Tag Archives: darwin

The Uncle of Photography

From Charles Darwin's son Francis's Reminiscences about his father:

In all matters of art he was inclined to laugh at professed critics, and say that their opinions were formed by fashion. Thus in painting, he would say how in his day every one admired masters who are now neglected. His love of pictures as a young man is almost a proof that he must have had an appreciation of a portrait as a work of art, not as a likeness. Yet he often talked laughingly of the small worth of portraits, and said that a photograph was worth any number of pictures, as if he were blind to the artistic quality in a painted portrait. But this was generally said in his attempts to persuade us to give up the idea of having his portrait painted, an operation very irksome to him.

The keen photographer in me rejoices at my hero's preference for photographic portraits over more traditional daubs—even if it seems this was at least partly an excuse to avoid having his own portrait painted.

As with so many other things, I'm with Darwin on this one: there is something undeniably special about a photographic portrait that any number of paintings and drawings simply cannot capture. Echoing Darwin's sentiments, George Bernard Shaw reportedly said that he would exchange every painting of Christ for one snapshot. When you look at a photographic portrait, it feels as if you are looking at the real person; not some artist's impression of them. Photographs seem to give you the genuine article. The camera famously (but not always correctly) does not lie.

I have a hunch that one contributing factor to Darwin's phenomenal popularity as a scientist—apart from his being a total dude, who came up with one of the most important ideas in science—is the fact that the new-fangled photography started coming into its own at around the same time that Darwin returned home from his five-year voyage around the world aboard HMS Beagle.

The ‘birth’ of photography in 1839—just three years after the end of the Beagle voyage—came at just the right time for Darwin to be photographed in his scientific prime. The oldest photograph we have of him is an 1842 portrait with his son William. I would contend that one, albeit minor, reason why we find Darwin so interesting is that we know what he actually looked like:

Daguerrotype of Charles Darwin and his son William

Daguerrotype of Charles Darwin and his son William, 23rd August, 1842.

As historians of science are forever reminding us (although nobody listens to those killjoys), we enter dangerous territory when we start to discuss the ‘first’ person to do X, the ‘lone genius’ who invented Y, or the ‘Father of’ Great Idea Z. The history of science, they insist on pointing out, is a history of collaboration—albeit sometimes highly rivalrous collaboration, in which jealous individuals failed to acknowledge their peers' and predecessors' work. Scientific advance is an iterative process, improving on what went before, sometimes steadily, sometimes in fits and starts. Very much like evolution, in fact.

The history of photography illustrates this point rather nicely, as the following two paragraphs lifted directly from the Wikipedia entry on the subject show:

The history of photography has roots in remote antiquity with the discovery of the principle of the camera obscura and the observation that some substances are visibly altered by exposure to light. As far as is known, nobody thought of bringing these two phenomena together to capture camera images in permanent form until around 1800, when Thomas Wedgwood made the first reliably documented although unsuccessful attempt. In the mid-1820s, Nicéphore Niépce succeeded, but several days of exposure in the camera were required and the earliest results were very crude. Niépce's associate Louis Daguerre went on to develop the daguerreotype process, the first publicly announced photographic process, which required only minutes of exposure in the camera and produced clear, finely detailed results. It was commercially introduced in 1839, a date generally accepted as the birth year of practical photography.

The metal-based daguerreotype process soon had some competition from the paper-based calotype negative and salt print processes invented by Henry Fox Talbot. Subsequent innovations reduced the required camera exposure time from minutes to seconds and eventually to a small fraction of a second; introduced new photographic media which were more economical, sensitive or convenient, including roll films for casual use by amateurs; and made it possible to take pictures in natural color as well as in black-and-white.

Frenchman Daguerre's stunningly beautiful, self-promotingly eponymous daguerreotypes proved to be something of a technological dead end. Amongst other drawbacks, they could not be reproduced. Which is why, if the historians of science will allow me, my totally unbiased vote goes to Englishman Fox Talbot, with his invention of the photographic negative, as the true Father of Photography.

