The Origin of the Origin – Charles Darwin

Evolutionary theory is a key underpinning of our understanding of our natural world.  It, and its sister theories (e.g. the theory of gravity, germ theory, planetary motion, thermodynamics… well you get the idea) have given us a profound understanding of our planet and the universe.

I suspect that I am like most people in that had a fuzzy notion of who Charles Darwin was.  He took a trip on the Beagle, visit eco-tourist spots (Galapagos) and wrote a book, On the Origin of Species.  Oh, and he had a cool beard (as it turns out primarily because he had trouble shaving himself).

Charles Darwin - in old age

Charles Darwin – in old age

It turns out that Darwin was a well-respected Zoologist in his own right long before his evolutionary explosion.  Detailed in a very accessible book, Charles Darwin, Cyril Aydon, follows his life from his wealthy beginnings to, well, his wealthy end.

A key theme of Aydon’s was that Darwin was very privileged and fortunate.  He was born into a solid upper-middle class family and he had a (for the time) relatively supportive and indulgent father.  On the latter point, Darwin’s success on the Beagle was due in part to his father’s willingness to fund expeditions and the trip itself.

Upon his return, his family wealth and his need to organize the fruits of the expedition allowed him time and resources to become a well-respected zoologist and authority in his own right.  Thus his fear of being a dilettante was allayed by the quality of his earlier works.  This also gave him the necessary credibility for his work on evolution.

Two other things that I had not appreciated about Darwin were his family focus and his very poor health.  He married well into both a good dowry but also an understanding and loving companion in Emma.  They dotted on their children and it sounds like the Darwin’s was the place to go for lunch and sleep-overs if you were friends with their kids.  Darwin was a homebody partly because of very poor health (and was exacerbated by stress).

Aydon does not shy away from Darwin’s warts.  The author paints Darwin for what he was, an eccentric scientist boiling pots of animal remains to examine the creature’s skeletal structure.  His marriage to Emma was fortunate because she was self-effacing, put her husband’s needs ahead of her own and was not an intellectual force in her own right.  Also Darwin was fortunate to have boosters who promoted and defended his ideas (e.g. Thomas Huxley) when his poor health would have prevented him from doing so.

In the end, Darwin lived a good life and was productive well into his later years.  He was survived by his beloved Emma and most of his children.  Darwin contributed scientific understanding that would have made him a well-respected zoologist – and of course he started us down a path that forms much of our modern-biological understanding.

Aydon’s book, Charles Darwin, is a good and very accessible read and biography for those who want to understand the origin of the origin.