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Charles Darwin: A Short Biography

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Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, the very day that, half-way across the world in a log shack in Kentucky, Nancy Lincoln would give birth to Abraham, a boy with a likewise hidden destiny. Charles was preceded by Marianne, Caroline, Susan, and his best boyhood friend and only brother, Erasmus, and then Emily came along afterward.

Charles was the son of Robert Darwin, a prosperous physician and industrial financier. Robert was the son of the famous physician-poet-evolutionist Erasmus Darwin. Today we remember Charles and forget Erasmus, but for nearly the first three decades of Charles’ life, he was Erasmus Darwin’s grandson — the grandson of England’s most famous evolutionist (or transmutationist, as it was then called).

That’s an important point to make about his life. Charles Darwin didn’t discover evolution. Evolution was old hat as a theory, and had been circulating in radical circles in England and France for at least a half-century before he was born. Charles imbibed the theory from his grandfather and father. Although Erasmus died before his grandson was born, Charles carefully studied his grandfather’s evolutionary treatise, the Zoonomia, sometime in the mid-1820s, long before he stepped on the HMS Beagle. Robert Darwin affirmed transmutationism as well, although he kept his opinions to himself.

So, when Charles Darwin was hurried off to medical school at Edinburgh in 1825, he was already well-versed in evolutionary theory. When he got there, he soon realized that he wasn’t cut out for medicine (as he discovered, there’s nothing like witnessing surgery without anesthetic on a small boy to sharpen one’s sense of vocation to medicine, or lack thereof). Rather than spend time on his studies, he began working under the transmutationist, Robert Grant, and generally had a good time, riding, shooting, eating, and acting the young gentleman.

It soon became clear to his father, that Charles was failing at the family vocation of medicine. It was decided that, as a last resort, he might cut it as an Anglican parson with a country parish. Few demands, a fair living, and lots of time for shooting, running dogs, hunting, and amateur natural history. Darwin shuffled off to Cambridge in January of 1828 to get an undergraduate degree in preparation for more advanced study to become a man of the cloth.

We should not overrate Darwin’s piety here. The Darwin’s were long-standing liberal Whigs. Erasmus was, if anything, the thinnest of theists, and Robert was most likely an atheist. The Anglican Creed and the Bible were considered relics of superstitious ages they dearly hoped would be left far behind as the Enlightenment marched forward. That Robert would send his son to become an Anglican parson tells us more about the state of the Anglican Church at the time than it does about Charles’ piety. That Charles could, in his Autobiography, insist that at the time he accepted the Creed and the literal truth of the Bible reveals him as less than forthright.

At Cambridge Charles met two very important Anglican priests who were also top scientists, John Henslow and Adam Sedgwick. Under their kind tutelage, Charles was probably as close to a theist as he ever would become, although the effect of their guidance and passion for science was to confirm Charles’ vocation as a naturalist rather than a country parson. It was, in fact, Henslow that arranged for Darwin to join Captain Robert FitzRoy on the HMS Beagle after his graduation from Cambridge in 1831. After long delays, the Beagle launched from England’s shores on December 27, 1831 to sail around the world collecting and measuring for the enhancement of Britain’s place as a growing world mercantile power.

Right away Darwin got seasick. He was sick nearly the whole time he was at sea during the Beagle’s five-year voyage. But violent nausea wouldn’t end when he finally stepped off ship in October of 1836. The voyage of the Beagle marked the beginning of Darwin’s life-long struggle against his head and stomach. Whatever the cause of his perpetual bouts of retching later on — a strange “bug” picked up on his odyssey, frail nerves, his addiction to taking snuff, a diet rich in sweets, a hereditary malady — he spent nearly his entire life as if he’d never gotten off the Beagle, suffering long periods of debilitating nausea and vomiting, accompanied by headaches, interrupted only occasionally by bouts of good health.

