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The Young Charles Darwin

The Young Charles Darwin

Keith Thomson
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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    The Young Charles Darwin
    Book Description:

    What sort of person was the young naturalist who developed an evolutionary idea so logical, so dangerous, that it has dominated biological science for a century and a half? How did the quiet and shy Charles Darwin produce his theory of natural selection when many before him had started down the same path but failed? This book is the first to inquire into the range of influences and ideas, the mentors and rivals, and the formal and informal education that shaped Charles Darwin and prepared him for his remarkable career of scientific achievement.

    Keith Thomson concentrates on Darwin's early life as a schoolboy, a medical student at Edinburgh, a theology student at Cambridge, and a naturalist aboard the Beagle on its famous five-year voyage. Closely analyzing Darwin'sAutobiographyand scientific notebooks, the author draws a fully human portrait of Darwin for the first time: a vastly erudite and powerfully ambitious individual, self-absorbed but lacking self-confidence, hampered as much as helped by family, and sustained by a passion for philosophy and logic. Thomson's account of the birth and maturing of Darwin's brilliant theory is fascinating for the way it reveals both his genius as a scientist and the human foibles and weaknesses with which he mightily struggled.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15618-8
    Subjects: History, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. PART ONE: Beginnings

    • ONE Falmouth
      (pp. 3-9)

      On Sunday, October 2, 1836, in gaps between the gray squalls roaring in off the Atlantic, an observer on Pendennis Point or St. Anthony Head might have spotted a small ship quartering across the seas and taking on a great deal of water as it headed for the relative calm of Falmouth, Devon. His Majesty’s surveying ship HMSBeagle, a ninety-foot converted brig, slipping unannounced into Falmouth Harbor, was returning home after a voyage around the world lasting four years and 278 days. On board were Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy, her captain, some sixty officers and sailors, and a few landsmen....

    • TWO Antecedents
      (pp. 10-21)

      Motherless from the age of eight, Charles Darwin was evidently an unusual child: imaginative but an inattentive student, impatient with formal learning but an avid reader, undirected but passionate about his scientific interests (natural history and chemistry), spoiled by his older sisters, adored by his younger sister, Catherine, whom he liked to order around, and fiercely attached to his brother, five years his senior. In many respects he was rather asocial. Instead of playing with friends, he took long, solitary, pensive walks. Once he was so deep in thought as he walked along that he fell off a bank. Of...

    • THREE Childhood
      (pp. 22-31)

      In many respects Darwin had a happy boyhood. Robert Darwin seems to have coped with his motherless brood by leaving the younger ones essentially to be brought up by their sisters and the family nursemaid, Nancy. Darwin reveled in all the cosseting but attached himself particularly fervently to Erasmus. He was swept along in an extended family of uncles and cousins, all achievers, mostly socially adept, personally charming, skilled in business, and expecting to succeed in everything they tried. (Erasmus, however, although charming and popular, already appeared to be indefinably weak and subject to the family tradition of depression.) There...

    • FOUR Edinburgh
      (pp. 32-40)

      The two brothers arrived in Edinburgh a week early, so as to prepare for the year by “reading like horses,” as Erasmus rather oddly put it.¹ Staying first at the Star Hotel on Princess Street, they shopped around for rooms in the many tenement buildings near the university.

      We got into our lodgings yesterday evening, which are very comfortable and near the College. Our landlady, by name Mrs. MacKay, is a nice clean old body—exceedingly civil and attentive. She lives at 11 Lothian Street [the house was later demolished to make room for part of the National Museum of...

    • FIVE Robert Jameson
      (pp. 41-59)

      After theBeaglevoyage, the only “professional position” that Darwin held was as unpaid secretary to the Geological Society of London. He was asked to take over the position within months of his return to England and, after demurring because of pressure of work, accepted it a year later. It was clear in 1837 that Darwin was a young geologist of some note even though, as he explained, his knowledge of English geology was deficient. It is remarkable, therefore, that in his student days at Edinburgh he had resolved never to study the subject.

      One can imagine Darwin, in October...

