Author Archives: Richard Carter, FCD

Why we can safely say Darwin wasn't left-handed

A link to a post on the excellent Brain Pickings blog just appeared in my Twitter stream, claiming that Charles Darwin was left-handed. My sceptical radar immediately went into overdrive. There's no reason why Darwin shouldn't have been left-handed, but the fact that I had never heard this interesting item of Darwin trivia before made me doubt its veracity.

Lots of minority groups like to claim Darwin as one of their own. Vegetarians are forever saying he was one of theirs (he wasn't). Homeopaths insist on claiming he was into homeopathy (he definitely wasn't). Born-again Christians still go on about Darwin's deathbed conversion to Christianity (total bullshit). As a general rule, if any minority group (excluding me and my fellow beardies) claims Darwin as one of theirs, you should take the claim with a huge pinch of salt.

A quick Google search revealed that there are an awful lot of websites out there claiming that Darwin was left-handed.

One reason I doubted Darwin's left-handedness was that I have seen samples of his handwriting, and it certainly doesn't look like the handwriting of a left-hander. But the bogus science of graphology clearly isn't conclusive proof, so I carried out some further research.

In 1877, Darwin published A biographical sketch of an infant in Mind, a Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy. The infant in question was one of his own sons. In the paper, Darwin wrote:

[T]his infant afterwards proved to be left-handed, the tendency being no doubt inherited—his grandfather, mother, and a brother having been or being left-handed.

No mention of the infant's father (Darwin) being left-handed, then.

Sorry, Lefties, I think we can safely say Darwin was right-handed.

Darwin portrait and sketches on display in Shrewsbury

From an email received:

I do hope this finds interest to you and your fellow Friends of Darwin.

My name is Victoria Clinton, an artist local to Shrewsbury. In 2009, I completed a portrait in oils of Charles Darwin to mark his bicentenary celebrations, which lead to me being featured in our local newspaper, the Shropshire Star, to mark the occasion. Nearly five years later I am preparing to display the same portrait along with a pencil sketch of Darwin inside the Shrewsbury Library, allowing the public to view these in Darwin’s former school. The exhibition is free to enter, and will run from 19th March for a minimum of 6 weeks. Both the local BBC Radio Shropshire and the Shropshire Star are covering the event.

My website which includes my portraits of Darwin can be found at: www.victoriaclintonfineart.co.uk

Missa Charles Darwin

I quote from an email that might be of interest to fans of Darwin and choral music—especially if they live in the London area:

A unique and intriguing blend of ancient and modern - UK premiere

missa

London Concord Singers
conductor Malcolm Cottle

Thursday 10 April 2014, 7.30pm
Church of St Botolph without Bishopsgate
Bishopsgate, London, EC2M 3TL

With its texts taken from the writings of Charles Darwin, its music based on the traditional polyphonic mass yet with the core germ of its musical structure coming from the genetic sequence of Platyspiza crassirostris (commonly known as Darwin's Finches), Missa Charles Darwin by Gregory W Brown (brother of the novelist Dan Brown) is very much a work for the modern day, forming a unique and intriguing blend of contemporary music with modern science and traditional musical forms.The mass was premiered in 2011 by the all male group New York Polyphony, and London Concord Singers are pleased to be presenting the UK premiere of the work, as well as giving the world premiere version for mixed choir. Missa Charles Darwin will be performed alongside Mendelssohn's Three Psalms, Op. 78 and motets by Alessandro Scarlatti and Charles Wood.

Gregory W. Brown - Missa Charles Darwin, UK premiere
Felix Mendelssohn - Three Psalms, Opus 78
Charles Wood - Glory and honour and laud
Alessandro Scarlatti - Miserere mei, Deus

Tickets price £12, under 25's £5, other concessions £10
Tickets available on the door
or in advance from Islington Music, 6 Shillingford Street, Islington, 020 7354 3185

Online Ticket sales from Event Brite
Image credit: Parma Recordings

02-Mar-2014: The Friends of Charles Darwin are 20 years old today!

Charles Darwin

To celebrate our 20th anniversary, we commissioned this special portrait of the man himself!
(There's also a version without the shameless plug.)

The Friends of Charles Darwin were officially founded 20 years ago today, on 2nd March, 1994.

On that date, my co-founder, Fitz, and I posted a letter to the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England, in which we drew the bank's attention to a ‘glaring omission’: Charles Darwin had been overlooked on their bank notes! We pointed out that Darwin's image ‘would add some much-needed dignity to the family of British bank notes’, and asked if it would be a good idea if we arranged a petition. Then we began collecting names.

A little over six years later, the Bank of England announced that Charles Darwin would soon replace Charles Dickens on the £10 note.

To be honest, I suspect the bank's decision to grant Darwin his rightful place on one of their bank notes had very little, if anything, to do with our campaign: Darwin was the obvious choice for the next person to appear on a note. Our campaign was just supposed to be a bit of fun: collecting the names of like-minded people who were prepared to declare ‘Charlie is my Darwin’, and who relished the idea of seeing Darwin on a bank note, and of putting the letters FCD (Friend of Charles Darwin) after their names. Which is why we've continued to take on new members long after Darwin finally appeared in all his bearded magnificence on the tenner:

Darwin banknotes

Some Darwin tenners.

