Posts Tagged 'psychology'

Science and Religion – Where is the Source of Authority?

In previous posts, I offered this hypothesis: Personal and social factors influenced Charles’s attitude toward God and religion at least as much as his observations of nature and Man and his theory of evolution by natural selection. 

And more generally about the “social factors” influencing Charles’s thinking: There are other forces at work in driving the Science-Religion Debate besides science and religion.

At this point in the development of my book about Charles and Emma Darwin on the question of God (working title: Walking Fish), I want to do a series of posts on social, political and intellectual history of Western Europe to identify and describe these “other forces at work.”  I aim to make this a short but deep dive into the evolution of Western European thinking about God and Nature.  For those schooled in this academic discipline, I hope you will be entertained by my gross generalizations, and I ask your forbearance and correction (Comment, please!).  For other readers less steeped in intellectual history and philosophy, I hope to make the topic interesting in itself but also show how essential this ground work is for the project when I return to the early and mid-19th century and Charles and Emma themselves.

Here is the overriding question:

Who Gets to Say What is True and Right and Good?

Who, where or what is the source of Authority?  The term authority has so many meanings and connotations, evoking all sorts of emotional response.  Here I don’t mean authority in the sense of who has the Power, the control over others in the social structure or in the marketplace or on the frontier with other societies – that is the authority that derives from possessing greater strength or weaponry.  If you maintain that Might Makes Right, you are often right in specific situations and for periods of time.  However, to endure, this political authority must be legitimized by a higher authority, a source of knowledge about what is True from which flow ideas about what is Right Conduct that leads to what this authority asserts to be Good.  This is the Moral Authority which ultimately has to underpin any lasting political authority.

Let me explain with a couple of examples.

Consider the coach of an athletic team, like my son’s baseball team.  This man is in charge.  My son and I fear displeasing him, because he has the power to decide whether or not my kid gets to play a particular position, or at all, in the next game.  But to remain coach for the whole season, and especially year after year, this man has to demonstrate to the great majority of kids and parents certain qualities of character and knowledge of the game and ability to motivate kids.  We give this man permission to have the power he has because he earns at least minimal respect for his knowledge of what is True about the game, for his Right Conduct with the kids and on the field, and his ability to lead the team to what we collectively agree is Good (fair play, winning games, skills development and having good, clean fun).  His political authority depends, in the long run, on his moral authority.  Note: this moral authority is collectively defined and supported by all involved – without defining from scratch what is true and right and good.  Our notion of what is “moral” is culturally defined and passed (with modification) from one generation to the next.

Now consider the Constitution of the United States of America.  The American citizenry give permission to the federal, state and local governments to have the power they have because the moral authority of the Constitution legitimizes this government structure.  If you doubt this, consider the passionate conflicts that are resolved by U.S Supreme Court decisions simply by reference to what is “constitutional.”  There are winners and losers in these Supreme Court decisions, and the losers often vow to fight on for their cause.  Nonetheless, the losers respect the power of the Supreme Court decision, and the necessity to fight on within the bounds defined by the Constitution-mandated government.  Why?  Because of the citizenry’s collective respect for the moral authority of the Constitution, which derives from the ideals of the 18th Century Enlightenment, particularly as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers.  Even in the 21st Century, there is collective agreement among the citizens of the United States that ideals of the Enlightenment, such as the right of the individual person to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, define what is True and Right and Good in governing the United States of America.  

God or Me or Some Other Person 

We have to go further back in history to find the source of moral authority for the Enlightenment ideals.  In simplest, starkest terms, the answer to “Who gets to say what is True and Right and Good?” is either God or Me or Some Other Person.  Only a few who choose “Me” as their answer are audaciously self-confident; the vast majority is simply intellectually lazy.  They don’t really care about sources; they simply “know” what is true and right and good – enough said.  But a truly thoughtful person has to admit that her or his development of moral beliefs is based on more than personal experience. 

