What I learned from reading “Charles Darwin,” authored by Peter Brent, 1981.
Years ago, a mentor of mine in the healthcare profession told me: “No matter what seminar I attend, I always leave with a gold nugget, something valuable.” Brent’s book, “Charles Darwin: A man of enlarged curiosity,” is filled with nuggets and gemstones.
I am an admirer of Charles Darwin (particularly his work ethic), though I do not agree with all his machinations. His persistence and consistency over many years, despite health problems is phenomenal. As a side treat, the book provides a romantic picture of Victorian times in our world, almost two centuries ago.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was basically raised by his older sisters since his mother died in his childhood. Wealthy families were tied socially and by intermarrying, became financially interwoven. The adults in both families had strong influences on the children in both families. Even as a young man in his 20’s, Darwin’s extended relationships gently excursed into other like-minded families, friends and the scientific community (p. 165).
Darwin did not tend toward math (pp. 81, 97 and 164). He regretted this later in life.
Charles Darwin’s father (Dr. Robert) paid for most of his voyage as ship’s naturalist aboard the Beagle (an English map making vessel, Captain Robert FitzRoy) and for transporting his collections of plants, animals and fossils back to England (pp. 186-187). The meticulous notes in his notebooks were transcribed into his diary and then into a journal (p. 210), parts of which were read to his family (pp. 177, 187) and scientific communities prior to his return from his voyage.
Darwin was seasick on most of his years on the Beagle.
Darwin was his own worst critic.
Darwin was an abolitionist. I learned that England compensated slave owners at the time of the emancipation of slavery (yr. 1833) in that country (p. 176).
He praised the societal improvements resulting from the work of Christian missionaries in locations he visited on his global voyage (p. 202).
Darwin was referred to as the Prince Rupert of biology on page 270. Please research “Prince Rupert of the Rhine” and be utterly amazed!
I learned that the doctrine of eidos categorizes things by type (p. 272).
I learned that prakriti, and Indian term, refers to the basic energy of which all matter is made (p. 272).
I learned that William Paley (pp. 74, 274) wrote a book called “Natural Theology” which basically detailed the idea that the “designed” must have a “designer.” The watch must have a watchmaker.
I learned about monads and monadology (p. 284). Monads are proposed simple substances that make up and regulate the universe as I can tell from a brief glimpse.
On page 288, it is noted that Charles Darwin never grasped the genetic principles upon which heritable characteristics are transmitted.
On page 298, the author refers to the theory of pangenesis developed by Darwin. In the theory, “gemmules” from different suitors may all affect the genetics of offspring.
Darwin referred (p. 299) to the ability of a single bisected planarian to regenerate two separate creatures as “sympathy of parts.”
Darwin implied that God was an invention of man: “If our feeling for right conduct had instinctive roots, he argued, it would precede any Voice we might invent to proclaim what that feeling enjoined (p. 310).” Basically, he felt that Christianity was a social construct (p. 336).
His wife, Emma, mothered him and was a quiet stability in Charles’ life. Her spiritual faith, particularly, was in stark contrast to the disbelief of Charles (pp. 314-315).
The Victorian English were fond of “pet” names. His son William’s pet name was “Doddy.” This was one of the tamer nicknames I perused (p. 327).
His time at the Down house gave him the opportunity to be quite the introvert. He cherished the close attachments to family and friends, but often sent his regrets to public gatherings (pp. 340-341).
Years spent studying the barnacles (Cirripedes, p. 376) and publishing his resulting works served as a bridge to his species book. There is a darling story about one of Darwin’s children visiting a local home and asking the neighbor children where their father studied his barnacles. Darwin’s children assumed all Dads studied barnacles.
On page 395, Brent compares the early 1800’s chatter regarding mutability of species to the 1950’s and beyond obsession with alien life.
On pages 395 and 408, Brent documents Darwin’s dissatisfaction with Larmarck.
A man named Robert Chambers wrote a book, which in the 1850’s made very public the discussion of how things “came to be.” He suggested in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, that the Creator basically instituted the laws of the universe, but then stepped back and let it happen. Chambers was also a proponent of spontaneous generation (begins on page 396).
Eheu, Eheu, is a Darwin interjection noted by Brent (p. 406). It is the same as saying: “Aha, or ah!”
Charles Lyell was the geologist encourager that “lit the fire” under Darwin to “get published” (p.407).
On pages 407-408, Brent says that since the time of Darwin, “research has not arrived at its goals (regarding species) nor has controversy been stilled by scientific certainty.”
Drawing “marked his territory” with Alfred Wallace, claiming to have “gone further than (Wallace) him and had been working on the topic of species for longer than Wallace (pp. 409-410). Wallace had contacted Darwin with a species manuscript that was like Darwin’s (almost exactly) during a time that Darwin’s family was stricken with illness and death. Alfred Wallace did not object to the co-presentation of papers but in fact wrote a book on Darwinism himself (p. 415). Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell presented the papers of Darwin and Wallace at the Linnaean Society meeting on July 1, 1858 (p. 415).
In response (pp. 430-431) to Darwin’s release of “The Origin” in 1859, Adam Sedgwick delineated: “There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as physical.” In support of Darwin was Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s bulldog). Huxley said that the true scientist is “the sworn interpreter of nature in the high court of reason.”
I learned on page 444, that the first “The Origin” book in the United States was a pirated version.
Darwin vacillates between calling himself a Theist, an Agnostic and an Atheist and said he gave up on Christianity at age 40 (pp. 452-453, 455).
On page 457, I learned that Darwin attributed love of family as the prime cause of happiness in life.
This next discovery makes me laugh. For years, I have not been able to grasp the obsession of textbooks regarding Darwin’s finches because he spends so much time talking about pigeons instead in “The Origin.” A man named Whitwell Elwin (p. 477) had encouraged him at one time to make “The Origins” book completely dedicated to the topic of pigeon breeding. Mystery solved. Now I know why his most famous book tends to contain never-ending information about pigeons. Darwin was encouraged in it.
Darwin’s “Descent of Man,” published in 1871 emphasized man’s animal origins (p. 477). Darwin had clashed with Wallace when Wallace insisted that man was different from animals (p. 474). Emma, upon reading the manuscript of “Descent” had declared that she would not like the writing because it removed God yet further from the picture (p. 479).
In 1877, Darwin was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law degree at the University of Cambridge. Some of his detractors referred to him as the “apostle of Evolution,” (pp. 498-499).
Several widows I know speak fondly of husbands already passed. One even says: “I still have a relationship (with my deceased husband), it is just different.” Final words of his wife, Emma, after Darwin’s passing in April of 1882 (pp. 506, 517): “I feel that the memory of his life is so full of sweetness that I shall always like to speak of him.”
Thank you, Peter Brent, for this wonderful book on Charles Darwin! The pleasant bonus I gained was vicariously meeting Emma Darwin, his wife, and appreciating the patient endurance she had for her husband, Charles Darwin.
Brent, P. (1981). Charles Darwin, “A man of enlarged curiosity.” New York: Harper and Row.