Charles Darwin's education
Charles Darwin's education gave him a foundation in the doctrine of Creation prevalent throughout the West at the time, as well as knowledge of medicine and theology. More significantly, it led to his interest in natural history, which culminated in his taking part in the second voyage of the Beagle and the eventual inception of his theory of natural selection. Although Darwin changed his field of interest several times in these formative years, many of his later discoveries and beliefs were foreshadowed by the influences he had as a youth.
- 1 Background and influences
- 2 Childhood
- 3 University of Edinburgh
- 4 University of Cambridge
- 5 Voyage on the Beagle
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Background and influences
Born in 1809, Charles Darwin grew up in a conservative era when repression of revolutionary Radicalism had displaced the 18th century Enlightenment. The Church of England dominated the English scientific establishment. The Church saw natural history as revealing God's underlying plan and as supporting the existing social hierarchy. It rejected Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume who had argued for naturalism and against belief in God.
The discovery of fossils of extinct species was explained by theories such as catastrophism. Catastrophism claimed that animals and plants were periodically annihilated as a result of natural catastrophes and then replaced by new species created ex nihilo (out of nothing). The extinct organisms could then be observed in the fossil record, and their replacements were considered to be immutable.
Darwin's extended family of Darwins and Wedgwoods was strongly Unitarian. One of his grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin, was a successful physician, and was followed in this by his sons Charles Darwin, who died while still a promising medical student at the University of Edinburgh in 1778, and Doctor Robert Darwin, Darwin's father, who named his son after his deceased brother.
Erasmus was a freethinker who hypothesized that all warm-blooded animals sprang from a single living "filament" long, long ago. He further proposed evolution by acquired characteristics, anticipating the theory later developed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Although Charles was born after his grandfather Erasmus died, his father Robert found the texts an invaluable medical guide and Charles read them as a student. Doctor Robert also followed Erasmus in being a freethinker, but as a wealthy society physician was more discreet and attended the Church of England patronised by his clients.
Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England on 12 February 1809 at his family home, the Mount, He was the fifth of six children of wealthy society doctor and financier Robert Darwin, and Susannah Darwin (née Wedgwood). Both families were largely Unitarian, though the Wedgwoods were adopting Anglicanism. Robert Darwin, himself quietly a freethinker, had baby Charles baptised on 15 November 1809 in the Anglican St Chad's Church, Shrewsbury, but Charles and his siblings attended the Unitarian chapel with their mother.
As a young child at The Mount, Darwin avidly collected animal shells, postal franks, bird's eggs, pebbles and minerals. He was very fond of gardening, an interest his father shared and encouraged, and would follow the family gardener around. Early in 1817, soon after becoming eight years old, he started at the small local school run by a Unitarian minister, the Reverend George Case. At home, Charles learned to ride ponies, shoot and fish. Influenced by his father's fashionable interest in natural history, he tried to make out the names of plants, and was given by his father two elementary natural history books. Childhood games included inventing and writing out complex secret codes. Charles would tell elaborate stories to his family and friends "for the pure pleasure of attracting attention & surprise", including hoaxes such as pretending to find apples he'd hidden earlier, and what he later called the "monstrous fable" which persuaded his schoolfriend that the colour of primula flowers could be changed by dosing them with special water. However, his father benignly ignored these passing games, and Charles later recounted that he stopped them because no-one paid any attention.
In July 1817 his mother died after the sudden onset of violent stomach pains and amidst the grief his older sisters had to take charge, with their father continuing to dominate the household whenever he returned from his doctor's rounds. To the 8 1⁄2-year-old Charles this situation was not a great change, as his mother had frequently been ill and her available time taken up by social duties, so his upbringing had largely been in the hands of his three older sisters who were nearly adults by then. In later years he had difficulty in remembering his mother, and his only memory of her death and funeral was of the children being sent for and going into her room, and his "Father meeting us crying afterwards".
As had been planned previously, in September 1818 Charles joined his older brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin (nicknamed "Eras") in staying as a boarder at the Shrewsbury School, where he loathed the required rote learning, and would try to visit home when he could. He continued collecting minerals and insects, and family holidays in Wales brought Charles new opportunities, but an older sister ruled that "it was not right to kill insects" for his collections, and he had to find dead ones. He read Gilbert White's The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne and took up birdwatching. Eras took an interest in chemistry and Charles became his assistant, with the two using a garden shed at their home fitted out as a laboratory and extending their interests to crystallography. When Eras went on to a medical course at the University of Cambridge, Charles continued to rush home to the shed on weekends, and for this received the nickname "Gas". The headmaster was not amused at this diversion from studying the classics, calling him a poco curante (trifler) in front of the boys. At fifteen, his interest shifted to hunting and bird-shooting at local estates, particularly at Maer in Staffordshire, the home of his relatives, the Wedgwoods. His exasperated father once told him off, saying "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family."