As a sop to the historians, I should point out that Fox Talbot received more than a little help from the astronomer John Herschel, who had previously found that hyposulfite of soda dissolved silver salts. This discovery made it possible for Fox Talbot to ‘fix’ his exposed negatives, thereby preventing them from fading in daylight—an idea subsequently copied, without acknowledgement, by Daguerre. Kudos also goes to Herschel, incidentally, for inventing the word ‘photography’, and re-purposing the mathematical concept of a ‘negative’ into a photographic context.

Thomas Wedgwood (1771–1805)

Thomas Wedgwood (1771–1805)

Ah! But what about poor Thomas Wedgwood? The chap who, as far as we know, first had the frankly brilliant idea of trying to get a camera obscura to produce images automatically on materials coated in light-sensitive chemicals. He even succeeded, to a limited extent. Doesn't he deserve some credit? He might not have been the Father of Photography, but does he not at least deserve to be dubbed its Uncle?

Quite possibly.

He was also, entirely coincidentally, the uncle of none other than Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin on the family tree of languages

Today's Guardian has a lovely diagram illustrating the Indo-European and Uralic family trees:

Language family trees

Charles Darwin loved to hypothesise. In chapter 13 of ‘On the Origin of Species’, using the classification of languages as an analogy to the classification of species, he hypothesises that the family tree of languages must closely reflect the family tree of the different races of mankind that speak them:

If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, had to be included, such an arrangement would, I think, be the only possible one. Yet it might be that some very ancient language had altered little, and had given rise to few new languages, whilst others (owing to the spreading and subsequent isolation and states of civilisation of the several races, descended from a common race) had altered much, and had given rise to many new languages and dialects. The various degrees of difference in the languages from the same stock, would have to be expressed by groups subordinate to groups; but the proper or even only possible arrangement would still be genealogical; and this would be strictly natural, as it would connect together all languages, extinct and modern, by the closest affinities, and would give the filiation and origin of each tongue.

As usual, Darwin is pretty much on the ball. The family tree of languages does indeed closely reflect human history, albeit with one or two anomalies. For example, nobody seems to have a blind clue where the Basque language fits in.

Golf: the Darwin connection

The 143rd Open Championship teed-off at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake, on my native Wirral peninsula this morning.

Ever since I was a young kid, whenever the Open Championship is played in the North West of England, I have attended one of the practice days with my dad, a golf fanatic.

Dad and I were there again earlier this week. I'll spare you the details, but I've posted a large number of photos on Flickr, if you're interested.

Why am I talking about the Open Championship at Hoylake on a blog that's supposed to be about Charles Darwin? Well, because, as we all know by now, absolutely everything has a Charles Darwin connection…

Spotted in the tented village above a display of hickory-shafted golf clubs at Hoylake this Tuesday:

Quote from Bernard Darwin, British Open 2014, Hoylake

The Bernard Darwin quoted was a famous golfer and Times sportswriter, who became Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in 1934 (the year before my dad was born). Bernard Darwin was the grandson of Charles Darwin, who referred to him as ‘Dubba’ when he was an infant. (Rather pleasingly, one of the players in contention at the Open this week goes by the name of Bubba.)

Indeed, so famous was Bernard Darwin in his day that my dad, who feels the same way about golf as I do about Charles Darwin, still often absent-mindedly refers to Charles Darwin as ‘Bernard Darwin’.

Like I said, everything has a Charles Darwin connection.

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.

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.

