Nothing Is Written

I enjoyed reading this book review of the great and good Paul Johnson’s Darwin: Portrait of a Genius. The following passage was particularly arresting:

. . . Darwin was born into a highly literate and distinguished family, some members of which are the focus of biographical studies in their own right. He was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin on his father’s side, and of Josiah Wedgwood on his mother’s. It was a splendid inheritance. A successful medical doctor, Erasmus corresponded with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, and hobnobbed with Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Joseph Priestly, and other members of the Lunar Society. His Zoonomia was placed on the Catholic Index of forbidden books. Josiah was such a successful entrepreneur that Samuel Smiles wrote a book on him. Robert, Erasmus’s son and Charles Darwin’s father, married Susannah, Josiah’s oldest daughter. As was the case with many of the Darwin men, Robert was a closet freethinker and atheist. The Wedgwoods on the other hand were religious (Josiah was a staunch Unitarian).

Robert was another successful medical doctor and astute financier (money was invested rather than spent: sober thrift was a characteristic his son was to share). Thus Darwin was born into wealth, and adhered to the conservative values of the landed gentry. By all accounts a quiet, placid, even-tempered child, he was taught at home by his older sister Caroline before being sent, in 1817, to a local day school; in 1818, when he was nine, he was moved to the Shrewsbury Grammar School. The classics were wasted on the young schoolboy – he was brought up in a household which spent much time outside, fishing, hunting, gardening; his own preferences are seen in his father’s sharp words, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

In 1825, now sixteen, he was packed off to Edinburgh – a “purgative” in the words of Desmond and Moore – in order to follow the family tradition and study medicine. He spent two years there before throwing in the towel (a wonderful anecdote is of the lectures on anatomy in which the professor repeated, word for word, the lectures his own grandfather had delivered over a century before – including asides such as “When I was a student in Leiden in 1719”).

Since a medical career was out of the question, his father decided a career in the church might be suitable. Himmelfarb says that Robert “respected neither the clergy nor his son enough to credit them with any profound religious convictions”. Darwin entered Cambridge, and embarked on the three-year education that would qualify him for a clerical career in the Anglican church. While preparing for ordination, he read and enjoyed William Paley’s 
Natural Theology. He also came across Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. And he developed interests in beetles, botany, and geology. On the surface at least unambitious, and certainly genial and unassuming, he seems to have drifted through Cambridge, although he was befriended by some of the young professors, most notably John Stevens Henslow and Adam Sedgwick.

He appeared to be set on a life as a botanising country clergyman. However, on graduation in 1831, after returning home to prepare for the first day of the shooting season, he found awaiting him a letter from Henslow, who had recommended him as naturalist for a scientific expedition, to be commanded by a Captain Robert FitzRoy RN, which was to survey the coasts of South America and Tierra del Fuego. Then a young captain, FitzRoy wanted a gentleman companion as much if not more than a naturalist, and Darwin, while not yet a qualified naturalist, was certainly a gentleman. If he accepted, he would circumnavigate the globe, be away from home for what was initially thought to be two years, and be provided with countless opportunities to engage in fieldwork in botany, zoology and geology. Suspecting, in Himmelfarb’s words, that beetle-collecting was not much of an improvement on rat-catching, his father opposed the idea – his feckless son seemed to be determined to turn his back on yet another career – and so Darwin, with regrets, initially declined the offer. However a Wedgwood uncle was not only in favour, but willing to plead his case. Permission was given, and he hastily wrote to accept the offer.

He was to embark on the 
HMS Beagle, today surely one of the most famous of all British naval vessels. Originally a three-masted, 235-ton Cherokee-class ship – a class known as “coffin brigs” because they had a tendency to sink in bad weather – she had just returned from a five-year voyage, and had to be rebuilt, adding seven tons and a higher upper deck. After some false starts, she successfully set sail from Plymouth Sound in December 1831. Darwin had previously promised FitzRoy to view the planned departure date as the starting date of his “second life” and to celebrate it “as a birthday for the rest of my life”. It certainly made him who he was.

In what might be related news, the following is possibly worth noting: