The Forces That Shaped A Young Charles Darwin

To honor Charles Darwin — born 200 years ago this month — Weekend Edition Sunday and the NPR science desk are launching a series called "Darwin 200." In the first installment, Keith Thomson, author of The Young Charles Darwin, talks about his early influences.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. It's fair to say that Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection revolutionized not just the world of science, but the world. "The Origin of Species," his book that articulated that theory, was published 150 years ago. Later this month, February 12th, is the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Charles Darwin created a scientific understanding of the role of evolution that, at the time, was nothing short of radical. Today, scientists continue to uncover the mechanisms of his insight, and theologians continue to question it. Patricia Hawley is a professor at the University of Kansas. She teaches Psych 555, Evolutionary Psychology.

Dr. PATRICIA HAWLEY (Developmental and Social Psychology, University of Kansas): In that class, because it's an upper-level course and it has evolution right in the title, I don't tend to get a lot of kids in that class who have trouble reconciling their spirituality with science.

It's a little bit more the other direction - is that kids email me and ask me, can I please get in it because I'm dying to learn more about how evolution has influenced human behavior patterns.

HANSEN: This month, Weekend Edition Sunday and NPR's science desk will explore how Charles Darwin's work has affected both science and society. But first, it helps to understand the man himself - where he came from, what shaped him, who influenced him and how he became the most influential naturalist ever.

Keith Thomson is professor emeritus of natural history at the University of Oxford and has written extensively about Darwin. In his latest book, "The Young Charles Darwin," he describes what the scientist was like as a child.

Dr. KEITH THOMSON (Natural History, University of Oxford; Author, "The Young Charles Darwin"): He was very self-absorbed. He did a huge amount of reading. He liked to go for long walks by himself when he would get so absorbed in thinking that he might fall off a wall or something like that. And he hated school.

HANSEN: He hated school?

Dr. THOMSON: What he loved was learning things for himself. But if someone sat up and told him, here are the 20 rules that you have to understand, then he blanked out.

HANSEN: I have to ask you, why was he nicknamed Gas as a kid?

Dr. THOMSON: Oh, because he and his older brother, Erasmus, were terribly keen on chemistry experiments, which they did in a shed in the garden. And one of the things they - you know, if you're going to do chemistry, you have to make smelly gases.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Who in his family tree would you say most influenced his scientific tendencies?

Dr. THOMSON: I think very much his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who was a very famous doctor in the English Midlands. He was also the first person to write down a theory of what we now call evolution. Of course, it's long since superceded by his grandson, but it was quite shattering at the time and rather unpopular.

HANSEN: Charles Darwin's mother died...

Dr. THOMSON: Yes.

HANSEN: When he was eight...

Dr. THOMSON: Eight.

HANSEN: Years old.

Dr. THOMSON: Yes.

HANSEN: And I understand she was an inveterate gardener.

Dr. THOMSON: She was, yes. They had greenhouses, and the botanical world then was still reeling under the influence of the work of Carl Linnaeus in Sweden, who had produced the classificatory scheme of plants which depended on looking at their reproductive parts. And for people in the late 18th century, this was really quite scandalous that you'd be talking about the male parts and the female parts and so on.

Darwin's grandfather had written - wrote a whole book around this called, "The Loves of Plants." And there is a letter which suggests that Susannah Darwin had sat Darwin down at a young age and explained to him what the bits of the flower were and, you know, this is - how far it got, I don't know. But she does seem to have been a most remarkable woman and very interested in not just the pretty parts of plants, but the scientific aspects of botany, too.

HANSEN: He went to Edinburgh...

Dr. THOMSON: Yes.

HANSEN: To study.

Dr. THOMSON: He was shipped off to Edinburgh at the age of 16 because he was doing so poorly in the formal schooling.

HANSEN: Really? But Edinburgh was pretty much a hub of scientific thinking at that time.

Dr. THOMSON: It was, and it was a wonderful place for him to have been. What he discovered there, I think, though, is that he was very, very interested in the science, particularly the natural history. But he didn't like it when people got to arguing and fussing about one interpretation versus another. That turned him off.

HANSEN: Hmm(ph). So there were already debates about say, natural selection, how the earth was formed, how old the earth is, there, and he didn't pay attention to them or did they influence him?

Dr. THOMSON: It's very hard to tell from his letters and his autobiography. Natural selection was his invention, so that came later. But Edinburgh in 1827 and 1828 was quite a hotbed of people talking about evolution.