His father decided that he should leave school earlier than usual, and in 1825 at the age of sixteen Charles was to go along with his brother who was to attend the University of Edinburgh for a year to obtain medical qualifications. Charles spent the summer as an apprentice doctor, helping his father with treating the poor of Shropshire. He had half a dozen patients of his own, and would note their symptoms for his father to make up the prescriptions.
University of Edinburgh
Darwin went to Edinburgh University in October 1825 to study medicine, accompanied by Eras doing his external hospital study. The brothers took lodgings at 11 Lothian Street, near the University. The city was in an uproar over political and religious controversies, and the competitive system where professors were dependent on attracting student fees for income meant that the university was riven with argumentative feuds and conflicts. The monopoly held by established medical professors was challenged by private independent schools, with new ideas of teaching by dissecting corpses giving clandestine trade to bodysnatchers (just shortly before the Burke and Hare scandal).
He attended the official university lectures, but complained that most were stupid and boring, and found himself too sensitive to the sight of blood. He was disgusted by the dull and outdated anatomy lectures of professor Alexander Monro tertius, and later regretted his failure to persevere and learn dissection. Munro's lectures included vehement opposition to George Combe's daringly materialist ideas of phrenology. As the exception to the general dullness, the spectacular chemistry lectures of Thomas Charles Hope were greatly enjoyed by the brothers, but they did not join a student society giving hands-on experience. Darwin regularly attended clinical wards in the hospital despite his great distress about some of the cases, but could only bear to attend surgical operations twice, rushing away before they were completed due to his distress at the brutality of surgery before anaesthetics. He was long haunted by the memory, particularly of an operation on a child.
The brothers kept each other company, and made extensive use of the library. Darwin's reading included novels and Boswell's Life of Johnson. He had brought natural history books with him, including a copy of A Naturalist's Companion by George Graves, bought in August in anticipation of seeing the seaside, and he borrowed similar books from the library. The brothers went for regular Sunday walks on the shores of the Firth of Forth and Darwin kept a diary recording their finds, which included a sea mouse and a cuttlefish.
Darwin wrote home that "I am going to learn to stuff birds, from a blackamoor... he only charges one guinea, for an hour every day for two months". These lessons in taxidermy were with the freed black slave John Edmonstone, who also lived in Lothian Street. Darwin often sat with him to hear tales of the South American rain-forest of Guyana, and later remembered him as "a very pleasant and intelligent man."
During his summer holiday Charles read Zoönomia by his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, which his father valued for medical guidance but which also proposed evolution by acquired characteristics. In June he went on a walking tour in North Wales.
In his second year Charles became active in student societies for naturalists. The 21-year-old radical demagogue William A. F. Browne and the 19-year-old John Coldstream both proposed Darwin for membership of the Plinian Society on 21 November 1826. John Coldstream came from an evangelical background and shared Darwin's fascination with sea life. Darwin was elected to its Council on 5 December, and at the same meeting Browne presented an attack on Charles Bell's Anatomy and Physiology of Expression (which in 1872 Darwin would target in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals).
Darwin became a keen student of Robert Edmond Grant, a Lamarckian anatomist. Grant had cited Erasmus Darwin in his doctoral thesis and shared the evolutionist ideas of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire on evolution by acquired characteristics. Charles joined Grant in pioneering investigations of the life cycle of marine invertebrates on the shores of the Firth of Forth. Darwin and Grant collected tiny animals from the rock pools and walked along the rocky shore at Prestonpans, where Grant lived during the winter at Walford House. Grant began taking Darwin as a guest to professor Robert Jameson's Wernerian Natural History Society. There Charles saw John James Audubon lecturing on the habits of North American birds. In the April–October 1826 edition of the quarterly Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal edited by Jameson, an anonymous paper praised "Mr. Lamarck, one of the most sagacious naturalists of our day" for having "expressed himself in the most unambiguous manner. He admits, on the one hand, the existence of the simplest infusory animals; on the other, the existence of the simplest worms, by means of spontaneous generation, that is, by an aggregation process of animal elements; and maintains, that all other animals, by the operation of external circumstances, are evolved from these in a double series, and in a gradual manner." – this was the first use of the word "evolved" in a modern sense. Though some have attributed authorship to Jameson, this is hotly contested and others see Grant as having written it, as the first significant statement to relate Lamarck's concepts to the geological record of living organisms of the past.
