Posted by: Rob Viens | February 13, 2012

Warm Butter and the Shape of Darwin’s Head

As I read Darwin’s diary and get to know him a little better as a person, rather than a legend, some of his personality starts to come through.  Aside from making fun of himself (as he does in his autobiography) he also has a sense of humor (albeit Victorian).  On Feb 13th he complains about the tropical heat stating:

“This has been the first day that the heat has annoyed us … when in bed, it is I am sure just like what one would feel if stewed in very warm melted butter” (Feb 13)

He is even able to joke about his perpetual seasickness:

“This morning a glorious fresh trade wind is driving us along; I call it glorious because others do; it is however bitter cruelty to call anything glorious that gives my stomach so much uneasiness. — Oh a ship is a true pandemonium, & the cawkers who are hammering away above my head veritable devils.” (Feb 13)

Reading between the lines of his autobiography, I think it is fairly clear that he had a bit of a sarcastic streak, too. For example, on several occasions Darwin talks about phrenology.  (Phrenology is the practice of determining someone’s intellect, habits, skills, etc. by the shape of their skull.) This practice was popular in the 1800’s, so I suppose it is not that unusual for him to mention it. However, this line almost bleeds sarcasm:

” If the phrenologists are to be trusted, I was well fitted in one respect to be a clergyman. A few years ago the Secretaries of a German psychological society asked me earnestly by letter for a photograph of myself; and some time afterwards I received the proceedings of one of the meetings in which it seemed that the shape of my head had been the subject of a public discussion, and one of the speakers declared that I had the bump of Reverence developed enough for ten Priests.” (Darwin’s Autobiography)

Phrenology head from the 1880’s:

phrenology head

In another case, he refers to the somewhat similar field of physiognomy – where a person’s character is determined from their appearance –typically from the face. (Essentially this is like saying someone is bad because they have “ugly” features). My favorite of these comments was regarding Darwin’s selection to be the naturalist on the Beagle Voyage:

” I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected, on account of the shape of my nose! He [Fitzroy] was an ardent disciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted whether anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.” (Darwin’s Autobiography)

Johann Lavater, mentioned above, was a Swiss physiognomist that lived in the second half of the 19th century, and is often credited with popularizing this particular pseudoscience. Unfortunately, a quick Google search reveals that this type of profiling is still around. Software actually exists that allows you to find out all about a person using a picture of their face. Frightening…

Image from the 1889 book Physiognomy Illustrated by Joseph Simms:

physiognomy illustrated image

In any case, it is in comments like these that Darwin, the man not the legend, shines through.  It is a pleasure to get to know him. (RJV)


  1. […] short, but suffice it to say, short of some concerns with some bumps on Darwin’s head (see Warm Butter and the Shape of Darwin’s Head), the meeting went well and the rest, as they say, is […]

  2. […] strong believer in phrenology – something that almost got Darwin eliminated from the voyage (see Warm Butter and the Shape of Darwin’s Head). It is funny here that he refers to it as “Bumpology”. His Latin translates as […]

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