They would talk about his grandfather's theory, and it had recently been revived and extended by Jean Baptiste Lamarck in France. We refer to his ideas as Lamarckism. And one of Darwin's mentors there published some very strong Lamarckian essays at the time Darwin was there. So it was really kind of a hot issue at the moment.

HANSEN: Why did he decide to study theology at Cambridge?

Dr. THOMSON: Most people will tell you that he saw a couple of nasty operations in his first year at medical school in Edinburgh without chloroform, and they really turned him off. My view is that what happened, he got in with this Dr. Grant(ph), who was a very good naturalist, who took him everywhere, and they started doing work together in the laboratory.

Darwin made some nice little discoveries, and Grant published them without acknowledging that Darwin had anything to do with it. Under that betrayal, Darwin just gave up Edinburgh and went home.

Well, the next possible career would be to go into the church, and so he went to Cambridge to study the - to do a bachelor's degree in classics and theology, preparatory to becoming a Church of England parson.

HANSEN: Why didn't he continue on that path?

Dr. THOMSON: Well, two things. His older brother Erasmus had worked out that they were going to be very well off. His mother, who was a Wedgwood, had left a large fortune. Their father had a great deal of money and that they wouldn't actually have to work.

And so he, I think, well, I'm sure that his original plan was that he would have a sort of nominal church somewhere that he was nominally responsible for, and then become the sort of dilettante natural historian. Then he was invited to go on the voyage of HMS Beagle, and he became a great scientist instead (laughing). And he never had to earn a penny. He never did have a job.

HANSEN: When he was invited aboard the HMS Beagle, why did he want to go? What was his goal?

Dr. THOMSON: He was a terribly keen naturalist. He loved to collect animals, insects, particularly, he loved to collect plants. And here was this extraordinary opportunity - a ship that would be going around the world for two - as it was then thought, finished up nearly five years.

But it had one tremendous advantage for him and that is that the captain, Robert FitzRoy, wanted someone to go on this voyage who would be a gentleman and would be something of a companion for him. And so it was socially acceptable, and it was everything he'd ever dreamt of, and also, it managed to put off making any decisions about his career in the church.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: You write that when Darwin started the voyage on the Beagle, he was a conventional Christian. Do you think he had inner conflicts about science and religion?

Dr. THOMSON: Yes. Later in his life, it was a terrible problem. He realized what his theory, which provided a mechanism for evolution - people had long thought that evolution must have happened, but if you didn't have a mechanism, you couldn't take it very seriously. He provided a serious mechanism, and he knew by doing that he would really set the cat among the pigeons.

He wrote to a friend before he had made any of this public, he said it's like confessing a murder. And it was made worse by the fact that his wife, Emma, was a very devout woman, and she was really badly hurt by anything he said that doubted the existence and power of the Creator. So for all his life, he had to deal with the problem of what he was doing and the effect it would have, particularly on his wife and family.

HANSEN: What were his strengths, would you say, as a scientist?

Dr. THOMSON: Oh, very easy that one. I think, one his total self-absorption. Nothing interfered with his work. Secondly, he was a voluminous reader. He just inhaled information from books, and he often read and worked and thought until he made himself physically ill.

But on top of that, he had a particular sort of brilliance. He could take three or four different phenomena and see associations among them that nobody else had ever spotted before - this associative reasoning.

Some scientists are very good at taking a fact and then making a smaller fact and a smaller fact until they go right down to one little nubbin of truth. He was exactly the opposite. He could take material from anywhere and bring it together and make one all encompassing theory.

HANSEN: Keith Thomson is the author of "The Young Charles Darwin." NPR Science Correspondent Joe Palka went to England to report on the bicentennial celebrations of their native son. Bob Bloomfield, the man who calls himself the champion of Darwin 200, told Joe there are all sorts of celebrations all over the country.

Dr. BOB BLOOMFIELD (Head, Innovation and Special Projects, Natural History Museum, London): They range from major efforts by the Wellcome Trust to place experimental education packs for evolution into every school across the United Kingdom through to tiny groups of knitters creating knitted responses to evolution.

JOE PALKA: Knitted, wait a minute, wait a minute. A knitted response to evolution - how does that work?

Dr. BLOOMFIELD: Well, the group will create an artistic knitted element which are evocative of evolutionary processes. And similarly, there's a very small group also doing quilts, which are doing a bayeux(ph) tapestry of a big (unintelligible) in essence.

HANSEN: Bob Bloomfield, the champion of Darwin 200. You'll hear more next week on Weekend Edition.

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