Posted by: Rob Viens | July 12, 2012

Darwin and Thoreau

July 12th – A short entry today and one of the first of several where Darwin records the relative position of the Beagle between Rio and it next destination – ~1/6 of the way there:

“The wind yet continues foul, but light: we are only about 150 miles from Rio, & 700 from Cape St Mary’s.” (July 12)

Today in 1832, Henry David Thoreau turned 15 years old.  He was living in Concord Massachusetts and just about to go off (in 1833) to study at Harvard. Darwin, at 23, was only 8 years older.

A young Henry David Thoreau in 1854 by Samuel Worcester Rouse

Henry David Thoreau in 1854

The thought crossed my mind that the two men had some similarities (their most famous books were written a mere 5 years apart in the 1850’s), so I thought I’d ponder that a little in today’s entry. Here are a few random thoughts on Darwin and Thoreau (in no particular order):

  • In some ways both men were pondering a similar question – how did humans fit into the natural world?  Darwin looked at how we are biologically related (and how all species were related) – and more to the point where we came from.  Thoreau examined how we were emotionally related – how we fit into the natural world and, to some degree, how humanity could continue to live in the natural world.  The two viewpoints overlapped in the present.
  • Thoreau read and was apparently a big fan of Voyage of the Beagle – almost in the same way that Darwin devoured the earlier explorations of Alexander Humboldt. Voyage was published in 1845 –  the same year Thoreau begin his life of simplicity “on Walden Pond”.
  • Thoreau, of course, is known for promoting simplicity.  In some ways Darwin exemplified this – living a relatively simple life.  But he also had wealth and had no problem purchasing what he needed to be comfortable. Life on the voyage was relatively simple, but Darwin equipped himself with all the latest equipment for studying the natural world. On the other hand, Darwin was always fascinated with the “simple” animals – barnicles, earthworms, beetles – the things most people overlooked.
  • Walden and Origin of Species were written just 5 years apart (in 1854 and 1859 respectively).
    There is no indication that Darwin read Walden, however, Thoreau was one of the first Americans to support Darwin’s theory of the origin of species through natural selection.  He read it shortly after it came out, though sadly, right at the time Thoreau’s health severely declined (he died in early 1862). Some have suggested that Origin inspired Thoreau to delve into the natural history of the vegetation around Concord in the years before his death.
  • Both men liked to walk in the woods and think / ponder the world. Both were poets in their own right, and both were great observers.
  • There is no doubt that both men were nonconformists.  Thoreau walked his own path, breaking away from the established expectations of society. Darwin based his ideas on his own (extensive) observations, and when push came to shove, was willing to break away from the established views of science and society.  They both struggled with this to some degree, but did not cave to outside influences.

In a short online search, I found that others have pondered this relationship, as well (some in a lot more depth that me).

Jill Clark wrote a Master’s thesis titled Henry David Thoreau: A Darwinian Naturalist.  I have not had time to read more than a little bit so far, but let me include a couple of quotes from her introduction in which she compares the two men:

“Thoreau the poet possessed the methodical research skills of a scientist who intimately understood New England flora and fauna. This transcendental philosopher peered at nature with profound appreciation and purpose—continually honing his powers of observation that ultimately rendered him an astute man of science.”

“These two dedicated biologists spent their lives journeying through nature, studying the intricacies of a geologically precise system of checks and balances.”

“Above all, these evolutionary scientists—Henry David Thoreau and Charles Robert Darwin—understood the mechanics of a world that had run profitably for millions of years, and one whose natural laws not only applied to flora and fauna, but to the origin of all species.”

Walden (original title page) by Henry David Thoreau:


In an essay written for the journal Ecotone, David Gessner juxtaposes the last two sentences of Walden and Origin of Species.  I found it to be an interesting and moving connection, so I thought I would also conclude with them here:

“The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” (Walden)

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” (Origin of Species)

Happy birthday, Henry! (RJV)


  1. xoxox

  2. Hey Rob, thanks for this entry on Thoreau and Darwin, a comparison that makes sense, yet one that I have never pondered…

  3. Rob–Another post that depends not just on the fascinating source material–and fascinating sources–but on your knowledgeable, humane– and also sweet–perspective on things.
    I was wondering whether you’d come across this litlle theory (and the very nice accompanying story): “Charles Darwin was afflicted, for much of his adult life, with a mystery ailment [now tentatively diagnosed as Chagas disease]. Did Darwin’s illness give him the patience to undertake his lifelong studies on nature’s minutiae? If not, it’s hard to know what else could have transformed the energetic young Darwin of the Beagle voyage into an uncannily patient observer and perpetual valetudinarian,” John Vaillant, NYRB. ( (
    And then–while I sought a way to inform you of this—I realized that the link to you had disappeared from my blog, and I don’t know how, and I’m so sorry for it.

    • Thanks Cassandra, for the comments and reference. I was familiar with Darwin’s illness, but not this idea of how it shaped his studies. I don’t know…I’ve read a lot more about Darwin’s earlier life than later (so I’m no expert), but it seems that he was always interested in the little things. Long before the Beagle, he was fascinated with beetles, and he carefully studied larva in seawater while at Edinburgh (little flustra, for example). So I think this was something he always had.

      Early in the voyage, he also talks a lot about settling down to a quieter life, and looking ahead a little, I think at some point he is anxious to go home. I almost think this idea of being settled was part of his character from the beginning, too.

      And I also have to wonder if the focus on the small, simple creatures was a way to help him unravel his bigger ideas. Sort of like understanding how a car works but working in the simplest models you can find (the complex ones just make it more difficult, but in the end you learn the same thing).

      I don’t know – I look forward to continuing to ponder this. Thanks!

  4. I think you’re closer to the truth here.

    “… I wonder whether Darwin ever noticed a natural fact, no matter how trivial, that didn’t raise a question in his mind. I think his very manner of perception was interrogatory. To notice was to ask. But what strikes me is the poise of Darwin’s questions. They are modest and yet, at the same time, full of authority. The modesty is implicit in the noticing, surrendering his sense of self to the detailed imprint of the world around him.

    And the authority? It lies in his confidence that questions have answers. …”
    Verlyn Klinkenborg

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