Darwin made a discovery new to science when he observed cilia moving the microscopic larvae of a species of the bryozoan Flustra. He rushed to tell Grant, confirming Grant's belief that the larvae of these marine animals were free swimming, but was upset when Grant claimed rights to the work. Darwin also made the discovery that black spores often found in oyster shells were the eggs of a skate leech, and was disappointed when Grant announced both finds to the Wernerian on 24 March 1827 without giving Darwin credit, though Grant in his publication about the leech eggs in the Edinburgh Journal of Science later that year acknowledged "The merit of having first ascertained them to belong to that animal is due to my zealous young friend Mr Charles Darwin of Shrewsbury", the first time Darwin's name appeared in print. Darwin made a presentation of both discoveries to the Plinian Society on 27 March, his first public presentation. Later in the meeting Browne argued that mind and consciousness were simply aspects of brain activity, not "souls" or spiritual entities separate from the body. A furious debate ensued, and later someone deleted all mention of this materialist heresy from the minutes. This was Darwin's first exposure to militant freethought and the storm it stirred up.
During their walks Grant expounded his ideas to Darwin, and on one occasion dropped his guard and praised Lamarck's views on evolution. He explained his radical theory of homology, an extension of the idea of unity of plan in vogue in Paris at the time. He argued that all animals had similar organs differing only in complexity and, controversially, that this showed their common descent. Grant had announced to the Wernerian his identification of the pancreas in a pinned-out sea-slug, showing an organ molluscs shared with mammals. He assumed that as the earth cooled, changing conditions drove life towards higher, hotter blooded forms, as shown by a progressive sequence of fossils, and that study of eggs of the simplest creatures would help reveal monads, elementary living particles. While this showed that naturalists could try to "lift the veil that hangs over the origin and progress of the organic world", Darwin was troubled by Grant's atheism and could see that transmutation was far from respectable. Darwin later recalled "I listened in silent astonishment, and as far as I can judge, without any effect on my mind. I had previously read the Zoönomia of my grandfather, in which similar views are maintained, but without producing any effect on me."
Shortly afterwards Coldstream graduated and went to Paris for his hospital study, where he suffered a mental breakdown, struggling with "the foul mass of corruption within my own bosom", held captive to his body by "corroding desires" and "lustful imaginations". The doctor's report was that though Coldstream had led "a blameless life", he was "more or less in the dark on the vital question of religion, and was troubled with doubts arising from certain Materialist views, which are, alas!, too common among medical students".
Geology and Origin of the Species
Darwin also took the popular natural history course of Professor Robert Jameson, learning about stratigraphic geology. Jameson was a Neptunian geologist who taught that strata had precipitated from a universal ocean: he held debates with chemistry professor Thomas Charles Hope who held that granites had crystallised from molten crust, ideas influenced by the Plutonism of James Hutton who had been Hope's friend. Jameson's view was that "It would be a misfortune if we all had the same way of thinking... Dr Hope is decidedly opposed to me, and I am opposed to Dr Hope, and between us we make the subject interesting." Darwin liked Hope and found Jameson a boring speaker. It is not known what he made of Jameson's closing lectures on the "Origin of the Species of Animals". Darwin enjoyed practicals in the Museum and course field trips, learning the sequence of strata. The Museum of Edinburgh University was Jameson's preserve and was then one of the largest in Europe. Darwin assisted and made full use of the collections, spending hours studying, taking notes and stuffing animal specimens.
Even medical lectures proved of some use. In January 1826 Darwin had written home complaining of "a long stupid lecture" from Dr. Andrew Duncan secundus about medicine, but the lectures introduced him to Augustin de Candolle's natural system of classification and emphasis on the "war" between competing species. However, he loathed medicine and left in April 1827 without a degree.
He toured Scotland, went on to Belfast and Dublin and in May made his first trip to London to visit his sister Caroline. They joined his uncle Josiah Wedgwood II on a trip to France. There Charles fended for himself for a few weeks in Paris with Browne and Coldstream who was recovering having "found joy and peace in believing". Charles rejoined his relations and then returned to his home at Shrewsbury, Shropshire by July.
