Making Up Darwins Mind

By the time Lamarck died and Charles Darwin was born, Western thinkers had broached the idea of an inconstant natural world. They'd mostly wrestled it down, but not without effort. Essentialism was fading, but what it left in its wake was confusion.

The world expanded in all directions, even into other realms. There were new continents, new worlds of organisms too small to have ever been imagined. The earth itself showed off its ancient side, with fossils and sediments stretching history back longer and longer. Monarchies were torn down and replaced with more egalitarian constitutional governments. These changes tested old explanations and found them wanting. Those who were loyal to old ideas found it harder and harder make the pieces fit.

And people were seeing themselves able to understand— even influence—the natural order. Human minds could reduce gravity and momentum to equations, and chemical reactions to the combining of elemental particles called atoms. This success led to heady optimism: maybe everything could be explained on these terms and a materialistic world imagined. If the mind were capable of such feats, maybe humans even had the capacity to explain, even improve themselves.

One characteristic of nature still filled naturalists with something like religious awe. Living creatures were so well suited to their place; as anatomists dissected and naturalists observed, animals and plants proved themselves again and again to be exquisitely adapted. Such perfection could only reflect glory on their creator. To study life was to peek into the mind of God and honor him. Religious fervor drove the study of nature, yet at the same time the discoveries being made could not help but foment insurrection. The closer the scientists looked, the more they saw that contradicted their religious texts.

In some ways, Charles Darwin couldn't help becoming a revolutionary, despite how strongly he resisted. He was born into it—it was a family tradition.

His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a physician who lived at about the same time as Lamarck. The two came to the same conclusions about species, or very nearly, although they neither met nor knew of each other. Erasmus was inspired by the writings of the French Rationalists, and was eager for the spread of "the happy contagion of liberty." He had nothing but scorn for the powers that were, saying that "a goose may govern a kingdom" as well as any "idiot . . .

in his royal senses." He rejected the tight, irrational bonds of the English monarchy, which ruled hand in hand with the Anglican church. Although not an atheist, he did question the authority of the Bible and the ascendency of Christ. He chose instead to revere science as his way of honoring creation.

Darwin's grandfather was a very successful physician. He dabbled in other areas of science and invention, creating a steering mechanism for carriages and a speaking-machine. His work made him wealthy and his fortune was expanded by a second marriage to the illegitimate daughter of an earl. (He fell in love with this woman while she was still married to her rich husband, who shortly died.) He had twelve children by two wives and two children by a governess. As may be surmised, he was quite a sensualist and wrote erotic poetry, as well as prescribing sex as a treatment for patients suffering from hypochondria.

Besides eroticism, he also wrote about science, perhaps more for the poetry than for the theory. He wrote a book, Zoonomia, all in verse, which described, among other things, the origin of life:

Nurs'd by warm sun-beams in primeval caves

Organic Life began beneath the waves . . .

Hence without parent by spontaneous birth

Rise the first specks of animated earth.

Erasmus was also great friends with a neighbor, Josiah Wedgwood, who was to be Charles Darwin's other grandfather. Wedgwood started life as a potter and launched a fine ceramics dynasty that survives to this day. He was a self-made man and, like Erasmus Darwin, believed that people should be free to make their own success. He extended this freedom to include religion, as well, although not quite so radically as Erasmus. He became a Unitarian, admiring the minister Joseph Priestley. Priestley taught that God ordained happiness for everyone in this world, not simply the noble and wealthy. The discipline also emphasized the physical world, discarding the miracles and mysteries of the Anglican church.

They met via an organization called the Lunar Society, called themselves "Lunatiks," and revered the new industrial, technical world. They enjoyed this new culture at least until shortly after the French Revolution and subsequent Terror. The horrors of this time filled the British government and public with disgust, feelings that extended to the ideals founding these movements. Riots gutted Priestley's chapel and drove him to America. Facing government sanction and oppression, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood's days of democracy and libertine behavior were over. They toned down their rhetoric, and Dr. Darwin gave up his hopes of becoming England's Poet Laureate.