Think about it—how often do you accept something as true or right simply because it comes from a source you trust and admire, to whom you look up to?  Most of the time, right?  You are “taking their word for it.”  There is no shame in this.  It is how we humans efficiently gain knowledge without having to experience everything ourselves or do all our own original thinking. We depend on our sources having done the hard work of unearthing and examining facts (including experience) and making sense of them through logical analysis leading to rational conclusions.  Who are these sources?  They are parents, friends, teachers, coaches, authors, scientists, religious leaders, politicians (sic), journalists, news anchors, op-ed writers, books, movies, etc.  More implicitly, you trust and admire your source because you believe this person has looked at reality through the same lens or worldview that you would look through, if only you had the necessary skills, experience or data, and time.  Your source has saved you the trouble of working hard (even taking risks) and thinking deeply for yourself.  You can also have “anti”-sources—if information comes from them, it must not be true or right.  It works both ways, does it not?

We all have been strongly influenced by the moral beliefs of other people, often from the writings of long-dead other people. So, where did these “other people” get their moral beliefs? 

The intellectual history of Western Europe traces the source of moral authority to the God of Christianity. If this is self-evident to you, you can skip the rest of this series of blog posts.  But for those who do not accept this assertion at face value, the burden of proof is on me!  For starters, it is irrelevant whether or not you believe in this particular god.  This is not about your worldview or mine.  It is about the worldview in which Charles and Emma Darwin grew to intellectual maturity and to which today’s scientists are the intellectual heirs.  It is a long, man-made road from the original Christian story to the intellectual life of 19th-century England. 

Bear with me in the next few posts!  This is important.  I promise to be as brief as possible.

Copyright 2011 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)

Mis-Creation—A Movie Review

I have not posted to DarwinWatch in well over a year, leaving you and me both wondering if I had abandoned the project.  It is only postponed while I have had to devote myself to my non-profit organization’s struggle to weather the global financial and economic meltdown of the past 18 months.  The effort seems to be succeeding, but it is too soon to tell for sure, and it has left me with more work responsibilities than I can handle.  Still, I’ve labored fitfully with a couple of very long posts that should appear on this site in the next month or two.

Annie’s Box as a Movie

What has drawn me prematurely back to posting is that, just this past week on an international flight, I watched a movie called Creation.  One of the Darwin websites informed me in 2008 that this movie was in production, based (very loosely, it turns out) on the book Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes, one of the descendants of Charles and Emma Darwin.  I liked the book very much and was looking forward to the movie, wondering how it would be done. 

Director Jon Amiel based this movie on the anguish of Charles and Emma Darwin over the inexplicable death of their ten-year-old daughter, Annie, in April 1851.  Charles is played by Paul Bettany, who played well the Darwin-like ship’s doctor in Master and Commander—The Far Side of the World (2003).  In more recent roles, however, Bettany seems to be type-cast as a man tortured by demons, as in The Da Vinci Code and now Creation.  I found Bettany’s portrayal of Charles almost a character assassination.  And Emma is portrayed by Bettany’s real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly, as a pinched, worried woman, darkly resentful of her husband’s strange work, strange colleagues and strange illness.  Even their children are made to seem fearful of Charles, with the exception of Annie, who seems too modern in her chummy patronization of her father’s weakness.  Charles’s closest friend, Joseph Hooker, came across as manipulative and dismissive of Charles’s reservations about publishing his theory of evolution.  The homunculus who played Thomas Huxley was appalling in his uncaring aggressiveness as a culture warrior hell-bent to use Charles as a weapon against religion, whatever the cost to Charles himself.

Historical Accuracy

I can hardly blame the actors for their portrayals of these historical characters.  No doubt they were doing the director’s bidding.  And what, after all, is so very wrong about the movie?  Is it historically inaccurate?  No, the facts of the movie follow the real history with only a few exceptions.

Yes, Charles suffered, at times greatly, from an undiagnosed illness that affected his stomach and head, causing vomiting, headaches, sleeplessness, and anxiety attacks.  Yes, Charles was often shy of company, especially as the excitement of social interaction sometimes triggered bouts of his illness, but the Darwins were famously welcoming and cheerful hosts.  Yes, Emma suspected that the illness was psychosomatic, generated by the stress of intense, self-driven, mental work.  Yes, Charles was convinced that “hydro-therapy” helped his condition (though the break from work to go to Malvern for the “water cure” may have been the real source of relief).  He did insist on the dubious benefits of the strange coldwater douche baths.  