University of Cambridge
His father was unhappy that his younger son would not become a physician and "was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination." He therefore enrolled Charles at Christ's College, Cambridge in 1827 for a Bachelor of Arts degree as the qualification required before taking a specialised divinity course and becoming an Anglican parson. He enrolled for an ordinary degree, as at that time only capable mathematicians would take the Tripos. At that time the only way to get an honours degree was the mathematical Tripos examination, or the classical Tripos created in 1822, which was only open to those who already had high honours in mathematics, or those who were the sons of peers.
This was a respectable career for a gentleman at a time when most naturalists in England were clergymen in the tradition of Gilbert White, who saw it as part of their duties to "explore the wonders of God's creation". Charles had concerns about being able to declare his belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England, so as well as hunting and fishing, he studied divinity books. He was particularly convinced by the reasoning of the Revd. John Bird Sumner's Evidences of Christianity. John Bird Summer wrote that Jesus's religion was "wonderfully suitable... to our ideas of happiness in this & the next world" and there was "no other way... of explaining the series of evidence & probability." His Classics had lapsed since school, and he spent the autumn term at home studying Greek with a tutor. Darwin was accepted as a "pensioner", having paid his fees, on 15 October 1827, but did not attend Cambridge until the Lent Term which began on 13 January 1828. Eras returned from Edinburgh ready to sit his Bachelor of Medicine exam, and in the new year he and Charles set out together for Cambridge. Darwin came into residence in Cambridge on 26 January 1828, and matriculated at the University's Senate House on 26 February.
His tutors at Christ's College, Cambridge were to include Joseph Shaw in 1828, John Graham (in 1829 - 1830) and Edward John Ash in 1830 - 1831. One of his university friends was Frederick Watkins, (1808 - 1888).
Arriving at the University of Cambridge in January 1828, Darwin found this elite theological training institution governed by complex rules much more congenial than his experiences at Edinburgh. No rooms were available at Christ's College, so he took lodgings above a tobacconists in Sidney Street, across the road. Extramural activities were important, and while Darwin did not take up sports or debating, his interests included music and his main passion was the current national craze for the (competitive) collecting of beetles. Trainee clergymen scoured Cambridgeshire for specimens, referring to An Introduction to Entomology by William Kirby and William Spence. Charles joined his older cousin William Darwin Fox who was already a skilled collector and like him got a small dog. The two and their dogs became inseparable. They explored the countryside as Darwin learnt about natural history from his cousin. Darwin became obsessed with winning the student accolade and collected avidly. Once he stripped bark from a dead tree and caught a ground beetle in each hand, then saw the rare Crucifix Ground Beetle, Panagaeus cruxmajor. With the habits of an egg-collector, he popped one ground beetle in his mouth to free his hand, but it ejected some intensely acrid fluid which burnt his tongue and Darwin was forced to spit it out. He lost all three. The specimens he did not lose had to be mounted and identified, and his knowledge from Edinburgh of Lamarck proved useful. Fox introduced him for advice on identification to the Revd. John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany, and Darwin began attending his soirées, a club for budding naturalists. Here he could meet other professors including the geologist the Revd. Adam Sedgwick and the new mineralogist the Revd. William Whewell.
In the summer Darwin paid visits to Squire Owen, and romance seemed to be blossoming with the squire's daughter Fanny. Darwin joined other Cambridge friends on a three-month "reading party" at Barmouth on the coast of Wales to revise their studies with private tutors. For Charles it was an "Entomo-Mathematical expedition". Though he badly needed to catch up with his mathematics, the insect collecting predominated along with pleasant diversions such as hillwalking, boating and fly fishing. He went on daily walks with his close friend, the older student John Maurice Herbert who he dubbed "Cherbury" after Herbert of Cherbury, the father of English Deism. Herbert assisted with the insect collecting, but the usual outcome was that Darwin would examine Herbert's collecting bottle and say "Well, old Cherbury, none of these will do." In September Darwin wrote to tell "My dear old Cherbury" that his own catches had included "some of the rarest of the British Insects, & their being found near Barmouth is quite unknown to the Entomological world: I think I shall write & inform some of the crack Entomologists." He described these "extremely rare" insects and asked Herbert to oblige him by collecting some more of them.
