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The Young Charles Darwin

The Young Charles Darwin

by Keith Stewart Thomson

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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


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’s Autobiography and 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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
At the time young Charles Darwin set out on his ground-breaking 1831 voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, he himself was an intelligent design supporter, saying he "hardly ever admired a book more" than William Paley's Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Author and professor Thomson (Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature) delivers a lively account of how this naive young student became the iconoclastic bearer of "the most dangerous idea of the past two hundred years." The grandson of eminent free-thinker Erasmus Darwin as well as a medical and theology student, Darwin was well-versed in the "raging controversy" over the origins of Earth and it inhabitants. The suggestion that "life had arisen without God's intervention" was at the time "almost unmentionable"; hotly debated topics included the frequency of God's intervention (a one-time event or an everyday thing?), and whether Earth's history is cyclical or progressive. Darwin's first and abiding love was natural history (his extensive beetle collection earned him his "naturalist" position aboard the Beagle) and led to his era-defining theories. Drawing on his letters, diary entires and autobiographical work as well as his public intellectual struggles, Thomson's angle on Darwin's early life is fresh and vivid.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Scientific American
"Thomson, who manages to be stylish, scholarly and entertaining all at the same time, investigates Darwin's early years and how he arrived at his revolutionary ideas."—Scientific American
Contemporary Review
“What we have here is not just a specific study of how Darwin came to write what he did but a general study into the working of a mind.”—Contemporary Review
Review Forum on Charles Darwin and Darwiniana

"Thomson''s The Young Charles Darwin is written in a highly accessible style that will appeal to a wide range of readers...There is much of value here."--Catherine Day and James G. Lennox, Review Forum on Charles Darwin and Darwiniana

— Catherine Day and James G. Lennox

Michael Shermer
“The image of Darwin as the doddering old sage of Down, taking his daily constitutional walks about the backyard sand path thinking deep thoughts about the philosophical implications of evolution, has become so iconic that we forget what he was like in his youth and prime. Keith Thomson has brilliantly resurrected the young Charles Darwin, revealing the inchoate mind of a genius in the early stages of countless starts and stops, hunches and hypotheses. This compelling narrative reminds us of how creativity and insight really begin.”—Michael Shermer, Publisher Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist Scientific American, author of Why Darwin Matters

Review Forum on Charles Darwin and Darwiniana - Catherine Day and James G. Lennox
"Thomson's The Young Charles Darwin is written in a highly accessible style that will appeal to a wide range of readers...There is much of value here."—Catherine Day and James G. Lennox, Review Forum on Charles Darwin and Darwiniana

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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The Young Charles Darwin

By Keith Thomson

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Keith Thomson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13608-1

Chapter One


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 HMS Beagle, 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. After so long away, FitzRoy wanted to get letters off to the Admiralty in London announcing his arrival-and no doubt also he was eager to communicate with Mary O'Brien, soon to be his fiancée, a secret kept from everyone, even his closest confidant on the vessel, the ship's naturalist, Charles Robert Darwin.

The voyage of HMS Beagle was fated to go down in history as one of the epic journeys of both hydrographic science and natural history. It would become associated with Darwin's name far more than FitzRoy's, especially when, in 1839, Darwin first published the book that we now know as The Voyage of theBeagle.

On this date in 1836, Darwin was thoroughly sick of the Beagle and her officers. He hated the sea and everything about it: the cold, the damp, the smells, the close quarters, the mindless routines-and above all the nausea of seasickness. After such a long voyage, the last days of which were spent in coping with the heavy weather one typically encounters when crossing the Bay of Biscay, it was natural that he and everyone on board would be homesick for England and eagerly crowding the sides of the little ship for a glimpse of the green hills of home. But on this stormy and cheerless day, much to his surprise, Darwin, who had been aching for this moment, found that "the first sight of the shores of England inspired me with no warmer feelings, than if it had been a miserable Portugeese settlement."

