Biography Charles Darwin and family | Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution by natural selection

Biography Charles Darwin and family

Reluctant Revolutionary: Charles Darwin and the

darwin An Ugly Little Secret
Charles Darwin had a very dark secret, one made all the darker because he was a moneyed gentleman of polite society, a man of scientific leisure, and one with ties to England’s governmental, religious, financial and academic elite. That is to say, he was someone with a significant reputation at stake, and any such secret was unwanted and a general nuisance to an otherwise comfortable life.

This secret, in fact, was one probably too big for any man to bear. But, for twenty years, Charles Darwin valiantly bore his secret, nearly all alone in his knowledge. The secret—what we of course know today as the theory of evolution—made him, there seems little doubt, a very ill man. In fact, he was practically an invalid for much of the second half of his 73 years; for months on end he would be visited daily by severe headaches, violent stomach disorders, and endless vomiting.

He no doubt felt cursed by his knowledge. But knowledge it was, and as a man of reason and principle and belief in science, he could not easily ignore it.

Born in 1809, Charles Darwin entered his professional life in the sciences at about the same time that Queen Victoria entered her’s in the ruling of England. In fact, Darwin and his contemporary, novelist Charles Dickens, were inducted into London’s elite literary circle, the Athenaeum club, the same week in 1837 that the Queen was coronated. And Victorian England would prove to be a place and time, hindsight confirms, of repression, conservatism and restraint. To have the appearance of questioning God, church doctrine or the accepted social mores—all of which Darwin’s theory was necessarily to do—was a grave insult to propriety, if not, in some cases, out and out illegal. And, unfortunately for Darwin’s peace of mind, propriety was a virtue that he always held close to his heart.

Darwin was, in short, a torn man. Somewhere across the hinterlands of the sprawling British Empire, on a ship commissioned to chart the waters of New World ports, he had formulated his idea, this secret. And when in 1836, at 29 years of age, he disembarked from the HMS Beagle after five years and a circumnavigation of the world, he believed—rightly, it turned out—that he held the germ of the answer to what scientists of the day called “the mystery of mysteries.” The problem was that he couldn’t tell anyone. And so he began his life’s work in private.

For the next twenty some years, all the work he did—while in appearances “about” barnacles or “about” pigeon breeding or “about” climbing plants—was really work on his theory of evolution. The idea generally consumed him. Much of his correspondence—full of self-deprecation, courtseys, self-flagellations, insecurities—was really about his budding theory, even if his correspondents didn’t always know. Though over time, many of them began to suspect that Darwin’s research was leading to some dubious end.

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