Second year doldrums
At the start of his second year Charles became the tenant of the rooms at Christ's College which traditionally had been occupied by the theologian William Paley. He now had breakfast every day with his older cousin William Darwin Fox. This was Fox's last term before his BA exam, and he now had to cram desperately to make up for lost time. At the Christmas holiday Charles visited London with Eras, toured the scientific institutions "where Naturalists are gregarious" and through his friend the Revd. Frederick William Hope met other insect collectors. These included James Stephens, author of Illustrations of British Entomology".
The January term brought miserable weather and a struggle to keep up with his studies. Around this time, he had an earnest conversation with John Herbert about going into Holy Orders, and asked him whether he could answer yes to the question that the Bishop would put in the ordination service, "Do you trust that you are inwardly moved by the Holy Spirit". When Herbert said that he could not, Darwin replied "Neither can I, and therefore I cannot take orders" to become an ordained priest. Even his interest in insect collecting waned. He fell out with one of the two locals he employed to catch beetles when he found that the local was giving first choice to a rival collector. In the doldrums, he joined a crowd of drinking pals in a frequent "debauch". He put in some hard riding. On one night he and three friends saw the sky lit up and "rode like incarnate devils" eleven miles to see the blaze. They arrived back at two in the morning and violated curfew. He was risking "rustication", temporary expulsion. Such behaviour would be noticed by the Proctors, university officials appointed from the colleges who patrolled the town in plain gowns to police the students.
Student resentment against two unpopular Proctors built up, and on 9 April 1829 a tumult broke out. Charles described how the Senior Proctor was "most gloriously hissed.. & pelted with mud", being "driven so furious" that his servant "dared not go near him for an hour." The Proctors had noted some faces in the mob, and four were rusticated and one fined for being out-of-gown and shouting abuse. Outraged by this leniency, the Proctors quit en masse and printed their resignation to post up around the colleges. Though the unpopular Proctors were gone, Charles was jolted into thinking of the consequences of law-breaking.
In the Spring, Darwin enrolled for John Stevens Henslow's lectures on botany. Professor Henslow's first "public herborizing expedition" of the year took place in May, an outing on which students assisted with collection of plants. However, Darwin made no mention of Henslow in his letters to Fox. On 18 May Darwin wrote to Fox enthusing about his success with beetle collecting, "I think I beat Jenyns in Colymbetes", contrasted with his lack of application to studies: "my time is solely occupied in riding & Entomologizing".
Cambridge was briefly visited on 21 May by the Radicals Richard Carlile and the Revd. Robert Taylor, both recently jailed for blasphemy, on an "infidel home missionary tour" which caused several days of controversy. Taylor was later nicknamed "the Devil's Chaplain", a phrase remembered by Darwin.
Charles had been sending records of the insects he had caught to the entomologist James Francis Stephens, and was thrilled when Stevens published about thirty of these records in Illustrations of British entomology; or, a synopsis of indigenous insects etc. which was printed in parts, with the first description under Darwin's name appearing in an appendix dated 15 June 1829.
That summer, amongst horse riding and beetle collecting, Charles visited his cousin Fox, and this time Charles was teaching entomology to his older cousin. Home at Shrewsbury, Shropshire, he saw his brother Erasmus whose "delicate frame" led to him now giving up medicine and retiring at the age of 26. The brothers visited the Birmingham Music Festival for what Charles described as the "most glorious" experience.
Third year, theology and natural history
Back at Cambridge, Charles studied hard for his Little Go preliminary exam, as a fail would mean a re-sit the following year. He dropped his drinking companions and resumed attending Henslow's Friday evening soirées. For the exam he slogged away at Greek and Latin, and studied William Paley's Evidences of Christianity, becoming so delighted with Paley's logic that he learnt it well. This was a text he also had to study for his finals, and he was "convinced that I could have written out the whole of the Evidences with perfect correctness, but not of course in the clear language of Paley." Later, on the Beagle expedition, he saw evidence which challenged Paley's rose-tinted view, but at this time he was convinced that the Christian revelation established "a future state of reward and punishment" which "gives order for confusion: makes the moral world of a piece with the natural". As with Cambridge University, God gave authority and assigned stations in life, misconduct was penalised and excellence bountifully rewarded. Charles took the one-day verbal examination on 24 March 1830. There were three hours in the morning on the classics and three in the afternoon on the New Testament and Paley. The next day he was delighted to be informed that he had passed.