Yes, Charles was reluctant to publish his “species theory” for fear of public reaction and professional opprobrium, especially after the harsh reception of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844, about the same time he wrote the first version of his own theory of evolution.  Yes, Emma had expressed her concern in a letter or two to Charles (apparently never speaking to him directly on the matter) that the impact of his work on public attitudes toward Christianity might jeopardize his soul and divide him from her forever in the Hereafter.  Yes, Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley (and Charles Lyell, not mentioned in the movie) urged Charles to publish his theory, perhaps setting themselves at odds with Emma’s preference, but there is no evidence that Emma actively argued against publication. 

Yes, Annie became gravely ill and would not respond to normal medical treatment, so in desperation, Charles took her to Malvern for the “water cure” that had seemed to help his mysterious ailment.  Yes, Emma did not accompany them to Malvern, probably because she was in the later stages of pregnancy, and no doubt she felt guilty that she was not by her daughter’s side when Annie died at Malvern.  Yes, Charles and Emma were devastated by Annie’s death; Emma would not speak of her afterward, and Charles took several years to fully recover from his grief. 

Yes, Charles did not get along with the Rev. Innes of the local parish, but it is doubtful they were ever close friends, and Emma was a Unitarian Nonconformist who had equally deep differences with the Reverend’s Anglican orthodoxy.  Yes, Charles was deeply troubled by the cruelty of the natural world and the difficulty of squaring this fact with the goodness of God the Creator.  Yes, Annie’s death only further confirmed the inexplicable cruelty, driving Charles further from traditional Christian explanation, perhaps lessening his scruples about publicly differing with the Church of England.

Sacrifice the Man for the Cause! 

The movie, however, presents all these facts under a brooding cloud of interpersonal tension between Charles and Emma as he struggles with inner demons driving him nearly to madness.  Attempting to create a family psychodrama that reflects the larger culture war of post-modern Western civilization, Jon Amiel has taken extreme liberties with the true character of Charles and his marriage and his family to create a cariacature with features distorted by willfully grotesque exaggeration.  All reports (that I’ve read so far) are that Charles had a remarkably sunny disposition despite his strange illness, especially toward his wife, his children, his servants and his friends.  This was a fundamentally happy man in a remarkably good marriage with a bunch of well-adjusted kids living in a pleasant, high-functioning household and well-loved in their village and their social circle.  The contrast between the life of the Darwin family and the outside swirl of ugly controversy created by Charles’s work could not have been more striking. 

But happiness doesn’t make for critically acclaimed movies these days, and it certainly doesn’t suit the socio-political agenda of the movie’s makers in this case.  They needed Charles Darwin to be a tortured soul caught between the forces of science and religion at war.  What a travesty!

There ought to be a law against character assassination, even of historical personalities.

Copyright 2010 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.DarwinWatch.wordpress.com)

The Voyage of the Beagle – Antecedents

 

In 1831, Charles Darwin was earning a lack-luster degree from Cambridge University and setting his sights on becoming a clergyman of the Church of England.  He was not enthused by the prospect, but he stood a good chance of getting a rural parish.  This would allow him to indulge his passion for natural history on the side, as had many rural clergymen for whom a career with the Church was more means than end.  Not that Charles was in the least insincere.  His father, Dr. Robert Darwin, having concluded that medicine was not for Charles, allowed him to leave Edinburgh University without a degree (as had his older brother, Erasmus) and enroll at Cambridge University to study the classics in preparation for a profession in the Church.  This had long been a fall back position for gentlemen in need of a respectable profession.  Before accepting his father’s offer, Charles considered carefully his ability to pledge himself to uphold the finer points of Church doctrine.  After much reading and thinking on the question, Charles decided that he could do it:  “… as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted.” (from his Recollections).  And so he went up to Cambridge. 

 

Charles at Cambridge

 

His brother had preceded Charles to Cambridge and had told him about Professor John Stevens Henslow as a man who knew every branch of science.  His cousin and close friend, William Darwin Fox, a fellow beetle enthusiast, also went to Cambridge and soon got Charles an invitation to the regular Friday evening gatherings of students and faculty at Professor Henslow’s home to explore common interests in the natural world.  Something about Charles made him stand out enough for Henslow to take him under his academic and personal wing.  More than mentor and student, Henslow and Charles became field trip companions and soon very good friends.  In early 1831, after Charles had effectively completed his course work but still had to reside on campus for another two terms to fulfill degree requirements, Henslow encouraged Charles to take up geology under the tutelage of the revered Professor Adam Sedgwick.  Again the relationship became close.  Sedgwick invited Charles to accompany him during the summer on a geological transect of North Wales.  He taught Charles the intimate details of how geologizing was then done.  Charles loved the vigorous hiking across the landscape, observing and collecting samples with his new geological hammer, and putting the pieces of evidence together in a coherent map and understanding of the geology of the area.  Still, he was anxious to get back home in time for the start of the fall partridge hunting.  The start of his career with the Church could wait another few months.

