Saturday, March 7, 2020

Charles Darwin: Voyaging IV

After Tahiti, the Beagle made a long voyage to New Zealand, during which Darwin was often seasick. Especially compared to Tahiti, Darwin found the Maori natives violent and unpleasant. The settlers in New Zealand seemed dissolute, adding to his displeasure. From there they sailed to Australia, then Tasmania and then the Keeling Islands, where Darwin had an opportunity to explore coral reefs for the first time. Using Lyell's ideas, he was the first to correctly speculate that coral reefs were formed when land slowly submerged below sea level. From there they sailed across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius, where Darwin rode an elephant. Their next destination was South Africa, where he met John Herschel, the son of the more famous William Herschel, the astronomer. John was there to make astronomical observations in the southern hemisphere. Shortly afterwards, the Beagle departed for England, where it anchored in Falmouth on October 2, 1836, nearly five years after it had sailed from Portsmouth on December 7, 1831.

At first, Darwin was almost a stranger in his own country. He disliked family gatherings and the usual chitchat. He decided to move to Cambridge and rented a house there, with the aim of sorting out the specimens from the voyage. Henslow had created quite a buzz about him, and he already had celebrity status in both Cambridge and London. Darwin gradually ambled toward the selection of a lifestyle that would suit him properly. He had never had any desire to be a clergyman, and the idea of being a professor also had no appeal to him. His role model became Charles Lyell, who was a successful gentleman geologist with no academic responsibilities. He soon moved to London, renting a house near his brother, Erasmus. He befriended Lyell and joined the Geological Society of London, where Lyell was president. On Lyell's prompting, he joined the Athenaeum Club, a prestigious men's club. He enjoyed Lyell's company, though he found him to be a social climber and a snob. Erasmus apparently was not practicing medicine and was living the life of a London intellectual while being financed by his father. He moved in the highest literary circles and was a close friend of both Harriet Martineau and Jane Carlyle; science, per se, was not his main interest, and he was known for his witticisms. Browne speculates that, since he never married and spent a lot of time with men's wives without drawing any suspicion, he was homosexual.

Darwin himself settled into a period of study. He found experts to identify his specimens, and they weren't always reliable. He had been negligent in identifying the locations where he had found some of the specimens, and it took a lot of work to rectify the problem. This was serious in the case of the finches from the Galápagos Islands, which later became a cornerstone of his theory of evolution. He was gradually working out a theory which, at the time, he called "transmutation," and from the start he knew that it would be controversial and should be handled carefully. He read Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, which, he realized, showed that death is one of the mechanisms by which the features of a species change over time. He was also interested in how farmers went about developing better agricultural products, whether plant or animal. Thus, it can be seen that, while Darwin lacked formal training in subjects that might have shed light on the theory he was working on, such as botany, zoology, anthropology and paleontology, he was able to synthesize a theory by drawing from multiple sources which were not necessarily academic. Malthus, after all, was a rural curate, not entirely unlike Darwin.

One of Darwin's decisions during this period was whether he should marry or not. He had a long conversation with his father, who accepted that he would not become a clergyman and promised to support him financially, as he did Erasmus. Insofar as marriage was concerned, he said that if Charles wanted to have children, he should have them before he got old.  Charles had made a list of the pros and cons of marriage that consisted mainly of cons: he didn't want to sacrifice much time for his wife and family. However, he then wrote:

One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless & cold, & childless staring one in one's face, already beginning to wrinkle.—Never mind, trust to chance–keep a sharp look out–There is many a happy slave–

He concluded that he ought to marry. His wife would not be an intellectual or a scientist and would not participate in his work. Furthermore, romance would not be part of the equation. There is no indication at this point whether he had any interest in sex, though one must keep in mind that it was then the early Victorian period in England. Needless to say, open discussion of sexuality was not popular then. Ironically, we seem to be in a similar situation now, because subjects such as gender identity have once again made discussion taboo. Historically, one of Darwin's primary revelations was that humans are animals, yet he was unable to discuss it within his milieu. The marital procedures of the time simplified matters a great deal for him, and his focus quickly shifted to Emma Wedgwood, a first cousin and the youngest daughter of his mother's older brother. Emma was a year older than him and the last available female in that branch of the family. In those days, before the effects of inbreeding were understood, it was common, especially in wealthy families, to marry first cousins. This had the practical advantage of keeping money in the family. Emma was receptive from the start, but Darwin was bashful. When he did finally propose, she accepted, and her father had no objections. They were married on January 29, 1839, two weeks before Darwin's thirtieth birthday.

The end of this book is in sight, and I should be able to wrap it up in one or two more posts. But then there is the SECOND volume. At this point, I can hardly fault Browne, because she is doing an excellent job. The problem may be that Darwin himself is a little boring, and it is possible that he simply happened to be in the right place at the right time with the appropriate resources available to him. He seems to have been quite agreeable and a deep thinker, but in context he wasn't all that revolutionary, because others had similar ideas. He had a steadfast resolve that helped and may have differentiated him a little, but I'm going to withhold judgment on his character and abilities until I've completed both volumes, which, at this rate, will take several more weeks.

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