Charles Darwin’s contributions to evolutionary theory are legendary and foundational. After all, where would we be without Origin of Species or The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex? How could we live without those works on coral atolls, domesticated animals or barnacles?
Not only was Darwin a scholar of monumental proportion, he was a devoted father. He had 10 children, and watched seven of them lead long lives, though he was also devastated when one of his daughters, Annie, died at age 10. Darwin combined his passion for the careful naturalist’s observation with a deep concern for his children. This is wonderfully illustrated in an 1877 essay he wrote titled, “A biographical sketch of an infant.” This essay consisted of observations from “a diary which I kept thirty-seven years ago with respect to my own infants. I had excellent opportunities for close observation, and wrote down at once whatever was observed.”
In this essay, Darwin mused about his infant’s reflexes—that search for a breast from which to suckle, like any good mammal. He recognized his infant’s early manual dexterity, noting that his son could move his hands to his mouth while the rest of his body thrashed around without great control. Darwin commented on his son’s emotional expression. Indeed, that was one of Darwin’s most carefully measured foci of observations, one that would also serve him well when later writing The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Darwin recognized his son’s anger, complete with a flush of blood to his face, tensed muscles, and in some cases vocalizations. “[W]hen a little over seven months old, he screamed with rage because a lemon slipped away and he could not seize it with his hands.” He also registered his son’s fear. While both enjoyed trips to the London Zoo together, his son, when a bit older, told his father that he liked looking at many of the animals but was afraid of some of the larger ones. He observed sex differences in his own household, noting that his sons, more than his daughters, on occasion threw things like sticks or books. He planted the seed of what scientists now call “theory of mind,” or a capacity to infer the mental states of others. Darwin noted that his kids could sense that their own or their dad’s reflections in a mirror were their own, whereas the great apes with which Darwin tried this same mirror experiment moved their hands behind it and became angry.
Few of us likely think of Darwin as a father. Yet he combined the life of a devoted dad with that of astute scientist. This essay on his own child’s development captures the careful records of change, allowing him to produce such crystal-clear reflections. Decades from now, if you’re a parent, what things will you most remember about your young children? And how do you think of those expressions from a natural historian’s perspective?