 

FitzRoy Plans the Beagle’s Return to South America

 

Also in 1831, Robert FitzRoy was planning a second voyage in command of HMS Beagle to map the coasts of the “southern cone” of South America.  FitzRoy was in his early twenties but already an accomplished naval officer when he joined the earlier expedition at its midpoint.  The Beagle had sailed with HMS Adventure under the overall command of Phillip Parker King.  The expedition returned to England in 1830 with much work left to be done.  A second expedition was needed, but King decided to retire and live in Australia, so command of the second voyage fell to young FitzRoy with only the Beagle sailing this time. 

 

Their coastal mapping mission was motivated by the opening in the 1820s of the newly independent South American colonies for commercial relations with countries other than Spain and Portugal.  To facilitate trade by commercial shipping, and its ability to protect this trade, the Royal Navy needed more consistently accurate and detailed charts of the South American coasts and adjacent waters.  The expedition also was of vital strategic importance to learn more about these countries in general, especially their people and natural resources as producers of commodities to feed the growing demand of Britain’s industrial revolution.  Scientific exploration served national interests, and military careers in the poorly known regions of the early nineteenth century world not only permitted but even encouraged interest in natural history, from which knowledge of natural resources was likely to come.

 

In Need of “Some Well-Educated and Scientific Person” 

 

FitzRoy was given command of the Beagle quite suddenly on location in South American waters when her captain, Pringle Stokes, committed suicide.  The incident and his own experience of command heightened FitzRoy’s concern about the pressures and loneliness of command at sea, especially given his particular vulnerability to bouts of despair. This time he wanted a gentleman companion to share his cabin and meals, to dispel the loneliness and distract him from the relentless pace of work he was inclined to set for himself.  He asked a friend, who declined.  FitzRoy therefore asked Captain Francis Beaufort, Hydrographer to the British Admiralty (and inventor of the Beaufort Scale for describing wind force) to help him find a suitable gentleman.  It was appropriate that he ask Beaufort, as he was the technical supervisor of the expedition and was engaged in writing FitzRoy’s “terms of reference” (as we today would call his memorandum describing in detail the mapping and other assignments for the second voyage).  In FitzRoy’s own words, he “proposed to the Hydrographer that some well-educated and scientific person should be sought for who would willingly share such accommodations as I had to offer, in order to profit by the opportunity of visiting distant countries yet little known.”

 

When FitzRoy requested a “gentleman,” he was not asking for just any well-mannered sort of fellow but a person of particular social status and outlook compatible with his own – a man of his own class with whom he could deign to associate as an equal.  Actually, FitzRoy was an aristocrat descended from Charles II, but he would find a “gentleman” of some wealth, education, and refinement quite acceptable.  Beaufort contacted Professor Peacock of Cambridge University, and the old school network was activated.  Peacock contacted his friend, Professor Henslow, who was sorely tempted to take the position himself, except for the forlorn expressions of his wife and young children.  Henslow extended the invitation to Charles Darwin, as a very capable, if “unfinished” naturalist. After some famous hesitation, Charles accepted to go to London immediately to meet FitzRoy, to see if both could stand the idea of spending years together in the intimate quarters of a ship at sea.  After some equally famous hesitation by FitzRoy regarding the shape of Charles’s nose (phrenology, or study of the shape of face and head, was seriously considered by many educated people of that time), the two decided they liked each other and sealed the bargain, with the understanding that Charles (rather, his father) would pay all his own costs and would be designated the Captain’s personal guest, with liberty to leave the voyage at any port of call, to return by another ship to England.  FitzRoy was concerned from the start about the staying power of any companion he invited along.

