Tag Archives: darwin

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.

But… JANE AUSTEN?!!!

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.)

Darwin and Wallace: the lost photograph

I'd heard the legend, of course. Every Darwin groupie has. The missing photograph of the two co-discoverers of evolution by means of Natural Selection, Darwin and Wallace, standing side-by-side. Together. In the same frame.

The incorrigible sceptic in me had always dismissed the tale as a myth. Wishful thinking. It never happened. But wouldn't it be fantastic if it had?

And then, last week, browsing the History of Science section in one of my favourite second-hand bookshops, I chanced upon a collection of Thomas Henry Huxley's essays, Darwiniana. I picked it up to examine it, and this fell out:

Darwin and Wallace

The legendary missing photograph: Darwin (R) and Wallace (L).

There's a Pulitzer in this for me, mark my words.

19th April, 1882: The death of a hero

After decades of mysterious ailments, and a short, final illness, Charles Darwin died at 4 o'clock in the afternoon on Wednesday 19th April, 1882, at Down House, Downe, in Kent. His devoted wife, Emma, and some of their grown-up children were with him at the end. He was 73 years old.

The following week, after Darwin's funeral at Westminster Abbey, his great friend and bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, wrote in the science journal Nature:

It is not for us to allude to the sacred sorrows of the bereaved home at Down; but it is no secret that, outside that domestic group, there are many to whom Mr. Darwin's death is a wholly irreparable loss. And this not merely because of his wonderfully genial, simple, and generous nature; his cheerful and animated conversation, and the infinite variety and accuracy of his information; but because the more one knew of him, the more he seemed the incorporated ideal of a man of science. Acute as were his reasoning powers, vast as was his knowledge, marvellous as was his tenacious industry, under physical difficulties which would have converted nine men out of ten into aimless invalids; it was not these qualities, great as they were, which impressed those who were admitted to his intimacy with involuntary veneration, but a certain intense and almost passionate honesty by which all his thoughts and actions were irradiated, as by a central fire.

Three years later, in his capacity as one of the trustees of the British Museum, the Prince of Wales was presented with a statue of Darwin to be placed in the National Museum of Natural History (nowadays known simply as the Natural History Museum). Huxley, now President of the Royal Society, and chairman of its Darwin Memorial Fund Committee, gave the formal address at the handing-over ceremony, stating:

We had lost one of these rare ministers and interpreters of Nature whose names mark epochs in the advance of natural knowledge. For, whatever be the ultimate verdict of posterity upon this or that opinion which Mr. Darwin has propounded; whatever adumbrations or anticipations of his doctrines may be found in the writings of his predecessors; the broad fact remains that, since the publication and by reason of the publication, of “The Origin of Species” the fundamental conceptions and the aims of the students of living Nature have been completely changed. From that work has sprung a great renewal, a true “instauratio magna” of the zoological and botanical sciences.

It has become fashionable these days amongst historians of science to decry (or even deny) the existence of scientific heroes: science is a collaborative effort; its practitioners do not work in isolation; their work is based on that of their predecessors and peers. Anyone who has studied Darwin knows this to be the case: he simply could not have achieved what he did without literally hundreds of predecessors, peers, friends, enemies, and correspondents.

Anyone who makes—or even attempts to make—a contribution to our understanding of the natural world is a hero in my book. They all deserve statues. But the broad fact remains, some heroes are bigger than others. It took a Charles Darwin to achieve what he did. Others, no doubt, could and would have got there, but it was Darwin who did. So why try to deny him the ultimate verdict of posterity?

Huxley was right, the late Charles Darwin was the incorporated ideal of a man of science. A hero in anyone's book.

Sculpture of Charles Darwin, Natural History Museum, London

Sculpture of Charles Darwin
Natural History Museum, London.
Photo: Richard Carter, FCD