11th July, 1836: Darwin visits Napoleon

Towards the end of her second voyage, HMS Beagle called at the volcanic island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. Darwin went ashore to spend a few days geologising. While he was there, he took the opportunity to visit the grave of St Helena's most famous former occupant (and prisoner), Napoleon Bonaparte. He recorded the event in his Beagle Diary:

9th to 13th [July, 1836]

I obtained lodgings in a cottage within stone's throw of Napoleon's tomb. I confess this latter fact possessed with me but little inducement. The one step between the sublime & the ridiculous has on this subject been too often passed. Besides, a tomb situated close by cottages & a frequented road does not create feelings in unison with the imagined resting place of so great a spirit. — With respect to the house in which Napoleon died, its state is scandalous, to see the filthy & deserted rooms, scored with the names of visitors, to my mind was like beholding some ancient ruin wantonly disfigured.

Darwin's servant-cum-assistant, Syms Covington, recorded the visit in more detail in his own journal as follows:

ON the 11th, went to Napoleon's Grave, a distance of about two and a half miles from port. This tomb is situated in a valley, WHICH has gardens, houses, etc. The grave is simple for so great a man, having no more than a large oblong stone with no inscription, surrounded in same form by iron railings AND also with wooden railings round the iron ditto leaving a space of about ten to fifteen feet for visitors to walk, and that beautifully green with grass, with the willows and cypresses. Outside the wooden railings is the small beautiful, clear well, where he (NAPOLEON) constantly every morning used to send for water to wash etc. Beautiful, clear water. Here is stationed a noncommissioned officer, an old soldier, to take care that no one injures the above. The willow is strictly forbidden for anyone to touch, but from the cypresses, a small twig is allowed only. At the East end or head of tomb, within railings, is a geranium, planted by Lady Warren (Admiral Warren's wife) and HER daughters; at THE West end or foot are several Cape bulbs, etc. The house IS situated from THE tomb, about a mile, along a ridge of mountains. I went to house the 13th; which is in a very decayed state, one room is a billiard room for visitors (wine sold also!). The remaining part serves as a barn and dwelling for the servants of the clergyman who inhabits the new house, which was built for Napoleon, but HE never inhabited it.

Covington's journal entry also included a sketch of Napoleon's grave:

Napoleon's grave

Napoleon's grave, St Helena by Syms Covington.

The absence of an inscription on the former emperor's grave was down to politics. The British governor of St Helena, Napoleon's gaoler, Hudson Lowe, ruled that the inscription should read ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’; the French generals Montholon and Bertrand wanted the grave to bear the more imperial, first-name-only inscription, ‘Napoleon’. An inscriptionless gravestone was the closest they could come to a compromise.

Five years after Darwin and Covington's visit, Napoleon's remains were moved from St Helena to a far more imperial tomb in Paris.

Napoleon's tomb.

Napoleon's second final resting place, Les Invalides, Paris.

Bank of England caves in to pressure

BBC: Mark Carney to review female representation on bank notes

Bank of England governor Mark Carney will look at the women represented on banknotes by the end of July. […]

He wrote a letter in response to a Conservative MP who is disappointed that the appearance of Sir Winston Churchill on a new £5 note leaves no female characters on the currency. […]

"Like you, I consider Sir Winston Churchill to be an excellent choice to appear on a banknote," he said. "However, I fully recognise that, with Sir Winston replacing Elizabeth Fry as the character on the £5 note—in the absence of any other changes to the Bank of England's notes—none of the four characters on our notes would be a woman."

(My emphasis added.)

I'm taking this to mean that the bank is unlikely to replace Fry with someone other than Churchill (almost certainly Jane Austen) on the fiver—which would, no doubt, be seen as a ‘snub’ to Churchill. So I'm guessing they will announce that they are bringing forward the replacement of Darwin on the tenner, and that he will be replaced by a woman (again, almost certainly Jane Austen). Alternatively, they might delay the introduction of the Churchill fiver and introduce a new tenner at around the same time.

In case you missed my previous post, here's what I would do if I were them.

Change for a tenner?

If Charles Darwin taught us anything, it's that nothing is permanent. Things change. It's inevitable.

