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Charles Darwin and the Mystery of Mysteries
By Niles Eldredge, Susan Pearson
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2010 Niles Eldredge and Susan Pearson
All rights reserved.
A NATURALIST Is BORN
IN THE ENGLAND OF 1809, women's high-waisted dresses and men's ruffled shirts were the fashion, Londoners were just getting used to gas lamps lighting their streets, and canned food was being invented. The Industrial Revolution was under way. New factories and mills and ironworks were popping up around the country, and a spirit of scientific curiosity was in the air. Into this world, on February 12, Charles Robert Darwin was born.
Charles's family was both wealthy and respected. His father, Robert Waring Darwin, was a medical doctor. His mother, Susannah Wedgwood Darwin, was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the famous Wedgwood Pottery, "Potter to Her Majesty." Charles's grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, had been friends for many years. As young men they had gotten together each month with other friends in the neighborhood to discuss philosophy, technology, science, and other interests. Because they traveled to one another's homes by moonlight, they dubbed their group the Lunar Society — members of the club called themselves "Lunaticks." The club included some of England's best and brightest thinkers of the late 1700s. Benjamin Franklin once attended a Lunar Society meeting as a guest.
In 1809, Robert Fulton's steamboat Clermont was navigating the Hudson River, Washington Irving was writing "Rip van Winkle," James Madison became the fourth president of the United States, and Abraham Lincoln was born — on the very same day as Charles Darwin.
Charles was the fifth of six children. His oldest sister, Marianne, was eleven when he was born, Caroline was nine, Susan was six, and his only brother, Erasmus, was five. Another sister, Emily Catherine (usually called Catherine), would be born a year later.
The Darwin family lived in a large Georgian house named The Mount in Shrewsbury, the county capital of Shropshire. The town was set on a hillside, at the top of which was a castle, a marketplace, and a school for boys that Charles would later unhappily attend. The Severn River ran around the bottom of the hill on three sides.
Wedgwood Pottery was founded in 1759 by Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), Charles Darwin's grandfather. By the 1800s, its dinner sets graced the tables of famous homes around the world. Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States from 1901 to 1909, ordered a Wedgwood dinner service for the White House. Wedgwood continues to manufacture pottery to this day.
This part of the English countryside was as yet untouched by the Industrial Revolution, which was fortunate for Charles, who loved to poke around in fields and meadows. "I was born a naturalist," he once wrote, and he was in the perfect place to develop that inclination.
Being part of the gentry, or gentlemen's class, the Darwins had the luxury of leisure. The family's days were filled with country walks, riding, reading, letter writing, and visits to friends and relatives in nearby towns. Evenings around the fireplace might include discussions of current affairs, politics, art, literature, scientific subjects, and local gossip. Charles's mother and sisters were well read and as likely to participate in these discussions as the men. They entertained, attended plays and balls and concerts, and "rode to hounds" as hunting on horseback was called.
Charles was a dreamy, warm-hearted child who could often be found lying beneath the dining room table reading books like Robinson Crusoe, but he spent most of his time outdoors in the woods and fields surrounding Shrewsbury. He had a passion for collecting "all sorts of things," including shells, stamps, coins, rocks, even eggs. "I was very fond of collecting eggs," he wrote later, "but I never took more than a single egg out of a bird's nest, except on one single occasion, when I took all." He liked to identify whatever plants he came across, and he was especially interested in beetles, which he collected wherever he went. There are more than 250,000 beetle species in the world, and Charles wanted to know every one that lived in England. He kept his collections in a "curiosity cabinet."
Charles loved to fish and spent many hours on the riverbank, but he worried about the pain suffered by the worms he used as bait. He learned that he could kill them more quickly with salt and water, and from then on, he never again fished with living worms, "though at the expense, probably, of some loss of success," he wrote later.
Though Charles was tenderhearted and rather quiet, there was a streak of mischief in him. "I was in many ways a naughty boy," he recalled, though his "naughtiness" seems tame by twenty-first century standards. He was given to making up stories to impress his family and friends. He would often pretend to have seen a rare bird that no one else had spotted, and once he picked the fruit from his father's orchard and hid it in the bushes, "then ran in breathless haste to spread the news that I had discovered a hoard of stolen fruit." He loved secrets and devised pages of codes which he used to write messages to his little sister Catherine. He had code names for family members and favorite places — Dr. Darwin was "Squirt."