    • SIX Mentors and Models
      (pp. 60-70)

      With Erasmus gone, Darwin lacked a companion for his long country walks to the hills or the shore, and he made very few entries in his natural history diary for the autumn months of 1826. Darwin stayed on in Edinburgh for the holiday period. On December 23, he saw a gray wagtail and a water ouzel. On Christmas Day, he was out for another of his long, solitary walks: “A remarkably foggy Day, so much so that the trees condensed the vapour & caused it to fall like large drops of rain. Saw a hooded crow feeding with some rooks by...

    • SEVEN Lamarckians
      (pp. 71-83)

      In addition to debates over Neptunist and Vulcanist geology and the divine versus material source of the mind, the third controversial issue dividing colleague from colleague, and teacher from student, in Edinburgh was one that continues to be vexatious even today. It was the subject of evolution or, as it was known then, the transmutation of species. It is highly significant, therefore, that Jameson’s lectures in his natural history course included at least two on “the Philosophy of Zoology,” of which the first was “on the origin of the species of animals.”¹

      Throughout the Enlightenment—the Age of Reason—the...

    • EIGHT Cambridge Undergraduate
      (pp. 84-98)

      Darwin left Edinburgh in April 1827 planning to spend the summer as he had previous summers, “wholly given up to amusements, though I always had some book in hand, which I read with interest…. the autumns were devoted to shooting, chiefly at Mr. Owen’s at Woodhouse, and at my Uncle Jo’s, at Maer. I kept an exact record of every bird which I shot throughout the whole season.”¹ This was the summer when Darwin finally seems to have discovered an interest in the opposite sex.

      The Owen family were close neighbors of the Darwins. They kept a jolly, crowded, household,...

  6. PART TWO: Savant

    • NINE More Serious Things
      (pp. 101-115)

      It would be easy to get the impression from Darwin’sAutobiographythat his time at Cambridge was devoid of intellectual content, except for what was required for the pursuit and classification of a major collection of British beetles. He had no real commitment to developing his education in matters theological. He did not admit to having studied anything beyond the bare minimum necessary to pass his bachelor’s degree examinations. The contrast between this and the careful, intense study at Edinburgh demonstrated in his surviving lecture notes from that previous life is striking, although the fact that he finished tenth on...

    • TEN Reading Science
      (pp. 116-125)

      Because he had matriculated late, even though Darwin passed his examinations on January 22, 1831, he was not “admitted to the degree” until April 29 (and his name counted among those who graduated in 1832). Forced to remain in residence for two more terms, Darwin found that he had come to a crossroads in his life. Choices had to be made. He could have remained an idle sporting man, perhaps devoting even more time to building and classifying his insect collections. He could have become little more than a playboy. He might have spent this enforced residence in Cambridge buried...

    • ELEVEN Geology Again
      (pp. 126-130)

      In addition to his reading and the controversies swirling about in the heady atmosphere of the world of science, Darwin had no shortage of more down-to-earth subjects to occupy him. In May of that year, his friend J. M. Herbert presented him (anonymously) with a Coddington’s microscope. “It will give peculiar gratification to one who has long doubted whether Mr. Darwin’s talents or his sincerity be the more worthy of admiration, and who hopes that the instrument may in some measure facilitate those researches which he has hitherto so fondly and so successfully prosecuted.”¹ Coddington’s newly invented microscope had a...

    • TWELVE HMS Beagle
      (pp. 131-144)

      Darwin’s planned expedition to Tenerife and Humboldt’s fabulous dragon tree was probably pie-in-the-sky—the sort of thing that sounds wonderful in theory but rarely works out in practice. In the real world, people have jobs, obligations, and a shortage of cash. Undergraduate dreams have a way of turning into a colder, harder reality after graduation. The expedition would not take place until June of the following year (1832) and, as the spring went by, the enthusiasm of some participants had already begun to flag. Even Henslow began to have serious doubts. Darwin could afford it, having a private income and...

    • THIRTEEN Epiphanies
      (pp. 145-150)

      Many themes can be traced out in the nearly five years of the voyage of theBeagle. Darwin’s relationship with Robert FitzRoy provides the greatest personal story, although this has become thoroughly confused because of an article by Darwin’s granddaughter Nora Barlow (otherwise one of the most accurate and original of Darwinian students) published in 1932, that still has a popular currency. In this essay, she suggested that one of the causal factors in Darwin’s intellectual development in general and the formulation of his theory of evolution in particular was the opposing natures of Darwin and FitzRoy.¹ Specifically, she saw...