Several of his friends celebrated their examination successes by dining in each other's rooms in rotation in a weekly club commonly known as the Glutton Club. This name was proposed to ridicule another group whose Greek title meant "fond of dainties", but who dined out on "Mutton Chops, or Beans & Bacon". The Glutton Club attempted to live up to their title by experimentally dining on "birds and beasts which were before unknown to human palate" and tried hawk and bittern, but gave up after eating an old brown owl, "which was indescribable". They had more amusement from concluding each meeting with "a game of mild vingt-et-un".
Over Easter Charles stayed at Cambridge, mounting and cataloguing his beetle collection. He then became an enthusiastic member of the botany course which the "good natured & agreeable" professor Henslow taught five days a week in the Botanic Gardens and on field trips. Henslow's outings were attended by 78 men including professor Whewell. Charles became the "favourite pupil", known as "the man who walks with Henslow", helping to find specimens and to set up "practicals" dissecting plants. He became interested in pollen. One day he watched through a microscope and saw "transparent cones" emerge from the side of a geranium pollen grain. Then one burst spraying out "numberless granules". Henslow explained that the granules were indeed the constituent atoms of pollen, but they had no intrinsic vital power – life was endowed from outside and ultimately derived its power from God, whatever more "speculative" naturalists argued regarding self-activating power. Darwin had been taught otherwise by Grant, and reflected quietly on this, biding his time.
For the summer holidays Darwin arranged to meet Fox at The Mount, but Darwin's father had been ill and family tensions led to a row. Charles went off with the Revd. Hope and other friends for three weeks "entomologizing" in North Wales, hunting for beetles and trout fishing. He went partridge shooting at Maer before returning home.
Fourth year finals and later attitude towards mathematics
Back at Cambridge, his final exams loomed. A "desperate" Charles focused on his studies and got private tuition from Henslow whose subjects were mathematics and theology. This term he had to study Euclid and learn Paley's Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, though this old text was becoming outdated. It opposed arguments for increased democracy, but saw no divine right of rule for the sovereign or the state, only "expediency". Government could be opposed if grievances outweighed the danger and expense to society. The judgement was "Every man for himself". These ideas had suited the conditions of reasonable rule prevailing when the text was published in 1785, but in 1830 they were dangerous ideas. At this time the French king was deposed by middle class republicans and given refuge in England by the Tory government. In response, radical street protests demanded suffrage, equality and freedom of religion. Then in November the Tory administration collapsed and the Whigs took over. Paley's text even supported abolition of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican faith which every student at Cambridge (and Oxford University) was required to sign. Henslow insisted that "he should be grieved if a single word... was altered" and emphasised the need to respect authority. This happened even as campaigns of civil disobedience spread to starving agricultural labourers and villages close to Cambridge suffered riots and arson attacks.
In the third week of January 1831 Charles sat his final exam. There were three days of written papers covering the Classics, the two Paley texts and John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, then mathematics and physics. At the end of the week when the results were posted he was dazed and proud to have come 10th out of a pass list of 178 doing the ordinary degree. Charles shone in theology and scraped through in the other subjects. He was also exhausted and depressed, writing to Fox "I do not know why the degree should make one so miserable." In later life he recalled Paley and Euclid being the only part of the course which was useful to him, and "By answering well the examination questions in Paley, by doing Euclid well, and by not failing miserably in Classics, I gained a good place among the οἱ πολλοί, or crowd of men who do not go in for honours."
On the specific issue of his mathematical education, Darwin came to regret his lack of ability and application: "I attempted mathematics, and even went during the summer of 1828 with a private tutor (a very dull man) to Barmouth, but I got on very slowly. The work was repugnant to me, chiefly from my not being able to see any meaning in the early steps in algebra. This impatience was very foolish, and in after years I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense".
Natural theology and geology
Residence requirements kept Darwin in Cambridge till June. He resumed his beetle collecting, took career advice from Henslow, and read William Paley's Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity which set out to refute David Hume's argument that "design" by a Creator was merely a human projection onto the forces of nature. Paley saw a rational proof of God's existence in the complexity and perfect adaptation to needs of living beings exquisitely fitted to their places in a happy world, while attacking the evolutionary ideas of Erasmus Darwin as coinciding with atheistic schemes and lacking evidence. Paley's benevolent God acted in nature though uniform and universal laws, not arbitrary miracles or changes of laws, and this use of secondary laws provided a theodicy explaining the problem of evil by separating nature from direct divine action. This convinced Charles and encouraged his interest in science. He later wrote "I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley's Natural Theology: I could almost formerly have said it by heart."
