Posted by: Rob Viens | February 12, 2012

Darwin Day Part II

Today, February 12th, Charles Darwin turned 23 after about 1 ½ months on the Beagle. To Darwin, it seemed be just another day at sea. He mentions nothing of it in his Diary, but in a correspondence written on this day, his sister Susan sweetly writes:

“I must begin this folio by wishing you joy my dear Charley of being this day 23 years old; and I heartily hope it may find you happy, and that you may continue so for many and many a year to come.” (Correspondence from Susan Darwin on Feb 12)

Poor Darwin is sick on his birthday:

“There has been a little swell on the sea to day, & I have been very uncomfortable: this has tried & quite overcome the small stock of patience that the early parts of the voyage left me.” (Feb 12)

As mentioned yesterday, As part of “Darwin Day” I thought I’d mention a few common threads regarding Darwin’s youth that stand out to me in the first couple chapters of his autobiography. Here are a few, with some of my favorite quotes. (I know there are a lot, but this is a distillation of about 50 pages of his autobiography.)

Charles Robert Darwin a few years after the voyage:

Charles Darwin in the late 1830's

(1) He loved nature – both walking in it and shooting things. In fact, had his life taken another path he may have may have ended up a playboy sportsman (he talks about shooting quite a bit). It suggested a bit of a competitive nature in Mr. Darwin. He maintained his love of nature and walks, though later in life lost interest in shooting.

“I have heard my father and elder sisters say that I had, as a very young boy, a strong taste for long solitary walks” (This story ends with him being so absorbed that he falls into a ravine.)

“In the latter part of my school life I became passionately fond of shooting, and I do not believe that anyone could have shown more zeal for the most holy cause than I did for shooting birds. … Another and better plan was to get a friend to wave about a lighted candle, and then to fire at it with a cap on the nipple, and if the aim was accurate the little puff of air would blow out the candle.”

“At that time I should have thought myself mad to give up the first days of partridge-shooting for geology or any other science.”

(2) People liked to play practical jokes on him – or at least, they stuck in his mind enough to remember them in his autobiography. At least 3 or 4 times in his early life her recalls being the butt of a joke, including  a “friend” who tricked him into stealing pastries. One example comes from his musical friends. You can almost see the group of teenage boys standing around “talking trash” (19th century style, of course).

“My musical friends soon perceived my state, and sometimes amused themselves by making me pass an examination, which consisted in ascertaining how many tunes I could recognise, when they were played rather more quickly or slowly than usual. ‘God save the King’ when thus played was a sore puzzle. “

(3) He has a habit of belittling himself – especially as a youngster.  Maybe he is suggesting that he started from humble beginnings, or maybe he is hinting that anybody can change the world if they are willing to try.  A couple quotes:

“I have been told that I was much slower in learning than my younger sister Catherine, and I believe that I was in many ways a naughty boy.”

“I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my Father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect.”

(4) He was a bit of an obsessive-compuslisve when it came to collecting things. In particular he liked beetles.  It is also obvious that the people that he hangs out with teach him to observe, catalog collections and preserve samples – skills that will become invaluable later.

“But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles.”

“I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.”

(5) He was particularly proud of his scientific achievements.  One example was of an early publication:

“I made one interesting little discovery, and read about the beginning of the year 1826, a short paper on the subject before the Plinian Socy. This was that the so-called ova of Flustra had the power of independent movement by means of cilia, and were in fact larvæ. …The Plinian Society was encouraged and I believe founded by Professor Jameson: it consisted of students and met in an underground room in the University for the sake of reading papers on natural science and discussing them.”

(6) He did not think very highly of school and had relatively strong opinions about various subjects. It was pretty clear that although he loved to learn that it was on his own terms and that  classical education was not for him.  But in several places he laments that he wishes he did pay a little more attention in his studies:

“Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler’s school, as it was strictly classical… The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank.”

As an academic in the sciences, I found Darwin’s comments on several disciplines both amusing and enlightening.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • On Chemistry-

“The fact that we worked at chemistry somehow got known at school, and as it was an unprecedented fact, I was nick-named ‘Gas.'”

“Lectures, and these were intolerably dull, with the exception of those on chemistry by [Thomas Charles] Hope but to my mind there are no advantages and many disadvantages in lectures compared with reading. “

  • On Math-

“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. ” (Excellent advise today, too.)

  • On Geology-

“During my second year in Edinburgh I attended Jameson’s lectures on Geology and Zoology, but they were incredibly dull. The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology or in any way to study the science” (OK, we know this story has a happy end and Darwin ended up loving geology, but it sure does show the impact of a bad teacher. But he must have done something right – I assume this is the same Jameson that led the Plinian Society Darwin speaks highly of above.)

  • On Medical Studies-

“Dr. Munro made his lectures on human anatomy as dull, as he was himself, and the subject disgusted me. It has proved one of the greatest evils in my life that I was not urged to practice dissection, for I should soon have got over my disgust; and the practice would have been invaluable for all my future work.”

“I also attended on two occasions the operating theatre in the hospital at Edinburgh, and saw two very bad operations, one on a child, but I rushed away before they were completed. Nor did I ever attend again, for hardly any inducement would have been strong enough to make me do so; this being long before the blessed days of chloroform. The two cases fairly haunted me for many a long year.” (These experiences apparently turned him off of medicine, and set him back on track to being a natural scientist.)

(7) Darwin had a lot of friends and thy liked to have a good time.  It’s worth noting that many of them had an interest in science, and that Darwin likes to remind us that many of them went on to be botanists or zoologists, etc. But he also refers to “hanging out” and having a good time, and surprisingly to a shared interest in music.  To draw modern analogy to more recent college students, Darwin was in a “garage band” and he loved to get together and jam (though he admitted that he was not that good – I wonder if he payed the tambourine).

“We used often to dine together in the evening, though these dinners often included men of a higher stamp, and we sometimes drank too much, with jolly singing and playing at cards afterwards. I know that I ought to feel ashamed of days and evenings thus spent, but as some of my friends were very pleasant and we were all in the highest spirits, I cannot help looking back to these times with much pleasure.”

“I also got into a musical set, I believe by means of my warm-hearted friend Herbert…Nevertheless I am so utterly destitute of an ear, that I cannot perceive a discord, or keep time and hum a tune correctly; and it is a mystery how I could possibly have derived pleasure from music.”

To bring us full circle, Susan Darwin ends her birthday letter with the following reference to Darwin’s love of music:

“I have played a good deal of Music this winter for your sake.” (Correspondence from Susan Darwin on Feb 12)

Happy Birthday Charley – At 23 you have no idea what’s coming! (RJV)

Google doodle for Darwin Day 2009 (his 200th bithday):

Google doodle for Darwin Day



  1. […] in earlier posts around the time they were written (for example on his Birthday – see Darwin Day II), but it wasn’t until today that he actually read them. Darwin heard from his father and […]

  2. […] How Darwin celebrated his birthday is unknown, as there are no entries in his diary today. I suppose, you might say he gave himself the day off from writing – but I suspect that would not really be a “present” for him. There are no correspondence, though I have no doubt his sisters were thinking fondly of him that day from the other end of the Earth (see last year’s birthday message from his sister at Darwin Day Part II). […]

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