 

Bonds of Friendship, Adventure and Ambition

 

During preparation of the Beagle in the autumn of 1831, these two young men, Robert FitzRoy, 26, and Charles Darwin, 22, quickly became friends, united by the excitement of high adventure to come.   Just imagine the anticipation of Charles as FitzRoy and his crew figuratively and literally showed him the ropes, helping him buy the right equipment and stow his gear in the tight spaces of the tiny cabin, even demonstrating how to hang his sleeping hammock and get into it without being thrown to the deck!  Charles was not the only landlubber guest of FitzRoy who must have amused the Beagle crew.  In addition to the complement of 65 crew, FitzRoy brought along nine “supernumaries,” counting Charles.  The others included a “draughtsman,” Augustus Earle, to record the voyage in paintings as well as, I presume, to make good-looking maps from the charts created by FitzRoy and his officers.  And an “instrument maker,” George Stebbing, to tend the 22 finest chronometers ever carried around the world, for FitzRoy to measure “meridian distances” that would greatly improve accuracy of locating major geographic features of the earth by longitude, still a relatively new method (this task was the primary motive for circumnavigating the globe once the work of surveying the South American coasts was completed).  And Richard Matthews, a missionary, and three Fuegians FitzRoy had brought back to England from the first expedition and educated at his own expense; Matthews and the Fuegians were to establish a mission at the bottom of the world, the vanguard of Christianity in Tierra del Fuego.  Plus FitzRoy had his own steward, and Charles had his own servant, especially to assist in his collecting and preserving of specimens. 

 

Excepting Charles and his servant, all these supernumaries and more were at FitzRoy’s personal expense.  To our modern ears, it seems quite remarkable that a military expedition would include the personal projects of its leader and mix public and personal funding of the diverse endeavors.  But this was typical for the time.  Such expeditions were usually led by wealthy, upper-class men who often had ambitious agendas of their own, compatibly mixed with service to the Crown. 

 

Adding to the bond forged between adventure travelers, FitzRoy and Charles shared a common ambition to use the opportunity of the voyage to establish themselves as experts in their respective professional fields and thereby launch their careers and secure their positions in English society.  An expedition to unknown lands, discovery of new knowledge, and the subsequent reports of the findings had established the reputations and positions of many young Englishmen prior to the second expedition of the Beagle.  Therefore, both FitzRoy and Charles could clearly see the future rewards of literally staying the course, of persisting through the long years of privation, hardship, danger, homesickness, hard work, and boring weeks at sea.  The burden was relieved, no doubt, by their sharing the resolve to see it through.  FitzRoy had the added incentive of being under Admiralty orders.  For Charles, completing the voyage was optional; on the other hand, he was motivated by intense desire to prove himself in some important way – especially to his family, it seems.  Plus, he was passionately committed to the work, and he knew how FitzRoy and Henslow and Sedgwick and many others in scientific English society thought it so exciting and important.  He had a respectable profession, at last.

 

.  .  .

 

I have based the foregoing on three books.  Charles’s Recollections, introduced in my previous posting, devotes only eight pages to the period of the voyage, mainly adding some personal information about his relationship with FitzRoy and events leading up to the sailing of the Beagle on December 27, 1831.  Charles’s public account of the voyage, drawn from his daily journal, was first published with FitzRoy’s account in 1839, and later in the same year as a stand-alone book entitled Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836.  This book of travels was a surprising publication success; several editions were published with variations of the title and translations into several languages.  It continues to be widely read today.  Charles admitted in his Recollections that “The success of this my first literary child always tickles my vanity more than that of any of my other books.”

 

The version I have read carefully is the Penguin Classics book, Voyage of the Beagle, published in 1989 – this is the first (1839) edition of Journal of Researches edited and abridged by Janet Browne and Michael Neve.  “Abridged” means that Browne and Neve reduced the length of the original first edition by removing whole sections they deemed of less interest, without touching the remaining sections, shortening the whole by about one third.  I admit to being grateful for the abridgment.  Charles wrote well, often with vivid imagery and lively spirit, but his was still an early 19th century literary style.  I love Jane Austen, but Charles was not that good, and often it is a slog to follow his prose.  Moreover, I find his rather long geological digressions on the landscapes he traveled through quite tedious, and I am just not interested in his minute invertebrates (there is one memorable passage (p. 191) about zoophytes in the seas around the Falkland Islands which left me totaled puzzled after several readings).  The scientific expedition narratives of the time served the dual purpose of entertaining the generalist readers as well as informing the experts looking for information new to their specialty, creating in an uneven reading experience. 