Back in April, the Bank of England announced that Sir Winston Churchill is to replace Elizabeth Fry on its £5 note. Good call, if you ask me: Churchill certainly had his faults, but he is perhaps our most famous statesman, was a great orator, and was our leader in what many people think of as our finest hour; Elizabeth Fry is mainly remembered, when she's remembered at all, for, well, being on the back of the £5 note. It sounds like a total no-brainer.

And yet, over the last couple of weeks, the Bank of England has been severely criticised for its decision to replace Fry with Churchill on the fiver, as it means that, the queen excepted, there will no longer be any women on any of its bank notes. Finally, having been put on the spot last week, the bank's outgoing governor, Sir Mervyn King, hinted very strongly that Jane Austen could soon replace Charles Darwin on £10 note (he actually said Dickens, not Darwin, but we knew what he meant).

Darwin tenners

Some moribund Darwin tenners.

To be honest, I've been bracing myself for the inevitable loss of the Darwin tenner. Having campaigned to have Darwin celebrated on a bank note, I'll be very sad to see it go. But it's only a piece of paper. When it comes to imminent extinction events, there are far more important things we should be worrying about.

It's not just women who are in short supply on our bank notes. There are no representatives of ethnic minorities. There are, as far as I know, no gay men or lesbians. There is no one from the North of England (by any northerner's definition of the North of England at least). There are no Welsh. There are, however, two Scots (James Watt and Adam Smith)—even though Scotland has its own banks and bank notes. Go figure. To add insult to injury, once Darwin goes, there will be no beards—although, if you ask me, Her Majesty is starting to show a hint of five o'clock shadow.

But it's a moot point: how on Earth do you decide who deserves to go on the next bank note? There's no right answer.


Oh, for Pete's sake!

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that not a single man in possession of a Y-chromosome is going to want such a misfortune. Yes, yes, I know, Jane Austen is superb. She must be: everyone says so. And they all say so because they all heard so from someone else who hasn't actually read her. Or, if they have read her, it's only because they were forced to read her for English Lit., when they had to say she was superb to avoid getting an ‘F’. And they probably didn't even read her then; they probably just bought the study guide, and watched the latest TV series/movie on DVD (Amazon: uk|.com). Trust me, kids, you really can get away with stuff like that in English Lit.—I write from personal experience (grade A ‘O’ Level, 1981, and I still haven't read two of the books).

True, Jane Austen did come a magnificent 70th in the 2002 BBC 100 Great Britons national poll—a mere 66 places behind Charles Darwin, and a mere 67 places (I kid you not) behind Diana, Princess of Wales. So it seems only fair that Austen should grace a bank note before the likes of Captain Cook, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Sir Cliff Richard (or any of the 55 other people who came ahead of her in the poll, but who also haven't yet appeared on bank notes).

Not that I think we should decide such important matters by way of specious TV celebrity beauty contests, you understand. No, if it were down to me, I would do away with the notion of one denomination, one note. Why not have twenty different fivers, thirty different tenners, and so on? The countries in the Eurozone seem to manage perfectly well with lots of different versions of the same note. That way, everyone wins: we could keep Fry and Darwin; introduce Austen, Pankhurst, Franklin, Stopes, and loads of other women; and keep the bolshie northerners happy with the likes of Cook, Turing (honorary northerner), Cobden and Carter. And why stop there? Who says bank notes have to have people on them? Why not a robin, Stonehenge, Hadrian's Wall, Durham Cathedral, Mallard, or even scenes from Shakespeare and Tolkien?

But, if it really does have to stay one denomination, one note, and if Darwin really does have to go, and if it really does have to be a female author of superior chick-lit who replaces him, try this for Persuasion… Forget Jane Austen; let's put the Brontë Sisters on the tenner! Perfect! There were three of them! That would almost redress the male/female (and north/south) imbalance in one fell swoop! The Brontë Sisters: a frankly brilliant, far less Austentatious choice!

(No, the fact that I live a mere five miles as the curlew flies from Wuthering Heights, and have more than a passing interest in the gritty West Yokshire moors doesn't enter into it.)