Charles Darwin knew of his grandfather's fame, and read Zoonomia. Still, given the repression of the times, it is not clear that he took it seriously. Darwin's father, Robert, was also a physician, but less ambitious and not so scientifically inclined. He was also a large and strict man, who, after the death of his wife, tended to run an oppressive household. Charles was raised by his three older sisters, who also tended to discourage his early love of wandering the woods and collecting insects—his sister Caroline refused to let him kill or keep them, saying it was cruel.

His father sent Charles and his older brother to an Anglican boarding school, where the emphasis was on Latin and scripture, subjects stultifyingly boring to Darwin. He preferred exploring the mysteries of chemistry with his brother in their shed, earning the nickname Gas Darwin. His instructors considered this a trifling pastime. Later, when he was old enough, his devoted free time to riding and hunting. This propensity for such trivial pursuits alarmed his father, who thought Charles likely to fritter away his life like some wealthy nobleman. To forestall this, he sent his son off to medical school as soon as he could; Darwin arrived in Edinburgh at the tender age of sixteen.

At that time Scotland was far enough away from London to remain a sort of northern extension of the Enlightenment. Learning was a popular pastime in the city; lectures were everywhere, and the most entertaining instructors drew large crowds. Many of the lectures offered the most recent ideas in geology and zoology.

Still, Edinburgh was icy cold and Darwin hated most of medicine. One anatomy professor appalled him with his filthy habits and lectures. He stopped attending surgery demonstrations—they must have been harrowing affairs, with patients strapped down without anesthesia—after running from one performed on a child. He was also too young and undisciplined for the study. Besides, he was beginning to suspect he would inherit enough money to not have to worry about a profession.

Although his father undoubtedly disagreed, Darwin's time was not entirely misspent. He learned taxidermy from a freed slave from Guiana, South America, and listened to his stories of the tropics. And he found a mentor in one professor, Robert Grant, a biologist who had studied in France. Grant was in the process of becoming a world authority on invertebrates, with a special interest in their larval forms. He was also a devotee of Lamarck. He liked Darwin, since he was the grandson of Erasmus, whose Zoonomia he had cited in his thesis. So Darwin was exposed to the controversial idea of evolution. He was also a member of the Plinian society, a student group for biologists with radical ideas questioning creation and the separation of soul and body. Some students were overwhelmed by the intellectual and spiritual challenges of these new ideas. The intellectual excitement affected Darwin, too. But he remained guarded in his enthusiasm, caution bred into him through the experiences of his grandfathers on how society could view such unconventional thinking. Besides, working with Grant he was entering scientific society, even earning his own small publication on discovering the free-living, mobile state of sea mat larvae.

Scotland was also a center for the study and development of moral philosophy—a discipline later divided into philosophy, sociology, and economics. Although Darwin didn't study these subjects, the ideas were pervasive. Many of the new ideas fit with the ideals of his grandfathers. Adam Smith in Glasgow had detailed the laws of the marketplace in his Wealth of Nations. He described how individuals, while seeing to their own benefit, worked for the good of society. Each person in the market, by figuring out for himself what he could sell and how much, and how much it would cost to produce, ultimately found the most efficient production schedule. If, for example, there was too much competition in making bread, the individual might turn to making pasta. The result would be diversification and distribution of labor and effort that would serve everyone in the end. Darwin would later apply this concept of individual competition and diversification to biology.

For all these thinkers, no greater role model existed than Sir Isaac Newton. Newton was a scientific superstar, having established, with his book Principia, the ultimate set of scientific standards. He showed the world how nature should be described, writing a set of laws that could be demonstrated, clearly and mathematically, over and over again. Everyone who followed had to try to fit their theory, their model—no matter what it described—into some equally rigorous form. Social scientists such as David Hume, another Edinburgh resident, Adam Smith, and Thomas Malthus were looking to create their own, equally rigorous models.

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