The Beagle had stopped at Falmouth briefly en route to its destination of Plymouth, where FitzRoy was expected to make his last measurement of longitude from exactly the same spot from which they had started. One of the principal purposes of the Beagle voyage had been to make a single continuous suite of measurements of longitude around the 360-degree circle of the globe. This had never been done before by a single ship and the same set of observers. It required using chronometers that could be kept running precisely on time for nearly five years. The Beagle had started with twenty-two of the best chronometers that could be bought or borrowed; at least three of them seemed still to be running well when they hove into Falmouth.

Everyone on board was anxious to see what the result would be: how closely had they come to that complete circle? The results would matter a lot for the accuracy of the geographical coordinates that they had fixed for sites around the world. If they had been accurate, future sailors would have confidence in their maps and charts. Right at the beginning of the voyage, for example, FitzRoy had discovered that the available charts for South America had Bahia de Todos los Santos (now San Salvador), Brazil, off by some four nautical miles. That could be a disastrously wide gap for anyone navigating by dead reckoning on a dark, stormy day like this one.

FitzRoy set off again from Falmouth on October 4 for the short jog east along the Devon coast to Plymouth, where he was to pay off the crew. But by then Darwin was missing. Unconscionably, Darwin had jumped ship. On the night of the 2nd, with the coast battered by more fierce storms, he took the night mail stage, heading for Shrewsbury and home.

Darwin's role on the Beagle had been complicated right from the beginning. He was only a supernumerary crew member, essentially a guest of FitzRoy, taken along to provide expertise in natural history for the Beagle's epic circumnavigation of the world. Through all those years of voyaging, he had lived at close quarters with FitzRoy and the other officers and crew of the ship, sharing triumphs and pleasures, losses and setbacks, joy and misery alike. He was bound to those men like a brother, but still, even if it was bad form, he could not wait-did not wait-to get away.

In justification of Darwin's behavior, in the storms that the Beagle had just come through he had been seasick yet again. Perhaps uniquely in the annals of exploration, Darwin never "got his sea legs"; he was just as seasick in October 1836 as he had been in December 1831-when the ship was still in harbor. Once he had seen the terra firma of Devonshire, gray and cheerless as it appeared, the prospect of even a few more hours on board, let along the final leg to Plymouth, must have seemed like a sentence of death.

More than that, Darwin, who had started the voyage with only vague prospects of what his future life might look like, was a man in a hurry. He was now twenty-seven. His contemporaries were established in careers; most were married with families. He, on the other hand, had not yet really started out. He was in a hurry because, on the long journey north from the Cape of Good Hope, with a last-minute detour to South America, he had finally seen exactly what his future could hold. Intense, cerebral, still maturing, shy in company, confident in his abilities, Darwin had discovered during the voyage that he could frame important ideas in the fields of both geology and biology. In his notebooks he had the materials for no fewer than three books, and possibly more. Having been in isolation for so long, he was desperate to be in the company of scientific men who would either confirm or deny his ideas. While many of the officers of the Beagle, young as they were, were thinking that this voyage might mark the end of their careers, for Darwin everything was now beginning.

Robert FitzRoy also had a very keen sense of what the Beagle voyage had accomplished. He was not going to be satisfied with quietly putting in at Plymouth and ending the voyage there. He requested permission to take the Beagle round into the Thames Estuary, to the Greenwich Meridian itself. There, he rightly assumed, he, the ship, and its officers and men would get the heroes' welcome they deserved.

Darwin really should have stayed with the ship at least until the eagerly awaited chronometric measurements were taken at Plymouth; he should have stayed to help share in FitzRoy's triumph-it turned out that they were only some five seconds off a full 360-degree circle: a simply phenomenal performance. But after nearly five years of intense experiences in natural history, Darwin's time for adventure was over; the man who had started the voyage at twenty-two with a vague prospect of becoming a scholarly country parson was now committed to three projects that would change the shape of natural science for ever.

