What do you know about Charles Darwin?

He probably worried even more than you do.

By Emily Willingham

Yes, he wrote a book that became famous and stands in some minds as a testament to science or as a threat to religion or, simply, as a book presenting a thoughtful, well-observed, and detailed explication and delineation of a long-forming idea in science. But Darwin, like any of us, was more than the book or books that made him famous. He was a man who experienced many personal struggles, ranging from angst over hurting his wife by publishing his most famous work to the loss of a beloved daughter, Annie, to his own chronic and debilitating health problems in later life.

Today is Darwin Day, so designated because Charles Darwin (and Abraham Lincoln,while we’re at it) was born on February 12. Darwin’s year of birth was 1809, so he’d be 204 today were humans capable of a tortoise-like lifespan.

Charles_and_William_Darwin

I often wonder what Darwin would make of today’s persistent caricatures of him as upending science or religion or both with his ideas. I’m not a Darwin expert, but the impression I get about him from his writings and biographies of him is that he tended to be a quiet type, thoughtful, engaged with non-human animals and plants far more than with people in general. Someone who could, in youth, sail the seas for 5 years but who in old age suffered so horribly from what might have been agoraphobia and anxiety that stepping away from home was agony. Some researchers have speculated that on his 5-year voyage aboard the Beagle, in addition to stockpiling the observations that helped form his ideas about how species take shape over time, he also picked a chronic condition called Chagas disease, caused by a parasite that he encountered in South America.

Whatever the cause of his bouts of gastrointestinal distress and other symptoms, Darwin also felt in roughly equal amounts a deep love for and anxiety about his family. Thanks to the budding art of daguerreotyping, we can visualize that paternal love in an image taken with his son, William, above. If you can see pain in a person’s eyes, it was already haunting Darwin’s when he was 46. In a time when the loss of a child was so common that almost no family went untouched, the Darwins also felt the infinite pain of losing three of their 10 children, two who died in infancy and a daughter named Annie, who died at age 10. No one is quite sure of the cause of Annie’s death, although tuberculosis appears to be a strong candidate, but there is no doubt at all about how profoundly and permanently the loss affected her parents. In a memorial Darwin wrote soon after his daughter’s death, he depicts his daughter (below) in a way that seems rather reminiscent of her father in her attention to detail and the precision of observation:

485px-Annie_Darwin‘She had one singular habit, which, I presume would ultimately have turned into some pursuit; namely a strong pleasure in looking out words or names in dictionaries, directories, gazeteers, & in this latter case finding out the places in the Map: so also she would take a strange interest in comparing word by word two editions of the same book; and again she would spend hours in comparing the colours of any objects with a book of mine, in which all colours are arranged & named.’

As a scientist, Darwin also had another concern that might have been more specific to his time and place than to today: intermarriage. He and his wife, Emma, were cousins. Because of his work breeding (and inbreeding) animals, Darwin evidently devoted some of his anxiety to worries that the relatively close genetic relatedness he and Emma shared might manifest in his children in negative ways. So great was his concern that he successfully encouraged his son, George, a mathematician, to study relatedness among residents of ‘insane asylums’ in England. The results suggested that adverse outcomes were “almost nil” when the parents were rather closely related. Modern genetics studies seem to point to similar conclusions, with findings suggesting risks no greater than having a mother who is 40 or older at your birth.

The popular image of Charles Darwin is of a man who shattered scientific and religious dogma simultaneously and methodically. Depending on your perspective and dose of extremism in your ideology, he did this either while rubbing his hands together and cackling maniacally or with a cold, dogmatic attitude that brooked no counterpoint. In reality, he dedicated decades of worry to formulating his ideas for public consumption, concerned that he would cause pain to his devoutly religious wife. His anxiety and poor health shadowed his life from his 30s onward. He was a man who loved his family, doted on his children, obsessed about pigeons, and frequently vomited after meals. The loss of his oldest daughter hurt him so badly that he couldn’t even attend her funeral. Like anyone we put on a pedestal–or to whom we dedicate a day–Darwin was more than the caricature most people know and less than the demigod many have made him. In other words, he was human, evolved over the millennia like the rest of us.

All images via Wikimedia Commons, public domain in the United States. Anne Darwin. Charles and William. Front page and thumbnail image of Darwin at age 46.

3 thoughts on “What do you know about Charles Darwin?

  1. Very kind words about a man who seems to have been shown so little kindness in his lifetime;the world and christianity should be ever gratefull to his contribution to science.

  2. Emily, this is a really great post on Darwin. Too often an idolized figure of him is presented and folks don’t get a real picture of the man, and what his family meant to him. I absolutely love who involved Darwin’s children were in the science he conducted at home!

    While Darwin did have anxiety and worry over many things, it has been shown that 1. the death of his daughter Annie was not the catalyst for his leaving Christianity (you don’t mention that at all, I just thought it worth sharing); and 2. the twenty years it took Darwin to publish his theory, the standard thesis is that he feared religious backlash so put it off and procrastinated, but recent assessments of his writings and work habits show that he was simply working and continuing to work: collecting more facts, doing experiments, etc. He wanted to make sure he had it right. When pushed to publish On the Origin of Species in 1859, he had been working on a much larger work on natural selection. He wanted it to be a solid work, as is evidenced by the many instances in the book where he offers a critique of some argument, then responds to it.

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