The Friends of Charles Darwin Blog


A cat among the pigeons

Domestic cats
So-called ‘domesticated’ cats.

As an unabashed Darwin fanboy (and very much not ‘a cat person’), for many years, I’ve been meaning to get to the bottom of a story about my hero that I soooo wanted to be true.

I first came across the story in a book whose reliability I had strong reason to doubt. Over the years, I encountered the story in a couple of other places, but they never cited an original source. So I began to suspect the tale was just another of the many myths invented about Charles Darwin. Which seemed like a terrible shame.

The story, in a nutshell, goes like this:

Charles Darwin’s daughter Henrietta (‘Etty’) owned a beloved cat. One day, Etty’s cat broke into her father’s pigeon coop and killed some of the pigeons from his cross-breeding experiments. Darwin’s brilliantly effective solution to prevent the problem reoccurring was to secretly kill his daughter’s cat!

Like I say, I really wanted this story to be true. So, a few months back, I decided it was time to confirm or refute the tale once and for all.

After much online searching, I eventually tracked down a tantalising clue in one of Darwin’s more obscure notebooks (about pigeon hybridisation):

Oct. 23/1857.
Hybrid killed by cat — black all over from
(Runt red ♂ Trumpeter white ♀ X Barb ♂ Almond Tumber ♀)
X
Barb ♂ black. Fantail white ♀

A SMOKING GUN!! One of his hybrids was definitely killed by a cat! Could Charles Darwin really have been a moggy murderer?

I was on the scent now!

After many fruitless hours rooting through my extensive Darwin library, it finally dawned on me that the small number of books recounting the cat-killing tale did not cite an original source because they had simply paraphrased the story from chapter 21 of Janet Browne’s excellent biography Charles Darwin: Voyaging. And the source of Browne’s account seemed to be a mysterious, unnamed document archived at Cambridge University Library with the reference DAR 246. Some more digging revealed DAR 246 to be the ‘manuscript autobiography’ of Darwin’s daughter Henrietta Litchfield.

After many more fruitless hours trying to locate an online copy of what I now thought of as ‘Etty’s autobiography’, it finally dawned on me to contact my one-time acquaintance John van Wyhe, who runs the excellent Darwin Online website, to ask if I’d somehow missed it there.

Van Wyhe confirmed the document was not available online. But, by a stroke of luck, he happened to be visiting Cambridge University Library at the time. So he immediately went and photographed all 44 pages of the original manuscript.

Which is how I came to volunteer to transcribe Henrietta Emma Litchfield (née Darwin)’s 1926 ‘autobiographical fragment’ for Darwin Online.

Transcribing Etty
Transcribing Etty.

It didn’t take long to track down what I was looking for. Etty takes up the story on p.12:

There was a tragedy connected with a very favourite, but rather fierce tabby cat, named Bullzig. I adored this cat ever since his kitten hood when he lived entirely with me. I was then a sick child often lying on the big dining room sofa and his games were the comfort of my life. When he was grown up, but still my beloved companion, he took to killing the pigeons, which could not of course be submitted to. But I felt the most bitter sense of illusage when one morning I was told he was killed. I thought then, & I think now, I ought to have been told beforehand.

GUILTY AS CHARGED, MR DARWIN!

(But it serves you right, Bullzig!)

I was delighted to conclude that Charles Darwin, like me, was very much not ‘a cat person’.


Maureen Brian, FCD (12 June 1942 – 31 July 2018)

I was sad to learn via Facebook that Maureen Brian died earlier today. She had been unwell for quite some time.

Maureen lived just down the hill from me, and was single-handedly responsible for arranging PZ Myers’ appearance at the Hebden Bridge Trades Club in 2014.

PZ Myers and Maureen Brian
Maureen Brian with PZ Myers in a Hebden Bridge church(!) in 2014.

After I got to know her, Maureen told me she had met me (sort of) once before: on Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday of all dates! She was the person standing behind me in Hebden Bridge Post Office as I bought an entire sheet of Darwin Bicentennial stamps, which were issued that day. She said she’d been very concerned I might have bought the post office’s entire stock, as she was also after a set!

I’ll miss her occasionally outspoken updates, and frequent ‘likes’ on social media.

See also: PZ Myers - Maureen Brian has died


The problem writing a book about Charles Darwin

Darwin ape cartoonWhen friends found out I’d finally written a book, they naturally assumed it was about Charles Darwin. To be a friend of mine is to be accustomed to having Darwin slipped into pretty much every conversation. My friends seemed almost shocked to learn my book is, in fact, about my adventures on the local moor. (They seemed considerably less shocked to learn Darwin has somehow been slipped into many of its chapters.)

But everyone who has expressed an opinion on the matter says just one thing:

‘…but your next book is going to be about Darwin, right?’

Well, that’s certainly the plan.

But there’s a problem writing a book about Charles Darwin. There are so damn many of the things already, how do you make your book different? Which is why I’ve been banging my head against the wall for the last few months.

The way I see it, there’s no need for yet another Darwin biography. And there are people far better qualified than me to write about the latest in evolutionary theory. And the vague idea I had for a book about Darwin’s ‘fools experiments’ has just been done. You name it, the topic’s been covered. I mean, there’s even a book of poems about the dude. So, what should I do? What can I say that hasn’t already been said? What have I got going for me that other writers haven’t already got gone?

It seems to me, my main strength as a writer on matters Darwinian is I’m a unabashed fanboy. A self-confessed Darwin groupie. A Darwin nerd who can string a few sentences together. I’m someone who delights in both the trivia and the essentials of Darwin’s life and works. Someone who, as I say, has something of a reputation for slipping Darwin into pretty much every conversation.

Feedback from my Moor book suggests people enjoyed both its eclectic nature and its humour. They also liked learning new stuff. Eclectic, occasionally humorous stuff about Charles Darwin: I can do that!

So, that’s my plan, such as it is: an assortment of pieces on all things Darwinian. A celebration of the great man’s life and work that doesn’t take itself too seriously. A book non-Darwin groupies might read and remark, ‘Oh, actually, that’s quite interesting!’

I haven’t managed to come up with a decent title for the book yet. All the good ones have been taken. But my working subtitle is a Darwinian Selection (see what I did, there?).

What do you reckon? Has this idea got fully opposable thumbs, or what?


Re. Joyce

Twitter user Sandra Tropp (@SandyTropp) last week drew my attention to the fact that, in his notoriously cryptic Finnegans Wake, James Joyce makes use of a pun very similar to the Friends of Charles Darwin tagline. Here’s the quote (my emphasis added):

The thing is he must be put strait 2 on the spot, no mere waterstichystuff in a selfmade world that you can’t believe a word he’s written in, not for pie, but one’s only owned by naturel rejection. Charley, you’re my darwing! So sing they sequent the assent of man. Till they go round if they go roundagain before breakparts and all dismissed. They keep. Step keep. Step. Stop. Who is Fleur? Where is Ange? Or Gardoun?

(No, me neither.)

It was in 1994 that my late friend and Friends of Charles Darwin co-founder, Fitz, came up with our Charlie is our Darwin motto: a pun on Robert Burns’s Charlie, He’s My Darling—a song about Bonnie Prince Charlie.

I’m pretty sure Fitz would have been delighted to hear he’d been pre-empted by 55 years by none other than James Joyce.