145 – Charles Darwin: Surprising Truths, part 3

It seems like everybody is talking about Charles Darwin. Here is part 3 of my series covering some of the surprising truths about his life and achievements.

Part 1 here · Part 2 here

Anyone who knows anything of the Darwin story knows that he took 20 years to publish an account of his idea. I guess I had felt that he must have been rather timid, but the reality was much more complex. For one thing, the word timid does not do justice to the anguish he must have faced when thinking about publication. He was very much an upper-class gentleman and, at the time, the idea of species change was strongly associated with radicals and ratbags, given its implication that the toffs were no better than the rest. Then, there were religious considerations. Most of his scientist friends were highly religious and considered the idea of species change to be sacrilegious. Closer to home, his wife Emma was devout and grieved for his soul if he stuck to his shocking ideas. The couple were very close and this must have contributed to Darwin’s reticence. The depth of his feelings may be discerned from a letter to a friend in which he revealed his revolutionary idea with the comment that it felt like confessing a murder.

A second factor is that it did actually take a long time to develop the idea fully and to marshal sufficient evidence to convince what he knew would be a highly critical audience. For most of the 20 years he worked on evolution only as a sideline to his other research. It took him about a decade to complete all of the research and writing that flowed from the Beagle voyage. At that point he had intended to focus on evolution but got distracted by barnacles. He spent the next eight years studying them in great depth and wrote two major books about them. In fact this was not just a distraction. It enabled him to observe the great extent of variation between individuals even within a species, which helped him to better understand natural selection. In addition the books served an important purpose in establishing his credibility for the first time as a biologist, not just a geologist. The degree of his obsession with barnacles can be gauged from a comment overheard from one of his young children at the time, who asked a friend, “Where does your father do his barnacles?”

Thirdly, for much of the 20-year gap, Darwin was chronically ill. His symptoms included violent shivering, vomiting, exhaustion, palpitations, hands trembling, head swimming, sleeplessness, headaches, flatulence, stomach problems, ringing of the ears, fainting, and copious pallid urine. In 1841 he could work for only an hour or two, a couple of days a week. The cause of these ailments was never diagnosed and is still not known with certainty. It may have been a tropical disease picked up during his travels, psychosomatic nervousness, or he may have been poisoning himself with some of the crude medicines of the time.

In fact, far from timidity, Darwin exhibited great courage. During the Beagle voyage, he rode a horse hundreds of miles through bandit-invested areas and war zones in South America. He stuck with the voyage for five years despite extreme seasickness throughout its duration. (Given the misery of sea sickness, that demonstrates incredible commitment.) Back in England, he continued to work to the maximum of his ability despite feeling so sick for much of the time, and the fact that he didn’t actually have to work at all. And despite all of the risks, he was eventually willing to publish The Origin of Species.

The eventual trigger for publication was a letter he received from Alfred Russel Wallace, another Englishman who had spent time in the tropics. Wallace independently hit upon the idea of natural selection and wrote to Darwin to ask his opinion. This led to a brief joint publication in which they outlined the essential idea. Subsequently Darwin finally sat down to write his book with the necessary evidence presented.

Concludes next week.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Desmond, A. and Moore, J. (1991). Darwin, Michael Joseph, London.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray. 1st edition. Available on line here