Saturday, March 14, 2020

Charles Darwin: Voyaging V

Darwin soon rented a house on Gower Street in Bloomsbury, near University College London (the street, coincidentally, where I stayed on my last visit to London). He continued his geological research while adjusting to life with Emma. Their first child, William, was born in 1839. Their second child, Anne Elizabeth, was born in 1841 but only survived until 1851. Darwin was close to his children, while also maintaining a zoological interest in them. He was often in poor health, with headaches and stomachaches, and he was a little stressed out by their living expenses, since his father had not completely showered him with money. He didn't enjoy socializing much, and he and Emma gradually withdrew. Like most English people, he and Emma were not emotionally effusive, and they expressed care for each other by paying attention to each other's illnesses.

Darwin worked on a zoology series for several years, apparently in an editorial capacity, before and after marrying. Prior to marriage he had visited Glen Roy, an unusual geological formation in Scotland, and he wrote a long paper explaining its geology in Lyellian terms, as the rising of land from an ocean, with horizontal lines indicating previous shorelines. Adam Sedgwick helped him publish it and also nominated him for membership to the Royal Society. I found this situation remarkable, because membership to the Royal Society placed him among the top eight hundred scientists in the world, and Darwin's first professional paper as a geologist turned out to be completely incorrect. At the time, the work of Louis Agassiz was new and unfamiliar, but it offered a different and correct explanation of the geology of Glen Roy: glaciation. It took Darwin several years to admit that his interpretation was entirely wrong. In any case, this situation reflects how different science was in those days. Because of his family and college connections, he was able to become a leading scientist without an optimal academic background and through amateurish research. It would be impossible to replicate Darwin's career trajectory in the present.

Fortunately for him, there came the opportunity to contribute to a series of volumes on the voyages of the Beagle, with one section written by Captain King, a previous captain, one by Captain FitzRoy, and one by Darwin, in his capacity as naturalist. Darwin's contribution, taken from his journals on the voyage, proved to be quite popular. During its production, he and FitzRoy had new conflicts. FitzRoy thought that Darwin was remiss in crediting others aboard the Beagle who had assisted him. FitzRoy also held conventional religious views, and Darwin's suggestion that the Earth might be far more than six thousand years old irked him. Although Darwin's section was a smash hit, he made little money from it, and, as was common in those days, the publisher took most of the profit. The consolation to him was that he could send copies to a few select people and ingratiate himself with them in a manner that would enhance his professional reputation. He was elated to get a favorable response from Alexander von Humboldt, with whom he was not acquainted, but who was one of his intellectual heroes.

With a growing family, a dislike of Dickensian London and a host of minor illnesses, Darwin and Emma decided that they would prefer to live in the country. He prevailed upon his father for money to buy a house. His father offered a small amount that would be taken from his inheritance, and for which he would pay interest. In 1842, they found a suitable house in Down, Kent, about sixteen miles from London, and bought it. They had enough funds available to renovate it and even moved the road, which had been too close to the house. Later that year, Emma had her third child, Mary Eleanor, who soon died.

At this time, Darwin was already writing about natural selection, but was secretive about it. He knew that his work was extremely important and gave Emma special instructions on what to do with his manuscript if he died. I am finding that although many aspects of Darwin's intellectual and professional development seem haphazard and antiquated, he had the advantage of being able to shape a grand theory at his own pace, something that would probably be impossible to do in the current research environment. To be sure, scientific research is now advancing at a rapid pace, but I can't help but notice that the last two giants in science, Einstein and Darwin, were both solitary thinkers who probably would not function well on a research team. Increasingly, it seems to me that specialization tends to quash big ideas, which have always been necessary for framing reality and have historically allowed us to arrive at broad, empirically accurate worldviews. The absence of large, comprehensive theories which can readily be adopted by many people contributes to splintering and polarization within diverse populations. Without people like Darwin in the public sphere, we face a vacuum in our general conceptual environment.

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