John Collier/Wikimedia
Source: John Collier/Wikimedia

It’s always seemed ironic that Darwin is consulted as an oracle so often. He was not, as is generally known, a religious man. He did study divinity at Cambridge, on the advice of his father; and he's supposed to have had a bump of reverence big enough to accommodate 10 priests, as a society of phrenologists pointed out. As usual, Darwin drew his own conclusions: “Considering how fiercely I have been attacked by the orthodox, it seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman.”

After the summer of 1876, Darwin put together a few autobiographical notes. He did that, partly, at the request of an editor who was interested in the development of his mind and character. And he did it, partly, for the benefit of his children, and theirs. Oracle or no oracle, there are good lessons for most of us in Darwin's memoirs.

There are lessons about ambition. From his first days as ship’s naturalist aboard the Beagle, he hoped to take his place among the best men of science. But he always appealed to a small audience. “I did not care much about the general public,” he wrote. Good reviews and book revenues made him happy, but those pleasures were always fleeting. “I am sure that I have never turned one inch out of my course to gain fame.”

Other lessons are about hard work. Within a year after his ship docked at Falmouth, he'd opened his first notebook on the transmutation of species; and within a decade, he’d outlined his theory in a pair of essays. But it was all of 28 years after he boarded Captain FitzRoy’s boat before his “imperfect abstract” On the Origin of Species went to press. “I gained much by my delay in publishing from about 1839, when the theory was clearly conceived, to 1859; and I lost nothing by it,” were his last words on the subject. He knew the product was flawed, but reassured himself that he’d taken his time and done his best. Whether he was praised or blamed, he could always say: “I have worked as hard and as well as I could, and no man can do more than this.”

There are a few lessons—some of my favorites—about polemics. “I rejoice that I have avoided controversies,” he insisted—strong words from the author of The Descent of Man. Instead, he let colleagues—like Thomas Henry Huxley—handle his adversaries; and he followed advisors—like Charles Lyell—who warned not to bother with squabbles, “as it rarely did any good and caused a miserable loss of time and temper.” In the end, Darwin put down the opposition to ignorance, and believed he'd been overpraised.  Both his lack of resentment, and his consistent focus, may have been easier because he almost never left Down House, where he and his family lived.

Other lessons—the hardest ones—are about single mindedness. Darwin fondly remembered his time at Cambridge, where he'd wasted his time drinking and gambling with other theology students. “I cannot help looking back to these times with much pleasure,” he let his grandchildren know. But he’d long ago given up dinner parties and retired to the country; most of his friendships had lapsed.  He'd lost his taste for art and music. And though he'd once been in love with Milton, and carried Paradise Lost around the world in his pocket, he'd tried in his old age to read Shakespeare and "found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” Everything—too much—had been eclipsed by his passion, patience, industry and invention: his love of science, his perseverance, his consistent effort in observing and collecting facts, and his biological common sense.

J. B. S. Haldane—the Marxist, British biologist who was born just 10 years after Darwin died—famously wrote in his book, What is Life: “The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other.” Darwin’s own passion for beetles is widely acknowledged. He remembered finding a pair of rare specimens as a young man, and grabbing one in each hand, but then discovering a third. So he popped one from his hand into his mouth, but it stung his tongue; after he spit it out, 2 out of 3 beetles were lost.

A good story, from a good life. Not much of an oracle though.

References

Darwin, Charles.  Autobiography, edited by Nora Barlow.  London: Collins, 1958.

Browne, Janet.  1995.  Charles Darwin: A Biography.  New York: Knopf.

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