Nowadays, arranging online petitions is a piece of cake: it's as easy as asking people to click a ‘Like’ button on Facebook. But back in our early days, having a website at all was pretty damn impressive. The Friends of Charles Darwin first appeared on the web some time in 1995. I shudder to realise how dreadful our website must have looked by modern website standards. Fortunately, the internet archive doesn't go that far back. But, as an indicator of how bad it was, here's our first logo:

FOCD's first logo

But who cares if it all looked (and still looks) a bit amateurish? That's the whole point! The Friends of Charles Darwin is a fan club, set up for our fellow Darwin groupies. And an amateur is someone who does something for love, not profit. Just like Charles Darwin, in fact.

So, on the off-chance that you haven't already done so, why not join the Friends of Charles Darwin, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Happy Anniversary to us!
And here's to the next 20 years!

Charles Darwin: book-vandal

As a self-confessed Darwin groupie, I own an extensive collection of books by and about my hero and his friends and colleagues. Many of these books are still in print, but I have inevitably acquired a number of out-of-print, second-hand books.

One of the delights of second-hand books is coming across the inscriptions and marginalia of their previous owners. Often, the reason for a mark or underlining escapes me—why on earth did they think that particular passage was worth highlighting? Sometimes, the notes are illegible. Very occasionally, they can be (melo)dramatic.

Last weekend, leafing through my abridged copy of Sir Francis Darwin's Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, I encountered numerous brief notes in the margins, all in the same hand. Here's a selection:

  • reading + lectures
  • !!!!
  • industry + concentrated attention
  • Wordsworth
  • collection of facts
  • Put it down!!
  • novel reading
  • Respect for TIME!
  • a Naturalist
  • age of the world
  • Boy Chimney Sweep
  • Fame! & Instinct!
  • Huxley approves
  • [my favourite] Poor Sedgwick

I will never know who the previous owner of my book was, but it seems pretty obvious to me that they were a fellow Darwin groupie: the book has clearly been read from cover to cover, with considerable enthusiasm, and the passages marked are often the sorts of passages I would mark.

Only I wouldn't. I could never bring myself to write in a book, you see. It's just not the done thing. Instead, when I'm reading a book, I make notes on index cards, which double as convenient bookmarks. Once I've finished the book, I tuck the card away inside the back cover for future reference. Yes, loose cards can be lost, but writing in books, well… you just don't! It's not how I was brought up. Books are precious objects to be cosseted, not abused.

And then I turn to page 96 of Sir Francis's memoir, and find myself frankly aghast at the following passage about my hero:

For books he had no respect, but merely considered them as tools to be worked with. Thus he did not bind them, and even when a paper book fell to pieces from use, as happened to Müller's Befruchtung, he preserved it from complete dissolution by putting a metal clip over its back. In the same way he would cut a heavy book in half, to make it more convenient to hold. He used to boast that he had made Lyell publish the second edition of one of his books in two volumes, instead of in one, by telling him how he had been obliged to cut it in half.

Cutting a heavy book in half… Darwin groupie though I will forever remain, here I draw the line. Mr Darwin, you were a incorrigible vandal, sir!

Darwin's study

The scene of many a book desecration: Darwin's study at Down House

Darwin struggles with German

I was reading Sir Francis Darwin's reminiscences about his father yesterday, and was amused by the following passage describing Charles Darwin's approach to reading German:

Much of his scientific reading was in German, and this was a serious labour to him; in reading a book after him, I was often struck at seeing, from the pencil-marks made each day where he left off, how little he could read at a time. He used to call German the “Verdammte,” pronounced as if in English. He was especially indignant with Germans, because he was convinced that they could write simply if they chose, and often praised Professor Hildebrand of Freiburg for writing German which was as clear as French. He sometimes gave a German sentence to a friend, a patriotic German lady, and used to laugh at her if she did not translate it fluently. He himself learnt German simply by hammering away with a dictionary; he would say that his only way was to read a sentence a great many times over, and at last the meaning occurred to him. When he began German long ago, he boasted of the fact (as he used to tell) to Sir J. Hooker, who replied, “Ah, my dear fellow, that's nothing; I've begun it many times”.

In spite of his want of grammar, he managed to get on wonderfully with German, and the sentences that he failed to make out were generally difficult ones. He never attempted to speak German correctly, but pronounced the words as though they were English; and this made it not a little difficult to help him, when he read out a German sentence and asked for a translation. He certainly had a bad ear for vocal sounds, so that he found it impossible to perceive small differences in pronunciation.

Old friends, New Fragments, old inscriptions

Last Monday, I made an all-too-rare tryst with an old friend. We met at the small town of Sedbergh in what was once part of Yorkshire, but is now part of Cumbria. I have something of a soft spot for Sedbergh on two accounts: it was the town where Charles Darwin's friend and mentor Adam Sedgwick went to school (he was born a few miles away in Dent); and it is the home of one of my favourite second-hand book shops. The book shop was the reason we had arranged to meet in Sedbergh: my friend and I both suffer intractable addictions to old books.

Amongst the books I bought was a set of essays, New Fragments, by another of Charles Darwin's friends, John Tyndall. I also have something of a soft-spot for Tyndall: I managed to sneak him into two of the chapters of the book I have been writing about my local moor. He was a thoroughly good chap, and, unlike Sedgwick, one of Darwin's strongest supporters.

Although I would never dream of writing inside a book, I am always delighted to see the marginalia and other inscriptions of a book's previous owners. The title page of my new Tyndall book bears a rather dramatic inscription:

John Tyndall's ‘New Fragments’.

John Tyndall's ‘New Fragments’ (1892)

Received at the Temple Chambers on Friday 15th January 1892 (on a bed of sickness that has been well nigh unto death)

I guess I'll never know the story behind these words—which is one of the appeals of such enigmatic inscriptions.