The first project was to write up his journals from the voyage as a book of scientific travels. Right from the beginning he had been sending home portions for his family to read and comment on. FitzRoy had invited him to contribute that diary to the formal account of the voyage (and of its predecessor, an aborted survey of South America between 1826 and 1830). But Darwin knew that what he really wanted was to write his own book. In the end, his story of the voyage became the third volume of the four-volume official Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of HMS Adventure and HMS Beagle and was soon reprinted under the title by which we know it today, The Voyage of the Beagle.

Darwin's second projected work was even more ambitious: an account of the geology of South America. This would have been a mammoth task for any geologist. Darwin, who had seen the plains of Patagonia, followed the Santa Cruz River inland almost to its source, rounded Cape Horn, and climbed the Andes, completed his Geological Observations on South America (in two volumes) in 1846 (having initially written a number of scientific papers on the subject, the first of which had been published by the Geological Society of London before the Beagle made landfall).

His third foray into natural science would be to write up his revolutionary ideas about the origins of coral atolls, those strange ring-shaped structures found in tropical seas. On this subject, his ideas directly contradicted the views of the greatest geologist of the age (and of the ages), Charles Lyell. But within months of Darwin's return, that great man had accepted them as being superior to his own explanations. Bursting with all these-and many other-ideas, Darwin simply had to get off the ship. There was not another moment to waste.

The fact that within a very short period Darwin would accomplish everything that he had in mind when he left the ship presents us with a fascinating puzzle. He was evidently an intellectual of the first order. If he had never contributed to the field of evolution, all the other works of his long lifetime would have secured him a place as one of the world's greatest natural scientists. He was recognized as an important figure within a very few months of his return to England. But if, in 1831, when the Beagle left England, he had been-as everyone said of him-merely an amiable young amateur naturalist, how could he have emerged from five years of isolation on board as someone capable of making such significant intellectual contributions to geology and natural science? He had been expected only to collect specimens and make extensive field notes. How did it come about that, at some very early point in the voyage, the intended clergyman started to think seriously about some of the most philosophically and empirically difficult issues in all of science? Perhaps the most interesting question of all is: when exactly did he start on a fourth-and much more difficult-project: to think seriously about what we now call "evolution"? Was that also one of the revolutions that had its origins in the voyage?

But first he had to get home. Sadly, the first glimpses of those English landscapes that he had been pining for so keenly continued to disappoint. Black and gray continued to predominate, rather than the expected lush green, as the mail headed north. The following day, as the coach rattled further across the West Country, the weather started to improve and, with it, his spirits rose. He started to miss his shipmates after all. He would have had to be quite inhuman not to.

He arrived in Shrewsbury in the early morning and, pale and thin, walked in on the family as they started breakfast. His sister Caroline wrote to her cousin Sarah Wedgwood, "We heard nothing of him till this morning.... We have had the very happiest morning-poor Charles so full of affection & delight at seeing my father looking so well & being with us all again-his hatred of the sea is as intense as even I can wish."

Two days later, he wrote to FitzRoy apologizing for his behavior. The letter is quite revealing of the bonds that had grown between the two young men.

I am thoroughly ashamed of myself; in what a dead and half alive state, I spent the few last days on board, my only excuse is, that certainly I was not quite well.-The first day in the mail tired me but as I drew nearer to Shrewsbury everything looked more beautiful and cheerful-In passing Gloucestershire & Worcestershire I wished much for you to admire the fields woods & orchards.-The stupid people on the coach did not seem to think the fields one bit greener than usual but I am sure, we would have thoroughly agreed, that the wide world does not contain so happy a prospect as the rich cultivated land of England.... I thought when I began this letter I would convince you what a steady & sober frame of mind I was in. But I find I am writing most precious nonsense. Two or three of our laborers yesterday immediately set to work, and got most excessively drunk in honour of the arrival of Master Charles.-Who then shall gainsay if Master Charles himself chooses to make himself a fool. Good bye-God bless you-I hope you are happy, but much wiser than your most sincere but unworthy Philos.