Curiosity cabinets are wooden cabinets with many drawers and shelves for storing and displaying collections. They became popular in the 1600s. A traveler's cabinet might have been used to display interesting things picked up on travels to exotic lands, a geologist's cabinet to organize rock samples, or a priest's to showcase religious artifacts. They were a bit like miniature museums.
Charles was in awe of his father, a large man about 6 feet 2 inches tall and quite stout. Charles thought him the largest man he'd ever seen. He would later write pages in his autobiography about his father's gift at winning the confidence of others and reading their characters, his extraordinary memory, and his excellent business sense. For his father's part, he was proud of Charles and enjoyed his company even when Charles was a very young child. As Charles grew, their interests overlapped, and Dr. Darwin enjoyed sharing his own love of gardening and interest in natural history with his son along with little things about human nature that he had learned in his medical practice.
Erasmus Darwin, Charles's paternal grandfather (1731-1802), could aptly be described as "larger than life." He was physically so large that he had a section cut out of his dining table to accommodate his stomach. He had a large mind as well. An abolitionist (as was Josiah Wedgwood), a supporter of women's education, a poet, a philosopher, an inventor, and a physician, he was once asked to be personal physician to King George III, a position he declined.
EARLY EVOLUTIONARY IDEAS
Charles was not the first to have ideas about evolution. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin had written about his own theory of descent in a book, Zoonomia, before Charles was even born. A few others had also begun to think that not every species had been created at the same time, but rather that some species might have evolved from others before them. But no one had gathered the factual evidence to support such a theory. No one understood how the evolutionary process actually works. And most people at the time believed that people were not part of this evolutionary process. In fact, they believed that people were not really a part of the animal world at all, but were created by God to rule over it.
French naturalist Jean-Baptiste de Monet de Lamarck (1744-1829) also believed that species had adapted from earlier species, but he, like Erasmus, did not understand how. Both men thought that traits acquired during a lifetime could be passed on to offspring. If, for example, a cat had to stretch its neck through the bars of its cage in order to reach food — and thus its neck, because of the exercise, grew longer — then it would produce more long-necked cats.CHAPTER 2
IN 1817, WHEN CHARLES WAS EIGHT years old, his mother died. Charles had never known her to be completely well. Throughout his life, Susannah, like many of the Wedgwood family, suffered from chronic illness. (Her brother Tom had died in 1805.) But the summer of 1817, she became so violently ill that it was soon clear to Charles's father that she could not survive. Charles was not allowed to see her while she was so sick, which must have made her death even more difficult for an eight-year-old child to understand.
Charles later wrote that "it is odd that I can remember hardly anything about her except her death-bed, her black velvet gown, and her curiously constructed work-table. I believe that my forgetfulness is partly due to my sisters, owing to their great grief, never being able to speak about her or mention her name; and partly due to her previous invalid state."
This sounds odd to us today — surely an eight-year-old would have some memories of his mother. But the family did not gather for meals — like other young children in his social class, Charles and his little sister Catherine had eaten their meals in the nursery — and when his mother was not sick in her room, she was often away from home meeting social obligations. As a young child, Charles wasn't following his mother around, he was tagging along with his sisters and brother.
Dr. Darwin felt Susannah's loss greatly and never remarried. The older girls also grieved intensely but quickly stepped into the gap to "mother" Charles and his little sister Catherine, on whom they doted. Caroline especially, then sixteen, adored her little brother and became his confidante.
In 1818, just a few months after his mother's death, Charles was sent to Dr. Butler's School in Shrewsbury. Though it was only a little more than a mile from The Mount, he lived at the school day and night except for vacations. His brother Erasmus had started at Dr. Butler's three years before, and it had long been planned for Charles to follow him. In England at that time, most sons of wealthy families left home for boarding school at an early age. There they studied the classics (Greek and Latin languages and literature) in preparation for entrance to Oxford or Cambridge University.
