During the cold winter of 1809, a boy was born into a large and wealthy family in the English town of Shrewsbury. He was the fifth child in a family that would have six. It was a well-off family, and his mother and father both held the sort of surnames that established him a future, if not automatic access to society even before his birth.
The boy’s father was a medical doctor who had a mind for research and investigation. He took a particular interest in understanding the workings of the human eye and made important discoveries. His mother’s family, the Wedgewoods, made their mark on the decorative arts world with their distinctive pottery.
The boy’s father, Robert, had fairly grand expectations for his son Charles. He encouraged him to seek academic challenges and provided him with every opportunity to grow as a student—none of which Charles earned or took advantage of. In fact, Charles was a rather uninspired student whose greatest academic talent was to work just hard enough. Instead of his nose in a book, Charles preferred his fanny in a saddle and spent as much time as possible galloping about–astride his favorite horse. The rest of his time was spent shooting, and I cannot say there is evidence he did not pursue both of these passions at the same time.
Like many fathers who want the best for their sons but can find no avenue to inspire them, he pushed Charles towards his own métier. At the age of 16, Charles spent a summer following his father to medical calls in which Robert treated needy patients. During these outings of lancing boils, mitigating tuberculosis, and cleaning wounds, Charles learned the rudimentary skills of doctoring–an experience that would be classified as a medical apprenticeship. This experience (and his father’s connections) allowed him entry the medical school at the University of Edinburgh.
Charles did not share his father’s focus, nor did he have his interest in the medical sciences. In fact, he found the university lectures incredibly dull, and frequently skipped classes to be outside and explore the natural environs. The practical presentations of medical school, particularly human dissections and surgeries, were far too unsettling and left him an emotional wreck afterward. Charles began to avoid school in general and found solace in the friendship of a new found comrade named John Edmonstone. John was an accomplished taxidermist who shared with Charles all that he knew about animal biology. The many years of applying his craft made John a keen observer of the adaptations animals made to their habitat, and he discussed this frequently with Charles. The friendship would not have been so odd, had it not been for the fact that John was a recently freed African slave who had no connection to English society and no history English academia. Charles was the sort of gentleman who took no notice of this sort of detail, however. Charles and John spent so much time exploring and discussing the animal kingdom that his grades slid to unrecoverable depths. Despite his respect for his father, and his well-meaning effort, it became clear that Charles was not to be a doctor, and left the university.
By this time, Robert was exasperated. He had no other ideas for his son besides suggesting (this time, more forcefully) that he go to school (this time, Cambridge University) to become an Anglican priest. In retrospect, the suggestion seems more punitive than productive as neither Robert, nor any of his family belonged to the Anglican Church. They were Unitarians with only the mildest connections to the national religion.
In possibly the greatest example of historical irony, Charles thrived in his religious studies. In fact, not only did he thrive, he was a student of some distinction—number 10 in a class of 178. During his studies, the text that inspired and excited Charles most was Natural Theology, a book that presented evidence for a divine and intelligent hand in the design of the natural world. To him, this idea seemed plausible.
Beyond his official class-work, Charles threw himself wholly into university life. He participated in clubs and societies. He carried on his passion for animal identification—learned by John Edmonstone—and participated vigorously in the school’s entomology club. Specifically, Charles had a passion for collecting and organizing beetles. He seemed gifted at collecting specimens and finding the differences and similarities between the innumerable beetles that he caught and categorized. Fellow club members noticed his talent, and he became a luminary among amateur naturalists. He was a natural at observing and inductively making sense of the natural environment and earned—this time—a spot on a geologic expedition to Wales. On this trip, Charles proved himself to be capable and competent as a field researcher and contributed a great deal to the success of the mission of the expedition. When Charles arrived home from his geographical work in Wales, he found a letter waiting for him that would change his life forever. More importantly, it would help change the world in ways that were, at that time, unimaginable.
The letter offered a spot on an expedition—an expedition larger and more involved than he ever imagined. The entire trip was to spend at least two years exploring and charting the coast of South America. He was asked to join less for his skills in ecology, which were exceedingly amateurish, but rather for his social stature as a gentleman, which was unfinished but promising—if only because of his family’s name. In short, he was to be the company of the ship’s captain, who would otherwise be surrounded by naval rogues and boring academics.
When Charles told his father, Robert rejected the idea out-of-hand. A waste of time, he insisted. No applicable use, he assured. He couldn’t allow it. A family member stepped in and pleaded on behalf of Charles.
Robert eventually relented and Charles packed his bags. He reported on-board the ship that was to become his new floating home. The HMS Beagle was not a large ship, but it had the large mission to sail across the world. Charles Darwin could not be more pleased.
Next week I will share with you some details of the Beagle Expedition and those most important finches.