All of that was tactless in the extreme, as FitzRoy still had got the Beagle no further than Plymouth and was negotiating to go on to London for a triumphant arrival at Greenwich. It would be many weeks before FitzRoy would be home. Meanwhile, he took the ship on from Plymouth to Portsmouth, where everyone had to languish until further orders came from London. (FitzRoy's letters from Falmouth had at first been put aside unread.)

When the Beagle finally arrived at Greenwich, it was indeed to a hero's welcome. The exploits of the little ship in circumnavigating the world were already widely talked about. The great and good came aboard to show their respects and see the tiny ship for themselves. In one famous episode, the astronomer royal arrived with his wife. Instead of being shown to the accommodation ladder with "respectable persons," they were directed by a sailor to the gangway, which meant clambering up a set of cleats on the ship's side with the aid of two ropes for handholds. Which they gamely did, climbing over the gunwale onto the deck-not an easy thing to do in a decent suit, let alone a full skirt. "Well, sir, they did not look respectable" was the sailor's explanation.

Darwin did eventually travel to Greenwich to visit his old shipmates for one last time before the ship was moved off to Woolwich Dockyard and the crew discharged. In the intervening weeks, he had discovered that not only was the voyage of the ship famous, so was he. All along, he had been sending letters and specimens to his old tutor at Cambridge, the Reverend Professor John Stevens Henslow. In these letters he had poured forth his natural history observations. Henslow had them published by the Cambridge Philosophical Society. His discoveries of plants, animals, and fossils and his descriptions of geology and natural landscapes were important. Whatever the strength of his secret ambitions to make a name in science, his confidence in his own potential had already been confirmed.

Even so, on the face of it, little could be more implausible than that this particular young naturalist should have developed the idea-so logical, so dangerous-that has uniquely dominated biological science, and much else, for 150 years.

Chapter Two


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 his time at Shrewsbury School the only serious interests that he mentioned were self-directed. He recalled spending many hours alone sitting in a deep window reading Shakespeare. As he grew into his teens, he became unusually tall, athletic, quite handsome with a large forehead, and already possessed of unusual qualities of concentration and intelligence. He was later remembered as appearing to be two different people. To an inner circle of family and friends, he was the affable and sporting "good chap," cheerful and good company. Otherwise, he was withdrawn, aloof, and disdainful of others if they did not meet his standards.

Darwin's hobbies were many, but all focused around nature: "When 9 or 10 I distinctly recollect the desire I had of being able to know something of every pebble in front of the Hall door-it was my earliest-only geological aspiration at that time.... I do not remember any mental pursuits excepting those of collecting stones &c.-gardening & about this time often going with my father in his carriage, telling him of my lessons, & seeing game & other wild birds, which was a great delight to me.-I was borne a naturalist."

Darwin, as is well known, was born on February 12, 1809, thus providing an answer to the Marxist (Groucho, not Karl) riddle: "Who was born on Lincoln's birthday?" His father was Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848) and his mother was Susannah Wedgwood (1765-1817). Darwin was next to the youngest of six children, and he may have resented losing his status as the pampered baby of the family when his younger sister, Catherine, was born. Darwin's only brother, Erasmus, on whom he doted, was named after their illustrious grandfather. Erasmus seems to have been marked both as a child and a man as charming, intelligent, and sociable but weak. All the Darwin children were born into a clan in which family and achievement were paramount, and characters were richly drawn and larger than life. Indolence, lack of discipline, and passivity were not tolerated. (Continues...)

Excerpted from The Young Charles Darwin by Keith Thomson Copyright © 2009 by Keith Thomson. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Keith Thomson is professor emeritus of natural history, University of Oxford, and senior research fellow, the American Philosophical Society. He is also the author of more than 200 scientific papers and twelve books. Thomson lives in Philadelphia.

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