 

I preferred reading the first edition, rather than the 1845 second edition, for which Charles “took much pains in correcting” the first edition, possibly obscuring what he was thinking or not thinking during or shortly after the voyage.  For example, I understand (and plan to verify) that he made more of the Galapagos observations in the second edition than in the first, overlaying his later interpretations on the raw observations and initial reactions during his visit to the archipelago in Sept-Oct 1835.

 

Browne and Neve do the reader a very great favor in their 26 pages of introduction.  Seldom have I found an introduction more enlightening and useful.  I am indebted to them for most of what I have written above about the historical context of the Beagle expedition and the background on Robert FitzRoy.  I highly recommend this introduction as an important document in itself. 

 

Browne and Neve very usefully attach two appendices:  “Admiralty Instructions for the Beagle Voyage” which includes Beaufort’s memorandum of detailed assignments for FitzRoy, and “Remarks with Reference to the Deluge” written by Robert FitzRoy himself as a counter to Darwin’s geological interpretations of what the two men saw together in distant lands.  Both of these pieces first were published in the second volume of FitzRoy’s Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of HMS Adventure and Beagle (1839).  Charles’s Journal of Researches first appeared as the third volume of FitzRoy’s Narrative.  I drew insights from the “Admiralty Instructions” in writing this post and the next.  FitzRoy was given a daunting set of surveying and other tasks, and his faithfulness to the instructions accounts for the length of the voyage extending from the original (and unrealistic) projection of two years to almost five years.

 

The third book is the Darwin and the Beagle by Alan Moorehead, published by Harper & Row in 1969.  This is the first book I read about Darwin himself (rather than his theory and its impacts).  I was a young graduate ecology student at the time.  Moorehead’s book tells the story of Charles and the Beagle experience so well, and so beautifully illustrated with contemporary paintings and sketches of the places, people and creatures, that it awakened in me a longing to travel the world, seeing it as an ecologist, especially the tropics.  I was the same age as Charles when he boarded the Beagle, and I identified with his youthful desire to see what he had only read about in books and his ambition to contribute something new to science.  I hoped that I, too, would gain wonderful insights from experiencing new natural worlds.  I highly recommend Moorehead’s book even today as an easy and compelling way to travel vicariously with Charles on his famous voyage.

 

However, in re-reading this book recently, I was reminded of the ever-so-subtle way an author, whether Moorehead or any other (including me), can create impressions that distort historical facts, without conscious intention to deceive or obscure.  Moorehead highlights a bit too much the intellectual conflict between Darwin and FitzRoy, during the voyage itself, regarding interpretation of geological observations.  He creates an impression of confrontation between the enlightened scientist just looking at the facts and the fundamentalist Christian clinging doggedly to the literal truth of the Biblical account.  As in most books about Darwin and evolution, Moorehead approaches his task with unspoken celebration of the triumph of the modern mind, as science defeats religion, as reason overcomes ignorant tradition, as light dispels the darkness.  Browne and Neve, in their introduction, paint a more complex and interesting portrait of the relationship between Charles and FitzRoy during the voyage.  No doubt they engaged in running debate as they tried together to make sense of what they encountered along the way (reflected by FitzRoy’s “Remarks”), but it seems to have been a friendly exchange between mutually respectful and relatively open minds that only later fully settled on diametrically opposing interpretations of fact.  During the voyage, they had some famous arguments, such as about the benefits of slavery in Brazil, reflecting their different political upbringings.  But it is doubtful that either grew furious with the other over their interpretations of the history of South American landscapes, much less the origin of species. 

 

In this posting, I have dwelled mostly on antecedents to the voyage of the Beagle.  In my next posting, I will summarize what I have learned about the events of the voyage itself.

 

Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Autobiography of Charles Darwin: A Book Review and Reflection on the Personality

What better way to get started toward understanding Charles the Person than with his own words about himself.  In 1876, at age 67, seven years before his death, Charles wrote Recollections of the Development of my Mind and Character for the benefit of his wife, Emma, and his seven living children.  He begins with a passage that shows his humility and his intent:

 

A German Editor having written to me for an account of the development of my mind and character with some sketch of my autobiography, I have thought that the attempt would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children.  I know that it would have interested me greatly to have read ever so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather, written by himself, and what he thought and did, and how he worked.  I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life.  Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me.  I have taken no pains about my style of writing.

