiply to an unlimited extent, and produces a Tar greater number of offspring than can possibly survive. This over-production involves a struggle for existence between the progeny of rival species.

Natural Selection acts by preserving such variations as are serviceable to the organism and destroying those which are useless or injurious. The manner in which it does this may be explained by supposing the individuals of a species to vary, to ever so slight an extent, in a direction which gives the possessors some advantage over their rivals in the struggle of life; if these beneficial variations are transmitted to the next generation, it follows that the members of this endowed species will stand a better chance, not only of surviving, but also of beating their rivals out of the field and spreading themselves over a wider area. This result of the action of Natural Selection Darwin calls the "Survival of the Fittest". It implies that those organisms only which are sufficiently well adapted to their surroundings to hold their own in the battle of life will succeed in transmitting their characters to their progeny, and will thus give rise to a race of beings more and more capable in each succeeding generation of withstanding changes in the physical conditions of the country and of resisting the competition of other and unequally adapted forms. At the same time the unsuccessful competitors, by being reduced in numbers, will in the end be exterminated.

There are many eloquent passages in the book, such as that in which the descent of organic beings—with their struggles, their modifications, and their vicissitudes—is likened to a great tree whose outer-most extremities are still fresh and budding, whilst all its past history lies buried in the great limbs below and in the dead and fallen branches which strew the ground. But no passage perhaps is more eloquent, or at the same time serves better to epitomize the whole argument, than that with which Darwin closes his volume, and with which we may conclude this brief and imperfect sketch of his theory:

"It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance, which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted objects which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly, follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved."

In 1871 appeared The Descent of Man—the expression of the author's conviction (dating from about 1838 and foreshadowed in the Origin) that the law regulating the production of species must be held to include man in its operation.

His last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Earthworms, was published in May, 1881, a year before his death. Despite its somewhat unattractive title, the Earthworms proved exceedingly popular, a result due, no doubt, to the freshness and interest with which he invested his subject. "The subject," he wrote to a scientific friend, "has been to me a hobby-horse, and I have perhaps treated it in foolish detail." "My book," he wrote to another, "has been received with almost laughable enthusiasm, and 3,500 copies have been sold !!!" One reviewer said of the book: "In the eyes of most men the earthworm is a mere blind, dumb, senseless, and unpleasantly slimy annelid. Mr. Darwin undertakes to rehabilitate his character, and the earthworm steps forth at once as an intelligent and beneficent personage, a worker of vast geological changes, a planer down of mountain sides, a friend of man, and an ally of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments."

The man who wrote the Origin of Species—which Sir Joseph Hooker declared to be "the very hardest book to read, to full profit, that I ever tried"—was a man of the simplest habits and tastes; one to whom very little things often gave genuine pleasure. He took great delight in his garden and in the beauty of flowers. "In admiring flowers" (writes his son) "he would often laugh at the dingy high-art colours, and contrast them with the bright tints of nature. I used to like to hear him admire the beauty of a flower; it was a kind of gratitude to the flower itself, and a personal love for its delicate form and colour. I seem to remember him gently touching a flower he delighted in; it was the same simple admiration that a child might have." He was very fond of novels; these were mostly read aloud to him whilst he rested from work, and he found them a wonderful relief and pleasure. Another quality was his power of sticking to a subject. "He used almost to apologize for his patience, saying that he could not bear to be beaten, as if this were rather a sign of weakness on his part"; and he often quoted the saying "It's dogged as does it". "And I think," adds his son, "doggedness expresses his frame of mind almost better than perseverance."

"If the character of my father's working life," says Mr. F. Darwin, "is to he understood, the conditions of ill-health, under which he worked, must be constantly borne in mind." Thus writes his son, adding: "He bore his illness with such uncomplaining patience that even his children can hardly, I believe, realize the extent of his habitual suffering."

In his letters he frequently excuses his inability to give long answers or to master new subjects, on the ground of his health, but he exacted from himself all that he could give for the cause of science, and we are told that "he kept an accurate journal of the days on which he worked and those on which his ill-health prevented him from working, so that it would be possible to tell how many were idle days in any given year."

During the early months of 1882 the occurrence of attacks of pain in the region of the heart, accompanied by giddiness and exhaustion, indicated that the illness from which he suffered had taken a serious turn. Although he rallied from this condition and regained some of his cheerfulness, the recovery proved to be only temporary. On April 17 he was sufficiently well to be able to record the progress of an experiment on which his son was engaged, but on the following night "he had a severe attack and passed into a faint, from which he was brought back to consciousness with great difficulty. He seemed to recognize the approach of death, and said, 'I am not the least afraid to die.' All the next morning he suffered from terrible nausea and faintness, and hardly rallied before the end came. He died at about four o'clock on Wednesday, April 19, 1882, in the 74th year of his age." The grave is in the north aisle of the nave in Westminster Abbey, close to the angle of the choir-screen, and a few feet from the grave of Sir Isaac Newton.

Contributions to the Memorial Fund for biological research were received from nearly every country in the world, and from all classes of the community. In the case of Sweden alone, 2,296 subscriptions were received, and they came "from all sorts of people, from the bishop to the seamstress, and in sums from five pounds to two pence."