    • FOURTEEN Storms and Floods
      (pp. 151-172)

      As the voyage unfolded, Darwin would encounter situation after situation that challenged or changed his worldview, both in terms of sciences and of human affairs. Every place they came to was different, revealing new aspects of geology and new surprises of biological diversity. But while one naturally looks for the big events that, during the voyage, shaped Darwin’s thinking, it cannot be emphasized enough that it was also the daily observations and constant collecting of specimens and the firsthand appreciation of a huge range of landscapes and environments (natural and human) that gave him the personal experience and the empirically...

  7. PART THREE: Natural Selection

    • FIFTEEN First Thoughts on Evolution
      (pp. 175-190)

      On October 2, 1836, Darwin arrived in England full of both excitement and anxiety. All thoughts of a quiet career in a country parsonage were now forgotten. He had a new life to start, both a personal life and a scholarly one, and his entry into scientific society turned out to be easier than he had feared. The way had been prepared for him wonderfully. Because Henslow had published some of Darwin’s letters and had sent various of his more exciting specimens (like the Punta Alta fossils) to experts to examine, Darwin was already quite well known by reputation in...

    • SIXTEEN Notebook B
      (pp. 191-203)

      Darwin finished his manuscript of theJournal and Remarksaround the end of July 1837. At almost the same time (sometime between the end of June and the beginning of August), he came to the end of Red Notebook and opened Notebook B, on (as he later wrote), “‘transmutation of Species.’—Had been greatly struck from about month of previous March—on character of S. American fossils—& species of Galapagos Archipelago.—These facts origin (especially latter) of all my views.”¹

      Having decided that transformism (referred to henceforth astransmutation) was a real phenomenon, Darwin knew that he needed both to...

    • SEVENTEEN Moving Forward, Living a Lie
      (pp. 204-218)

      After a year in London, Darwin’s life had become unbearably complicated. While the social side of life was stimulating, both in hobnobbing with great scientists and enjoying the company of literary types at the salon that Erasmus maintained, it was physically and mentally exhausting. The worst part of it was that, while enjoying the company of the capital’s scientific men, in secret Darwin was living his lie, never able to admit to investigating the subject that his heroes and his friends all considered to be total nonsense at best and heresy at worst.

      At this stage of his theorizing, he...

    • EIGHTEEN Finding His Place
      (pp. 219-226)

      If there is, as Shakespeare observed, “a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,” Darwin’s tide had begun to flow. He was carried by it into a new world of ideas, scientific success, and personal anguish.

      Between 1839 and 1842, while things began to slip into place for Darwin scientifically, his personal life was difficult. For all his connubial bliss, living in London had its ups and downs, with the downs becoming more and more oppressive. Neither he nor Emma really liked living in the city, with its appalling pollution from coal...

    • NINETEEN First Drafts
      (pp. 227-238)

      Darwin had intended all along to develop his species theory into a full-length book. It was not until 1842, however, that he attempted to write even the briefest summary of what that book would include (at least insofar as his records have been preserved). In May, he took the family first to Maer and then to Shrewsbury. Sometime in May or June, he sat down and wrote out his theory, first as three chapter headings, then as fifty-three pages of crabbed notes written, as his son Francis Darwin was later to say, “on bad paper with a soft pencil, and...

    • TWENTY Crisis and Resolution
      (pp. 239-244)

      The package that Wallace sent from the island of Ternate (or possibly Gilolo) in Indonesia contained a manuscript that he wanted Darwin to submit on his behalf to the Linnean Society of London.On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Typewas nothing less than a précis of the theory of natural selection. Wallace had had the same idea as Darwin, and had even been triggered into it by reading Malthus and observing, face-to-face, the struggle for existence that goes on daily and hourly in nature.

      Darwin was devastated—although, in fact, more surprised than he...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 245-266)
  9. Index
    (pp. 267-276)