It could't have been easy being sent off to boarding school so soon after his mother's death, but fortunately Erasmus was there. Charles admired his big brother enormously and would later write in his autobiography about Erasmus's clear mind, extensive knowledge, wit, and kind heart. Their friendship would remain fast throughout their lives.
Despite his brother's presence, Charles hated school. "Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler's school," he later wrote, "as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught except a little ancient geography and history. The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank."
Charles was much more enthusiastic about less ancient literature — especially the historical plays of Shakespeare and the recently published romantic and swashbuckling poems of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. But these were not part of the "gentleman's education" offered at Dr. Butler's.
In 1819, when Charles was ten, he went to the Welsh coast for three weeks, where he was surprised to find insects he had not found at home in Shropshire. He considered starting a collection of all the insects he could find — but only insects that were already dead, "for on consulting my sister, I concluded that it was not right to kill insects for the sake of making a collection." He also spent hours bird-watching and taking notes on his observations. His enthusiasm for birds was so great he wondered "why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist." Ornithology is the study of birds.
While they were both students at Dr. Butler's school, Ras, as Erasmus was called, set up a chemistry laboratory in the garden shed and allowed Charles to assist him. They analyzed minerals, tea leaves, and whatever else they found interesting and experimented with gases. Charles's interest in chemistry became known at school, and he was nicknamed "Gas." They were Ras and Gas, the Darwin boys. When Erasmus left Shrewsbury in 1822 to study at Cambridge University, Charles continued their work in the makeshift garden lab.
By the time he was sixteen and coming to the end of his seven years at Dr. Butler's school, Charles had become passionately fond of hunting. For the next several years, he took every opportunity to strike off across the fields with a dog and a gun. His favorite place to hunt was at Maer Hall, his Uncle Josiah (Jos) Wedgwood's Staffordshire estate. Uncle Jos was more easygoing than Dr. Darwin, and he had a special fondness for Charles. His household was relaxed and fun, and with four sons in the family, there was always someone to hunt with; Uncle Jos frequently went, too.
"You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family," Dr. Darwin once told his son. "When I left the school I was for my age neither high nor low in it;" Charles wrote in his autobiography, "and I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my Father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect."CHAPTER 3
DARWIN HAD HOPES that his sons Erasmus and Charles would follow in his footsteps and study medicine. The doctor was a down-to-earth and kindly man, who believed that often the best remedies were sympathy and talk. He liked to discuss his medical cases with his sons and sometimes even took them with him on his rounds.
When his father had patients whose symptoms weren't serious enough to send them into the hospital, young Charles began "attending some of the poor people, chiefly children and women in Shrewsbury: I wrote down as full an account as I could of the cases with all the symptoms, and read them aloud to my father, who suggested further enquiries, and advised me what medicines to give," he remembered .
Charles liked the work, and his father was pleased.
What Charles didn't like was school. His father wasn't totally unsympathetic to Charles's lack of interest in the classics and began to think of removing him from Dr. Butler's School. In 1825, Erasmus was ready to leave Cambridge for medical school in Edinburgh, Scotland. Dr. Darwin decided to send Charles to Edinburgh, too. He was sixteen years old.
SITUATED BETWEEN SEA AND HILLS, the Scottish capital of Edinburgh was full of the excitement of city life. High on the rocks at one end of the city was Edinburgh Castle, the ancient seat of Scottish kings. To the north, between the castle and an inlet from the sea called the Firth of Forth, was the New Town — thousands of classically constructed houses built throughout the 1700s. Below the castle ramparts to the east was the Old Town, teeming with tenement slums, home to thousands of the poor drawn to the city in search of work. At the other end of town from the castle, down a road called the Royal Mile, was the Palace of Holyroodhouse, once the home of Mary, Queen of Scots.
The air of the city was thick with political and religious controversy. Edinburgh was at the forefront of medical discoveries in Europe and alive with scientific, intellectual, and artistic activity.
The university, however, was disappointing to the brothers. Campus buildings begun in their father's day were still unfinished. And most of the students were not of their social rank. Charles and Erasmus were not used to sitting shoulder to shoulder with the sons of "common" men.
Excerpted from Charles Darwin and the Mystery of Mysteries by Niles Eldredge, Susan Pearson. Copyright © 2010 Niles Eldredge and Susan Pearson. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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