Darwin spent the two decades after the Beagle cementing his place in England’s scientific society. He lived a kind of intellectual double life, gaining public respectability by his non-evolutionary scientific work, even while he was working away, right from the very beginning, at his theory of evolution in private. As his private notebooks make clear, from 1838 on Darwin was bent on making a purely materialistic, reductionist account of evolution, one that completely eliminated the need for divine intervention and oversight.

By this time, he had largely lost any faint traces of theism that he may have gained at Cambridge, and had fallen back into the Darwin hereditary religious skepticism bordering on atheism. After he proposed to his cousin Emma Wedgwood, he was honest enough to tell her of his unbelief. She was heartbroken, but married him anyway at the beginning of 1839. They would have a long and happy marriage despite their deepest mismatch about God, and would bring ten new Darwins into the world, only seven of which would live beyond childhood.

Although as an heir to the Darwin fortune, Charles didn’t have to work, he threw himself into developing his scientific career and his theory with such zeal that he was always teetering on ruining his already fragile health. He wanted his theory to be perfect, perfectly argued and perfectly backed up by endless facts. He was also afraid of the backlash against him if he published so radical a theory, which the public already associated with atheism.

Who knows how long he would have worked on his theory without publishing if he hadn’t received a surprise in June of 1858: a clear and concise account of evolution by natural selection that couldn’t have been a more accurate synopsis of Darwin’s own. It was written by Alfred Russel Wallace. He’d been scooped! Darwin was crestfallen.

The truth was that evolution had been in the air for some time, and many others had been working along the same lines as Darwin. Wallace was just one of them. The two issued a joint paper, read at Linnean Society on the first of July, 1858. Wallace was still overseas. Darwin was not there either. His youngest boy, Charles junior, had died at the end of June, the last of the Darwin children and the third child to die before adulthood. The dark side of the survival of the fittest.

Darwin began working feverishly on a full statement of his theory, but ended up writing what he considered a mere synopsis, The Origin of Species, publishing it in November of 1859. It shocked the public, not because evolution was new, but because Darwin was an already well-known and respected scientist whose work had been heralded among the conservative British scientific society. He was a turncoat, not a revolutionary.

Immediately upon publishing, he threw himself into an enormous international effort to have his theory affirmed, pulling every string available. Four men were particularly influential as his helpmates in this endeavor: Charles Lyell, Asa Gray, Thomas Huxley, and Joseph Hooker. Along with his co-discover, Alfred Wallace, they strove to make Darwinism respectable.

Ironically, three of these men — Lyell, Gray, and Wallace — affirmed evolution but thought that natural selection alone was radically insufficient to account for man’s moral and intellectual nature. Evolution needed God. Their “defection” so peeved Darwin that he wrote another book, The Descent of Man (1871), in which he made his case that our moral, intellectual, and “spiritual” aspects are all derived from natural and sexual selection. Evolution did not need God, thank you.

The cost for reducing our moral nature to an effect of natural selection was high. It meant that “morality” is merely the name we give for any particular existing society’s habits and social structures. Whatever these are — polygamy, monogamy, cannibalism, infanticide, gentlemanly behavior, courage, compassion toward all or just toward members of one’s tribe — they must have contributed to the survival of that society via natural selection. Furthermore, if natural selection is the root of all morality, and fitness is the criterion for evolutionary success, then, as Darwin rightly concluded, society should not allow the unfit to breed. Interesting thought from a perpetually sick man, whose own ten children inherited his physical weaknesses.

Darwin spent the rest of his life working on more specialized monographs that supported his theory and answering his critics with successive editions of the Origin of Species. On April 19, 1882 death, the great creative force of evolution, finally came to call on Charles Darwin. Hooker, Huxley, and Wallace were among the pallbearers to his final resting place in Westminster Abbey next to Sir John Herschel, the famed astronomer who rejected Darwinism, near the eminent Charles Lyell who would only accept a modified form of it, and close to Sir Isaac Newton whom it would have horrified.

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