 

Unlike his Victorian peers, his style of writing is easy, direct, approachable – and revealing.  I enjoyed these 79 pages more than any other by Charles Darwin.  Of course, it would not be important to read these recollections without his other more important books.   By 1876, Charles was aware of his global fame and therefore the public fascination with himself.  Were it not for the controversy he fueled in British society, he would have been knighted by Queen Victoria, as were some of his close friends (and, later, even some of his own sons).  Yet British society showed its enormous respect by interring the unknighted Darwin almost beside Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. 

 

Charles’s Testament to His Heirs

 

He was pleased by the success of his books and his theory but distressed by the way his writing so distressed others.  A determinedly private man, Charles refused to engage publically with the socio-scientific-religious dust storm he had kicked up.  He fully expected a quiet burial in the Downe church cemetery, but this was not a man whose contribution to science and society lay undiscovered until after his death.  He had a profound effect on his peers, and he knew it.  Yet, in acceding to requests for his autobiography, he wrote as father and husband, aware that like his own curiosity to really know his nearly-as-famous grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, his children and grandchildren would want to know how he thought, worked and lived.  This was his testament to his heirs.

 

Can We Trust Charles’s Account of Himself?

 

Charles was aware of his success in achieving the scientific stature he clearly craved yet remarkably frank about his own shortcomings.  Did he engage in false humility?  Only a little, if at all.  Can we really trust what this man has written about himself?  Yes, I think we can.  Charles observed his own life with the same dispassionate acumen he applied to the natural world, but surely nothing is more difficult to observe with dispassion than one’s own life.  The best we can hope to get directly from Charles is an honest portrait of his self-image, an accurate rendition of what his memory chose to hold on to over the decades.  I suspect we do indeed get the best in this sense.  Emma Wedgwood, his wife and first cousin, knew Charles literally all his life and found him the most open man of her acquaintance (we would say “transparent” these days), a major reason she gave for falling in love with him.  His openness of mind and demeanor, and even writing style, made Charles stand out as exceptional in a generation given to artifice and ceremony.  By his nature, he seems worthy of our careful trust in what he has to say about himself.

 

A Passion for Collecting

 

Charles remembered that by the age of eight, “my taste for natural history, and more especially for collecting, was well developed.  I collected all sorts of things, shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals.”  This passion for collecting extended in his teenage and university years to insects, especially beetles.  “But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles.”  His mind kept “indelible impressions of many beetles” he encountered, as one might remember time, place, and circumstances of meeting a fascinating person.  Just by the subtle shift in his writing of these lines, an increased intensity and detail, I can sense his passion.  Today, Charles would certainly have become an avid birder, like me, keeping detailed lists of species seen, lists which evoke vivid, colorful, detailed memories of the birds themselves and the circumstances of finding them.  We share this odd collector’s mentality. 

 

A Passion for Shooting (and Keeping Records)

 

Unlike me, Charles also had a passion for shooting (we would call it “hunting” these days), which was how one studied birds in those days (the double-barreled shotgun was the predecessor of the double-barreled binocular).  His “zeal for shooting in autumn” extended to keeping “an exact record of every bird shot through the whole season” which made him the butt of jokes by his “wicked friends.”  “I must have been half-consciously ashamed of my zeal.  I tried to persuade myself that shooting was almost an intellectual employment.”

 

Youthful Shortcomings

 

I can see in this admission a reflection of Charles’s self-consciousness about his youthful shortcomings.  Respect for the intellectual life was instilled in him, no doubt, by his intellectually distinguished father and grandfather.  Respect for the industrious life was instilled, too, by his father, a well-regarded physician, and his uncle, Josiah Wedgwood II, who made Wedgwood china the dinnerware of royalty.  As a boy and even as a young man, Charles was neither intellectual nor industrious in usual sense.  He was never a good student.  To him a classical grade school education was a waste, most university lectures a tedious bore, “maths” was repugnant, and his medical education at Edinburgh was distressing, even haunting.  “During my whole life I have been singularly incapable of mastering any language.”  He was hilarious among friends for his tin ear and inability to remember even simple musical tunes.  He thought his school masters and his father considered him “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect.”  His father even once made the stinging remark that “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”  Charles excused this as an uncharacteristic outburst by “… the kindest man I ever knew, and whose memory I love with all my heart …” Nonetheless, the threat of disapproval by his beloved but remote father lingered long into Charles’s adult life.

