Saturday, February 15, 2020

Charles Darwin: Voyaging I

This is the first of two biographical volumes on Charles Darwin written by Janet Browne, who has spent much of her career studying Darwin's life and ideas. There are more than a thousand pages in all, not counting notes, so this may take me longer to finish than usual. It is fairly light reading but also thorough, and Browne covers Darwin's entire social background with perhaps more detail than I would prefer. I'm hoping that her knowledge and insights will keep the reading lively. Darwin was a prototypical naturalist, and I like the way that he developed his theories, but, as is already apparent, he was a product of his time.

Darwin was born into a wealthy family. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was a medical doctor who had trained at Cambridge and Edinburgh and was influenced by Scottish enlightenment figures such as David Hume and Adam Smith. Erasmus's first son, Charles (1758-1778), followed in his father's footsteps but died while studying medicine in Edinburgh. It then fell upon his second son, Robert (1766-1848), to study medicine. Robert also trained in Edinburgh and later married Susanna Wedgwood, a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the wealthy potter. Robert and Susanna settled in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, near the Welsh border, and raised a family. Robert was one of three doctors in the town, but he made most of his money through investments and was a shrewd person with good judgment. Although the family wasn't religious or ostentatious, they fit the model that is found in Jane Austen novels and, for example, made trips to Bath, like many families of comparable social rank. Charles had four sisters and one brother and was the fifth child, born in 1809. His mother died when he was eight, but his sisters seem to have made up for her absence, and he hardly remembered her after he grew up. His brother, Erasmus (1804-1881), was five years older and a friend and mentor throughout his childhood.

Charles was initially home-schooled but then accompanied his brother at Shrewsbury School, which was a boarding school only a mile from their house. Boys like Charles spent much of their time outdoors collecting insects, plants, rocks, or whatever they could find. Chemistry was a new and exciting subject in school, and he and Erasmus set up their own makeshift laboratory to conduct experiments. Erasmus was a much better student than Charles, and he left Shrewsbury for Cambridge. Charles was poor at languages and mathematics, and was therefore not well-qualified for the usual college curriculum. When Erasmus finished at Cambridge he moved on to Edinburgh in 1825 for a year-long course in medicine, and Charles left Shrewsbury to accompany him.

Erasmus completed the program in Edinburgh but disliked the university and the city. After Cambridge, he found the students crude. In those days, academic standards were almost nonexistent in medicine. There was no fixed curriculum for most students, and a degree wasn't necessary to practice medicine. The faculty consisted of independent agents who were paid by the number of students who enrolled in their classes, and they designed their classes to attract as many students as possible. Furthermore, they competed with freelance tutors not affiliated with the university. Besides this, the admissions criteria were loose, and the classes were filled with rowdy students as young as fourteen. When Erasmus left in 1826, Charles stayed and pursued a medical course until 1827. However, he disliked blood and, as far as I've read, he is on the verge of dropping out.

So far, the book is notably slow-moving, and I may have to pick up my reading pace to remain interested. By the age of eighteen, Darwin hadn't stood out much. He was introverted, unathletic and not naturally talented in the standard academic curriculum of the time. However, as I'm sure will become apparent later, his relaxed childhood and financial resources helped him develop into the leading scientist of his century.

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