He read John Herschel's new Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, learning that nature was governed by laws, and the highest aim of natural philosophy was to understand them through an orderly process of induction, balancing observation and theorising. This was part of the liberal Christianity of Darwin's tutors, who saw no disharmony between honest inductive science and religion. Such science was religion, and could not be heretical. Darwin also read Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative, and the two books were immensely influential, stirring up in him "a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science." As a young graduate, Henslow had geologised on the Isle of Wight and the Isle of Man, and he too had longed to visit Africa. Marriage and his position at the university now made the prospect remote, but he still had an unfulfilled ambition to "explore regions but little known, and enrich science with new species."
At home for Easter in early April, Darwin told his cousin Fox of "a scheme I have almost hatched" to visit the Canary Islands and see Tenerife as recommended by Humboldt. On returning to Cambridge, he wrote to his sister that "my head is running about the Tropics: in the morning I go and gaze at Palm trees in the hot-house and come home and read Humboldt: my enthusiasm is so great that I cannot hardly sit still on my chair. Henslow & other Dons give us great credit for our plan: Henslow promises to cram me in geology". He was studying Spanish language, and was in "a Tropical glow". Henslow introduced Darwin to the great geologist the Revd. Adam Sedgwick who had been his own tutor, and shared views on religion, politics and morals. Darwin was fired up by Sedgwick's Spring course of "equestrian outings" with its vistas of the grandeur of God's creation, so much of which was yet unexplored. He exclaimed, "What a capital hand is Sedgewick for drawing large cheques upon the Bank of Time!". When Sedgwick mentioned the effects of a local spring from a chalk hill depositing lime on twigs, Charles rode out to find the spring and threw a bush in, then later brought back the white coated spray which Sedgwick exhibited in class, inspiring others to do the same.
Darwin continued plotting his "Canary scheme", and on 11 May he told Fox "My other friends most sincerely wish me there I plague them so with talking about tropical scenery &c &c.". His father gave him "a 200£ note" to pay his college debts. In addition, "Some goodnatured Cambridge man has made me a most magnificent anonymous present of a Microscope: did ever hear of such a delightful piece of luck? one would like to know who it was, just to feel obliged to him." Darwin later found that the gift was from his friend John Herbert.
In mid June Darwin returned home to Shrewsbury, and continued "working like a tiger" for the Canary scheme, "at present Spanish & Geology, the former I find as intensely stupid, as the latter most interesting". By then his most likely companion on the trip was the tutor Marmaduke Ramsay. Darwin was "trying to make a map" of Shropshire, "but dont find it so easy as I expected." He ordered a clinometer, and on 11 July wrote to tell Henslow that it had arrived and he had tried it out in his bedroom. "As yet I have only indulged in hypotheses; but they are such powerful ones, that I suppose, if they were put into action but for one day, the world would come to an end." In efforts to learn the basics of geology he extended his mapping of strata as far away as Llanymynech, some 16 miles (26 km) from Shrewsbury, using the terminology he had learnt in Edinburgh from Robert Jameson. Already he was anxious that he had not heard from Sedgwick, and when he investigated ship sailings he found that they were only available in certain months. For this reason, the trip to Teneriffe had to be postponed to the following June, and it looked increasingly unlikely that Henslow would come on the trip. Darwin wrote to one of his student friends that he was "at present mad about Geology" and had plans to ride through Wales then meet with other students at Barmouth.
On 4 August 1831 Sedgwick arrived in his gig at The Mount, Shrewsbury, to take Charles as his assistant on a short geological expedition mapping strata in Wales. That evening Charles told of a tropical shell found in a nearby gravel pit and was impressed when Sedgwick responded that it must have been thrown away there, as it contradicted the known geology of the area. This made him realise "that science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them." Sedgwick aimed to investigate and correct possible errors in George Greenough's geological map of 1820, and to trace the fossil record to the earliest times to rebut the uniformitarian ideas just published by Charles Lyell. On the morning of 5 August they went from Shrewsbury to Llangollen, and on 11 August reached Penrhyn Quarry. After less than a week of doing hard practical work Charles had learnt how to identify specimens, interpret strata and generalise from his observations. Then he went off on his own to collect samples and investigate the Vale of Clwyd, looking in vain for the Old Red Sandstone shown by Greenough. They met up in Colwyn, and Sedgwick's pleasure at the confirmation that the map was incorrect made Darwin "exceedingly proud". They went on to Capel Curig where Charles struck out on his own across 30 miles (50 km) of "some strange wild places" to Barmouth. He had parted from Sedgwick by 20 August, and travelled via Ffestiniog.
