Posted by: Rob Viens | March 11, 2012

How Darwin Almost Stayed Home Part II

Despite his excitement about the opportunity to be a globe-trotting naturalist, when he was first asked to sail on the Beagle, Charles Darwin had to say no.  Not because he didn’t want to go, but because he respected the wishes of his father.

I suspect Dr. Robert Darwin had some concerns abut his son, the boy who really didn’t seem to be able to succeed at a career (he had by this point left medical school).  And Dr. Darwin saw no way in which the voyage would support his son’s education as a clergyman. (I’m sure he had some fears that Darwin might not survive it, too.) So when his father said “no”, Darwin wrote to his mentor, John Henslow, and said he could not accept the offer:

“As far as my own mind is concerned, I should I think, certainly most gladly have accepted the opportunity, which you so kindly have offered me.— But my Father, although he does not decidedly refuse me, gives such strong advice against going.—that I should not be comfortable, if I did not follow it.— … But if it had not been for my Father, I would have taken all risks.” (Correspondence to J.S. Henslow,30 August 1831)

This was not only out of respect for his father’s wishes, but also because his dad would have had to put up the money for the trip. But Dr. Darwin gave his son a loophole.  He told Charlie that if anyone could convince him that his concerns were not grounded, he’d change his mind and let his son go on the voyage.

Dr. Robert Darwin:
Robert Darwin

So Darwin went to his Uncle Jos – Robert’s brother-in-law, Josiah Wedgwood II – and after a day of talking and shooting a plan was hatched.  Darwin wrote down his father’s concerns and shared them with his uncle (also from a Correspondence to Robert Darwin, 31 August 1831)

  1. Disreputable to my character as a Clergyman hereafter
  2. A wild scheme
  3. That they must have offered to many others before me, the place of Naturalist
  4. And from its not being accepted there must be some serious objection to the vessel or expedition
  5. That I should never settle down to a steady life hereafter
  6. That my accomodations would be most uncomfortable
  7. That you should consider it as again changing my profession
  8. That it would be a useless undertaking

Uncle Jos – Josiah Wedgwood II:
Josiah Wedgwood II

Uncle Jos then wrote a response to each concern and sent it back to his brother-in-law.  A couple of examples are below:

Response to #2 – “I hardly know how to meet this objection, but he would have definite objects upon which to employ himself and might acquire and strengthen, habits of application, and I should think would be as likely to do so in any way in which he is likely to pass the next two years at home.” (Correspondence from Josiah Wedgwood to Robert Darwin, 31 August 1831)

Response to #8 – “The undertaking would be useless as regards his profession, but looking upon him as a man of enlarged curiosity, it affords him such an opportunity of seeing men and things as happens to few.” (Correspondence from Josiah Wedgwood to Robert Darwin, 31 August 1831)

The result – Dr. Darwin was true to his word and agreed to support Charles’ wish to go on (what was then scheduled to be) a two-year trip. He even agreed to pay for it:

“Charles is very grateful for your taking so much trouble & interest in his plans. I made up my mind to give up all objections, if you should not see it in the same view as I did.— Charles has stated my objections quite fairly & fully—if he still continues in the same mind after further enquiry, I will give him all the assistance in my power.” (Correspondence from Robert Darwin to Josiah Wedgwood, 1 September 1831)

The response was so quick, that it almost seems the Robert Darwin had second thoughts about his objections even before the letter from Josiah.

Darwin must have been extatic and wasted no time in writing a letter directly to the Francis Beaufort accepting the offer (no need wasting time with Henslow as the middleman when his previous rejection letter was already on the way to Beaufort).

“I take the liberty of writing to you according to Mr. Peacocks desire to acquaint you with my acceptance of the offer of going with Capt Fitzroy. …  if the appointment is not already filled up,—I shall be very happy to have the honor of accepting it.” (Correspondence to Francis Beaufort, 1 September 1831)

Luckily no other new offers had been made, so Darwin only had one last hoop to jump through – to receive FitzRoy’s approval. I suppose I am selling that part of the story a little 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 history.

Can you imagine if Darwin had not gone on the trip?  I have no doubt that the idea of evolution would be with us today – thought the name of Alfred Russel Wallace would be the one associated with it and evolution-deniers would be complaining about the faults of “Wallacism”. How much longer would it have taken for the theory to be fleshed out? Would Wallace have had the same academic support? How would the world be different today? Would Darwin have gone on to advance science in a totally different way?  It’s hard to say, but one thing is for sure – the name of Charles Darwin would have the same respect as it does in this reality. Thanks for saving history, Uncle Jos! (RJV)



  1. […] 1831 that Darwin's father agreed to allow him to go on the voyage (after some convincing) – see How Darwin Almost Stayed How Part II.] “This last week, although lost for surveying, has produced several animals; the examination […]

  2. […] Uncle Jos, or Josiah Wedgewood II, was both Darwin’s Uncle (his mother’s brother), his father-in-law, and a good friend, supporter and role-model of Charles’. If you recall, if it where not for his uncle’s intervention back in 1831, Darwin would not even be on the trip to South America (see How Darwin Almost Stayed Home Part II). […]

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