A NATURALIST Is BORN
IN THE ENGLAND OF 1809, women's high-waisted dresses and men's ruffled shirts were the fashion, Londoners were just getting used to gas lamps lighting their streets, and canned food was being invented. The Industrial Revolution was under way. New factories and mills and ironworks were popping up around the country, and a spirit of scientific curiosity was in the air. Into this world, on February 12, Charles Robert Darwin was born.
Charles's family was both wealthy and respected. His father, Robert Waring Darwin, was a medical doctor. His mother, Susannah Wedgwood Darwin, was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the famous Wedgwood Pottery, "Potter to Her Majesty." Charles's grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, had been friends for many years. As young men they had gotten together each month with other friends in the neighborhood to discuss philosophy, technology, science, and other interests. Because they traveled to one another's homes by moonlight, they dubbed their group the Lunar Society--members of the club called themselves "Lunaticks." The club included some of England's best and brightest thinkers of the late 1700s. Benjamin Franklin once attended a Lunar Society meeting as a guest.
In 1809, Robert Fulton's steamboat Clermont was navigating the Hudson River, Washington Irving was writing "Rip van Winkle," James Madison became the fourth president of the United States, and Abraham Lincoln was born--on the very same day as Charles Darwin.
Charles was the fifth of six children. His oldest sister, Marianne, was eleven when he was born, Caroline was nine, Susan was six, and his only brother, Erasmus, was five. Another sister, Emily Catherine (usually called Catherine), would be born a year later.
The Darwin family lived in a large Georgian house named The Mount in Shrewsbury, the county capital of Shropshire. The town was set on a hillside, at the top of which was a castle, a marketplace, and a school for boys that Charles would later unhappily attend. The Severn River ran around the bottom of the hill on three sides.
Wedgwood Pottery was founded in 1759 by Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), Charles Darwin's grandfather. By the 1800s, its dinner sets graced the tables of famous homes around the world. Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States from 1901 to 1909, ordered a Wedgwood dinner service for the White House. Wedgwood continues to manufacture pottery to this day.
This part of the English countryside was as yet untouched by the Industrial Revolution, which was fortunate for Charles, who loved to poke around in fields and meadows. "I was born a naturalist," he once wrote,1 and he was in the perfect place to develop that inclination.
Being part of the gentry, or gentlemen's class, the Darwins had the luxury of leisure. The family's days were filled with country walks, riding, reading, letter writing, and visits to friends and relatives in nearby towns. Evenings around the fireplace might include discussions of current affairs, politics, art, literature, scientific subjects, and local gossip. Charles's mother and sisters were well read and as likely to participate in these discussions as the men. They entertained, attended plays and balls and concerts, and "rode to hounds" as hunting on horseback was called.
Charles was a dreamy, warm-hearted child who could often be found lying beneath the dining room table reading books like Robinson Crusoe, but he spent most of his time outdoors in the woods and fields surrounding Shrewsbury. He had a passion for collecting "all sorts of things,"2 including shells, stamps, coins, rocks, even eggs. "I was very fond of collecting eggs," he wrote later, "but I never took more than a single egg out of a bird's nest, except on one single occasion, when I took all."3 He liked to identify whatever plants he came across, and he was especially interested in beetles, which he collected wherever he went. There are more than 250,000 beetle species in the world, and Charles wanted to know every one that lived in England. He kept his collections in a "curiosity cabinet."
Charles loved to fish and spent many hours on the riverbank, but he worried about the pain suffered by the worms he used as bait. He learned that he could kill them more quickly with salt and water, and from then on, he never again fished with living worms, "though at the expense, probably, of some loss of success,"4 he wrote later.
Though Charles was tenderhearted and rather quiet, there was a streak of mischief in him. "I was in many ways a naughty boy," 5 he recalled, though his "naughtiness" seems tame by twenty-first century standards. He was given to making up stories to impress his family and friends. He would often pretend to have seen a rare bird that no one else had spotted, and once he picked the fruit from his father's orchard and hid it in the bushes, "then ran in breathless haste to spread the news that I had discovered a hoard of stolen fruit."6 He loved secrets and devised pages of codes which he used to write messages to his little sister Catherine. He had code names for family members and favorite places--Dr. Darwin was "Squirt." 7
Curiosity cabinets are wooden cabinets with many drawers and shelves for storing and displaying collections. They became popular in the 1600s. A traveler's cabinet might have been used to display interesting things picked up on travels to exotic lands, a geologist's cabinet to organize rock samples, or a priest's to showcase religious artifacts. They were a bit like miniature museums.
Charles was in awe of his father, a large man about 6 feet 2 inches tall and quite stout. Charles thought him the largest man he'd ever seen. He would later write pages in his autobiography about his father's gift at winning the confidence of others and reading their characters, his extraordinary memory, and his excellent business sense. For his father's part, he was proud of Charles and enjoyed his company even when Charles was a very young child. As Charles grew, their interests overlapped, and Dr. Darwin enjoyed sharing his own love of gardening and interest in natural history with his son along with little things about human nature that he had learned in his medical practice.
Erasmus Darwin, Charles's paternal grandfather (1731-1802), could aptly be described as "larger than life." He was physically so large that he had a section cut out of his dining table to accommodate his stomach. He had a large mind as well. An abolitionist (as was Josiah Wedgwood), a supporter of women's education, a poet, a philosopher, an inventor, and a physician, he was once asked to be personal physician to King George III, a position he declined.
EARLY EVOLUTIONARY IDEAS
Charles was not the first to have ideas about evolution. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin had written about his own theory of descent in a book, Zoonomia, before Charles was even born. A few others had also begun to think that not every species had been created at the same time, but rather that some species might have evolved from others before them. But no one had gathered the factual evidence to support such a theory. No one understood how the evolutionary process actually works. And most people at the time believed that people were not part of this evolutionary process. In fact, they believed that people were not really a part of the animal world at all, but were created by God to rule over it.
French naturalist Jean-Baptiste de Monet de Lamarck (1744-1829) also believed that species had adapted from earlier species, but he, like Erasmus, did not understand how. Both men thought that traits acquired during a lifetime could be passed on to offspring. If, for example, a cat had to stretch its neck through the bars of its cage in order to reach food--and thus its neck, because of the exercise, grew longer--then it would produce more long-necked cats.8