Voyage on the Beagle
Arriving at Barmouth on the evening of 23 August, Charles met up with a "reading party" of Cambridge friends for a time before he left on the morning of 29 August, to go back to Shrewsbury and on to partridge shooting with his Wedgwood relatives at Maer Hall. He was grieved to have received a message that Ramsay had died. This upset Darwin's plans for a visit in the following year to Tenerife. He arrived home at The Mount, Shrewsbury, on 29 August, and found a letter from Henslow. The Cambridge Fellow George Peacock had heard from Francis Beaufort of plans for the second survey voyage of HMS Beagle, and had written to Henslow proposing Leonard Jenyns as "a proper person to go out as a naturalist with this expedition", or if he was unavailable seeking recommendations for an alternative to take up this "glorious opportunity". When Jenyns decided not to leave his parish, he and Henslow thought of Darwin. Henslow's letter, read by Peacock and forwarded to Darwin, expected him to eagerly catch at the likely offer of a two-year trip to Terra del Fuego & home by the East Indies, not as "a finished Naturalist", but as a gentleman "amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy to be noted in Natural History". The appointment was more as a companion to Captain Robert FitzRoy, than as a mere collector. Henslow wrote "I assure you I think you are the very man they are in search of".
His father thought the voyage a waste of his son's time and strongly objected. Dejected, Charles declined the offer, and went to Maer for the partridge shooting with a note from his father to "Uncle Jos" Wedgwood. This contained a prescription for a bowel ailment and a note saying that Charles had quite given up the proposed "voyage of discovery", but "if you think differently from me I shall wish him to follow your advice." Charles' hopes were revived by this unexpected news, and his relatives came out in favour of the voyage. He outlined his father's objections, and sat up that night drafting a reply with his uncle. Jos wrote suggesting that Charles would be likely to "acquire and strengthen, habits of application", and "Natural History... is very suitable to a Clergyman." Though "useless as regards his profession", for "a man of enlarged curiosity, it affords him such an opportunity of seeing men and things as happens to few". The Admiralty would look after him well, but "you & Charles... must decide." Charles begged "one favour... a decided answer, yes or no." This reply was sent post-haste early on the morning of 1 September and Charles went shooting. About 10 o'clock he received word from his uncle that they should go to The Mount at once. When they arrived a few hours later, Charles' father had decided that he would give "all the assistance in my power".
- John H. Wahlert (11 June 2001). "The Mount House, Shrewsbury, England (Charles Darwin)". Darwin and Darwinism. Baruch College. Retrieved 26 November 2008.
- Desmond & Moore 1991, pp. 12–15
Darwin 1958, pp. 21–25
- From Charles Darwin: a life in pictures at Darwin Online, the parish register of St. Chad's gives Darwin's date of baptism as 15 November 1809, a date supported by "England, Births and Christenings, 1538–1975," index, FamilySearch, accessed 18 July 2012), Charles Robt. Darwin, 1809. The date is given as 17 November in Freeman (2007) p. 106, and Desmond & Moore p. 12.
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- Desmond & Moore 1991, pp. 39–41
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- Desmond & Moore 1991, p. 59 describes the incident and states that the insect Darwin popped into his mouth was a bombardier beetle.
*They cite Darwin's correspondence and his Autobiography (Darwin 1958, pp. 62–63.)
*"Darwin: Young Naturalist". American Museum of Natural History. Archived from the original on 21 December 2010. Retrieved 12 July 2006. quotes the Autobiography, and while its illustration shows a bombardier beetle, it says "Many beetles, including the Brachinus crepitans and the Stenaptinus insignis, release irritating chemicals as a defense."
*Letter 1009 — Darwin, C. R. to Jenyns, Leonard, 17 Oct (1846) describes the two beetles as unidentified carabi, or ground beetles.
*"Wicken Fen: Crucifix Ground Beetle". Archived from the original on 18 June 2008. Retrieved 16 August 2008.
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What a book a Devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!
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- The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online – Darwin Online; Darwin's publications, private papers and bibliography, supplementary works including biographies, obituaries and reviews. Free to use, includes items not in public domain.
- Works by Charles Darwin at Project Gutenberg; public domain
- Darwin Correspondence Project Text and notes for most of his letters