Tag Archives: darwin

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

A Secular Thought for the Day

The National Secular Society recently ran a competition to write a Secular Thought for the Day in the style of BBC Radio 4's stubbornly unsecular Thought for the Day.

I've just posted my entry on my personal website. It didn't win, but Charles Darwin gets a mention, so you might want to check it out.

The Darwin Bicentennial Oak, four years on

The Darwin Bicentennial Oak

Planted 12-Feb-2009

12-Feb-2013

12-Feb-2013

Four years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. I am pleased to report that it is doing well, and has now grown into a magnificent, erm, small sapling.

This tree-growing malarkey is a long-term commitment.

It occurs to me that I might have spent the last four years inadvertently gathering material for the longest time-lapse movie ever. Or should that be shortest?

12th February, 1834: Darwin's 25th birthday, Patagonia

From Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary, 12-Feb-1834:

12th With very baffling winds we anchored late in the evening in Gregory Bay, where our friends the Indians anxiously seemed to desire our presence. During the day we passed close to Elizabeth Island, on North end of which there was a party of Fuegians with their canoe &c. — They were tall men & clothed in mantles; & belong probably to the East Coast; the same set of men we saw in Good Success Bay; they clearly are different from the Fuegians, & ought to be called foot Patagonians. — Jemmy Button had a great horror of these men, under the name of "Ohens men". — "When the leaf is red, he used to say, Ohens men come over the hill & fight very much." —

Patagonian Indians

Patagonian Indians, Gregory Bay by Conrad Martens
Cambridge University Library

If you had asked him three years earlier, I'm pretty sure Darwin would not have predicted that he would spend his 25th birthday encountering Patagonian natives and hearing horror stories about them from a Fuegian (and having a mountain named after him). He would, more likely, have predicted that he would spend it in his parsonage somewhere, maybe drafting next Sunday's sermon.

You never know what life might hold in store for you.

Charles Darwin to Charles Lyell, 10th January, 1860

Our ancestor was an animal which breathed water, had a swim-bladder, a great swimming tail, an imperfect skull & undoubtedly was an hermaphrodite! Here is a pleasant genealogy for mankind.-

The full text of this letter is available on the Darwin Correspondence Project website

New book review: Darwin and Lady Hope: the Untold Story

I have just posted a review of Dr L.R. Croft's book Darwin and Lady Hope: the Untold Story. I was not convinced by his thesis that Charles Darwin did indeed return to Christianity on his deathbed.

The HMS Beagle Olympics

As the Games of the XXX Olympiad officially commence in London later today, the good people of Much Wenlock in Shropshire can be rightly proud that their own modern version of the Olympic Games, founded in 1850, inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin to create what was to become the world's greatest sporting event: the Olympic Games.

Yet Much Wenlock was not the only nineteenth-century community to celebrate its own, local ‘Olympic Games’. The City of Liverpool (the world's greatest, in my rather biased opinion) held an annual ‘Grand Olympic Festival’ from 1862–67. Far more importantly, however, the crew of HMS Beagle held their own ‘Olympic Games’ at Port Desire, Patagonia, on Christmas Day, 1833. Charles Darwin takes up the story in his Beagle Diary:

25th [December, 1833]

Christmas After dining in the Gun-room, the officers & almost every man in the ship went on shore. — The Captain distributed prizes to the best runners, leapers, wrestlers. — These Olympic games were very amusing; it was quite delightful to see with what school-boy eagerness the seamen enjoyed them: old men with long beards & young men without any were playing like so many children. — certainly a much better way of passing Christmas day than the usual one, of every seaman getting as drunk as he possibly can. —

The HMS Beagle Olympics might not have had the wall-to-wall television and internet coverage enjoyed by modern sports fans (and endured by the rest of us), but fortunately the ship's artist, Conrad Martens, was on hand to record the event for posterity:

Slinging the Monkey

‘Slinging the Monkey, Port Desire’, by Conrad Martens (1833).

Shown here is Slinging the monkey, Port Desire, the original of which now resides in Cambridge University Library. The sketch depicts HMS Beagle (L) and the Adventure (R) at anchor. In the foreground, six sailors play the naval game Swinging the Monkey, which involved hanging one of their number upside down until he was able to beat one of his taunting colleagues with a stick, after which, the two men swapped places.

Darwin was right to worry about Beagle's crew getting drunk on Christmas Day. At the very start of the voyage, two years earlier, the ship having been stuck in Devonport for weeks, waiting for a change in the weather, Darwin recorded in his diary:

Monday 26th [December, 1831]

A beautiful day, & an excellent one for sailing, — the opportunity has been lost owing to the drunkedness & absence of nearly the whole crew. — The ship has been all day in state of anarchy. One days holiday has caused all this mischief; such a scene proves how absolutely necessary strict discipline is amongst such thoughtless beings as Sailors are.- Several have paid the penalty for insolence, by sitting for eight or nine hours in heavy chains. — Whilst in this state, their conduct was like children, abusing every body & thing but themselves, & the next moment nearly crying. — It is an unfortunate beginning, being obliged so early to punish so many of our best men there was however no choice left as to the necessity of doing it.

History does not record which of the Beagle's crew won the most medals at the Beagle Olympics, nor whether they would have put much store in the motto of the modern Olympic Games: Citius, Altius, Fortius [Faster, Higher, Stronger]—although it does have a certain Darwinian ring to it.

19th April, 1882: Charles Darwin dies

On Wednesday, 19th April, 1882, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, at Down House in Kent, Charles Darwin died in the arms of his loving wife, Emma.

Darwin's life must surely be the most well-documented of any scientist, thanks to his notebooks, Beagle diary, and phenomenally copious correspondence. But the shortest, saddest entry in his life's unofficial journal was recorded by Emma:

Emma's diary entry

Emma Darwin's diary entry, dated 18th (sic) April, 1882.

From the corrections made to her subsequent diary entries, it would appear that Emma missed a day somewhere, which explains why her husband's death is incorrectly recorded as falling on Tuesday 18th April, 1882, rather than on Wednesday 19th.

We all have to go some time.

The world will not see his like again.

A miserable birthday aboard HMS Beagle

A very Happy Darwin Day.

Yours truly, writing on the Beagle Project blog:

A miserable birthday aboard HMS Beagle

Sometimes even plain sailing isn't plain sailing:

12th There has been a little swell on the sea to day, & I have been very uncomfortable: this has tried & quite overcome the small stock of patience that the early parts of the voyage left me. — Here I have spent three days in painful indolence, whilst animals are staring me in the face, without labels & scientific epitaphs. — This has been the first day that the heat has annoyed us.

Charles Darwin writing in his diary aboard HMS Beagle 180 years ago today, on his 23rd birthday. In almost five years voyaging around the world, the poor lad never really overcame his dreadful seasickness.