Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Charles Darwin, Scorned and Derided for Being Right

Downe House, Copyright Janet Cameron

Brief, anecdotal insights into an immortal of science - an out-and-out atheist who was also a good human being. Darwin showed us our origins but was scorned and derided in return.

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on 12 February 1809, son of a 24 stone, six foot tall doctor, acknowledged by his son "the kindest man I ever knew." His mother died when he was eight years old and he was deeply affected by her death.

The botanist, J.S. Henslow, an academic friend of Charles Darwin, was instrumental in obtaining for him the post of naturalist (unpaid) on board the Beagle, which set sail on 27 Decemer 1831. Darwin was to travel the world for the next five years.

The Christian and the Atheist
Captain Robert Fitzroy, illegitimate descendant of Charles II, was a devout Christian with a filthy temper, which was at its worst early morning. Fitzroy held grudges, was suspicious, quick to blame and slow to forgive. As a result Charles Darwin quarrelled fiercely with him, in particular about slavery. According to Darwin, Fitzroy "defended and praised slavery which I abominated." The arguments were so intense that, for a while, Darwin thought he might have to abandon ship. There seems to be a deep irony in the "Christian" man championing slavery, while Darwin, the atheist, abhorred it.

The Good Ugly House
In 1839, Darwin was married to his sweetheart, Emma - there was no honeymoon, he was too busy. Some time later, he bought Down House, Downe, just nineteen miles from London in the rolling North Downs. Here he could read and study in the home he called "a good, very ugly house." There was no running hot water or bathroom, but there was the special Sand Walk at the rear of the house, where Darwin could stroll and think. It's a strange feeling to walk in the great man's footsteps. Some of the staff who now take care of the house swear they have seen Darwin's ghost still traversing the Sand Walk, but the author looked as hard as she could for the old gentleman with the white beard and black cape, but without success!
Darwin wrote his Origin of Species here in 1859.

Darwin and Darwinism - Only Time will Tell
A musical comedy on Darwin and Darwinism, Time Will Tell, was composed and performed by university staff at the Univerity of Chicago. The final song, rendered by clergy, dons and undergraduates, went as follows:

"A hundred years hence / Will Darwin make sense / To the likes of us / Who are on the fence? / Will a century make a difference? / Only time will tell.

Unscrupulous Critics
Today, we know that we are, in fact, apes, that other apes are our cousins, not our ancestors, and that we and they are descended from a common ancestor. But Darwin was cruelly and unjustifiably demeaned and made fun of by those who claimed that he'd suggested man was descended from an ape. Darwin made no such suggestion.

Darwin's most insistent opponent was scientist Richard Owen, an anatomist and palaeontologist. Jealous of Darwin's success, he wrote a complex and deeply hostile review of The Origin of Species, and even Darwin had to admit it was both malignant and clever. It was also cowardly, as Owen published it anonymously.

One clergyman described Darwin as "The most dangerous man in England."

Body Language
Darwin was familiar with body language whether human or animal. He noted how emotional states like puzzlement are displaced by other actions, such as the scratching of heads. The same thing happens with animals, who indulge in "half-hearted preening." These reactions are a consequence of conflict situations, like display, competition for a mate, hostility, etc.

Bob, Darwin's dog, also provided him with material for the observation of animal behaviour and emotion. (An illustration of Bob indicates he might have been a collie.)

Carnivorous Plants
On holiday in Sussex in 1860, Darwin was fascinated to find a number of insects trapped in the leaves of the common bog plant known as the sundew. Thirty one little bodies caught by twelve plants. This set him off experimenting on other carnivorous plants. Any small object that came into contact with the sticky end of a carnivorous plant's tenatacles stimlated all the other tentacles to bend, and then close toward the centre of the leaf. They would emit a digestive juice to digest their prey.
Darwin found this operation was extremely sensitive and could even be set off by a fragment of a woman's hair.

No Pseudo-Copulation in Victorian Society
Darwin discovered that some trees are of one sex only, and that each individual tree bore either male flowers or female flowers. One reproductive situation that bewildered him was the lack of nectar in some orchids. Only recently it has been proved that the orchids are pollinated by "pseudo copulation", ie. male insects visit and mistake the strangely-formed flowers for female insects. In their ineffective attempts to mate with these false female flowers, the males are coated with pollen, which they then carry away to fertilise other flowers. It seems Darwin was unaware of this - it certainly would have caused an uproar in Victorian society and made the unfortunate Darwin even less popular than he already was.

The Importance of Worms
On 1 May 1881, Charles Darwin wrote that he had sent off the manuscript of a little book called The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms. He said, "This is a subject of but small importance and, and I know not whether it will interest any readers."
This so-called "unimportant" little book sold 8,500 copies in three years, and has since been reprinted.

An Astonishing Man
Charles Darwin's heart began to give trouble in the winter of 1881-82, and on his seventy-third birthday, 19 April, he died of a heart attack. Between the publication of his earthworm book and his death, a period of around six months, he produced the following, very diverse papers:
  • cuckoo-like brood parasitism of cowbirds.
  • the action of ammonium carbonate on plants.
  • the disperal of freshwater bivalve molluscs.
  • the effects of sexual selection on Syrian street-dogs.
Charles Darwin now lies in Westminster Abbey, side-by-side with Sir Isaac Newton, another great English scientist.
In summary, it cannot be said better than by Julian Huxley and H.B.D. Kettlewell: "What strikes one most forcibly about Darwin as a man is his passion for truth, his devotion to his self-appointed task, his extraordinary modesty, his hatred of cruelty and injustice, and his essential goodness."
The scorn and ingratitude with which Charles Darwin was treated is a matter of great shame in English history.


  • Huxley, Julian and Kettlewell, H.B.D. Charles Darwin and his World, Book Club Associates with Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1965.
  • Partly adapted from: Cameron, Janet, Haunted Kent, The History Press, Reprinted 2011, formerly published by Tempus Publishing, 2005.
  • Philippa Coulthard, trainee gardener, Downe House, September, 2003.

No comments:

Post a Comment