 

Intelligently Curious and Socially at Ease

 

In contrast, Charles clearly possessed deep native intelligence and curiosity, as well as a confident and pleasing social character.  Reflecting more positively on his school life, he wrote “I had strong and diversified tastes, much zeal for whatever interested me, and a keen pleasure in understanding any complex subject or thing.”  He loved reading books, and regretted that later in life he lost all pleasure from poetry of any kind.  He often took long, solitary walks and loved to ride (horses, of course) across beautiful landscapes.  But Charles was hardly a loner.  He made many friends at school and considered his disposition to be very affectionate.  He was at ease in society and adept at making friends with those who shared his general interests in collecting, riding, and shooting – and later in science. 

 

A Companion of Distinguished Men of Science

 

Most important for an unaccomplished youth, Charles’s personal qualities of openness, enthusiasm, curiosity, drive to understand, passion for nature, personal charm, and gentleman’s manners enabled him to become the companion of several distinguished men of science, when science was still known as “natural philosophy” and not quite yet an acceptable university major.  These men, especially Cambridge University Professor Henslow, the pioneering botanist, saw more in Charles than he could see in himself.  As Charles put it, “Looking back, I infer that there must have been something in me a little superior to the common run of youths, otherwise the above-mentioned men, so much older than me and higher in academical position, would never have allowed me to associate with them.”

 

The Opportunity of a Lifetime

 

What they saw recommended him for the opportunity of a lifetime, to travel as Captain FitzRoy’s gentleman companion and unofficial ship’s naturalist on the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle to map the coasts of southern South America and to circumnavigate the globe to take chronometric measurements.  Charles’s personal qualities prepared him well for integration with the socially diverse crew of the Beagle for five long years, 1831-1836, and his many arduous collecting expeditions from various ports of call.  In these Recollections, Charles treats the voyage briefly, referring the reader to his first published  book on the topic, but he sums up simply, “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career …”  He felt he owed to the voyage his first real education.  “I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved, though they were always fairly developed.”

 

Imagine such a gift of opportunity to a young man!  It was almost a fluke, and he would have passed it up, except for the intervention of his Uncle Jos(iah Wedgwood II) with his skeptical father.  Unpromising as Charles was for a standard career in English society, his mentors recognized exceptional qualities that might be nurtured by an exceptional experience.  The voyage of the Beagle was one of many expeditions of exploration, especially following in the wake of Captain Cook’s voyages.  And many ship’s naturalists and medical officers collected specimens of all sorts and reported their findings to a society eager to learn about the world beyond Britain and Europe – in fact, Charles was able to draw on their work to put his own observations in global perspective.  To his generation, these voyages of discovery were equivalent in fascination to our exploration of space.  Even as late as the 1830s, it was still almost easy to discover something new and interesting for science and society simply by traveling the world.  If he could capture his observations and experiences in good English prose, his reports would have a guaranteed, eager audience.  However, there was nothing so unusual about Charles or the voyage of the Beagle that a scientific breakthrough would inevitably result.  His personal qualities, the mentors he gathered, and pure chance delivered him to this fabulous opportunity.  It was then solely up to Charles to make something very special of it.

 

Perspective Gained from Knowing the Young Man

 

Charles continued in his Recollections to briefly recount the people, places and events of his life from the departure of the Beagle from Portsmouth in December 1831 to his writing them down during May-August 1876.  I won’t summarize these recollections here, as the facts are recorded in other letters and books by and about Darwin.  I will review and reflect on many of these in later blog postings.  What is particularly important about his Recollections is that we have little else to tell us the story of Charles’s life and its influences during the formative years before his momentous voyage.  I believe that understanding the basic personality and the experiences that formed it into a young man is fundamental for putting his later life and work in proper perspective.  I will return to this theme repeatedly. 

 

I found Charles’s Recollections in a small volume reprinted from the Life of Charles Darwin, edited by his son, Sir Francis Darwin.  The volume was published as a small hardcover book, No. 7 in The Thinker’s Library, published by Watts & Co. (London) in 1929.  It is titled Autobiograhy of Charles Darwin with Two Appendices, comprising a Chapter of Reminiscences and a Statement of Charles Darwin’s Religious Views, by his Son, Sir Francis Darwin (Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge).  I will review the chapter and statement by Charles’s son in upcoming postings.

 

Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)


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This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!