The Genius of Charles Darwin

The gleam of a great idea often glows first and fiercest in an unknown eye and out of a dark corner. How many college dropouts and loners tinkering in their garages have become celebrated silicon entrepreneurs? How many great writers, poets, painters, and composers created their finest works in obscurity?  Even in the sciences the most elemental factor for a breakthrough is a roving and penetrating mind rather than a large, well-funded research lab. Prestigious schools and universities are not nurseries of genius: academies value absorption, conservation, and transmission of knowledge and may even discourage radical thinking. Perhaps it is so difficult to predict scientific revolutions because they start with individuals and outsiders. I was taught neat explanations of how science advances, but Paul Feyerabend offered a seductive alternative: the Berkeley philosopher caused a furor by arguing the narrative is often “anarchistic.”

While visiting Charles Darwin’s home last month I was of course musing about his theory of evolution. That’s why people go there! Down House is a quaint Georgian property outside a village near London. It was walking distance from my childhood home, and on my last visit I was a teenager pondering a career in biology and arguing with a school buddy about biodiversity from natural selection. I thought it was incontestable, but he snapped with the certainty that only a sixteen-year-old can have, “the Bible and The Origin of Species can’t both be right: you have to choose one or the other!” It is still argued over in America, but I think a false choice.

That summer I flipped through The Origin to be sure of my answers for our next spat. But how could I summarize the ocean of data that Darwin had meticulously marshalled for his heavy tome? Had I known at the time I would have simply quoted to my friend from Theodosius Dobzhansky: Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. I might have cheekily added that he wasn’t only a great biologist but a lifelong member of the Orthodox Church too.  Maybe I was close to Feyerabend when he wrote, Human life is guided by many ideas. Truth is one of them.

Stepping across the threshold at Down House I wondered how much had changed in fifty years. When I was last there, Charles Darwin had already been dead for the better part of a century, and recall when standing in his home I imagined the owner had just stepped outside for an hour, perhaps to check experiments in his garden or stroll down his “thinking path,” the Sandwalk. But since my childhood, Down House and its acres have evolved from a hallowed place on a shoestring budget for a few scientific pilgrims to something of a tourist destination since it was adopted by English Heritage and nominated as a World Heritage site.

Instead of ringing the doorbell for the custodian to appear like a Victorian butler, the visitor is now received with a cheerful welcome from the ticket desk and invited to peruse glossy Darwiniana on sale. Down House still looks like a large family home, but most of its rooms are loaded (I won’t say ‘graced’) with information boards and even dioramas. I prefer the more authentic if dowdy interior from my memory. But I wasn’t disappointed with the Old Study, the room that always mattered most and has hardly changed.

The Study feels heavy with dark mahogany and dreary wallpaper. It could make an atmospheric setting for a Charles Dickens story. Daylight struggles to penetrate the windows and the air has the musty odor of an old stone church. At center-stage a table is strewn with old books, stamped envelopes, and yellowed papers; a feather quill stands in a dry inkwell; a glass goblet is inverted out of service; and books are crammed in a locked cabinet. It may look like a reconstruction in a museum, but is in fact fairly authentic.

Down House
The black chair in Darwin’s Old Study

A black leather chair with horsehair poking through its arms rests on castors askew to the table as if waiting for a sitter to return. I imagine a Victorian parson might have taken a break from preparing his homily there or a writer who put down his pen to walk outside and smoke for inspiration. Only the magnifying lens, a few dissecting instruments, and portraits hanging over the marble fireplace hint that a man of science once lived there. The piles of pillboxes point to an apothecary or a hypochondriac (as Darwin was), but you would only find dried beetles and butterflies if you took the lids off. Naturalists have little need of equipment to pursue their passion en plein air where they depend on sharp eyes and a curiosity that fermented when heads rest in comfy chairs. And what a head Charles Darwin had!

He had none of the obvious qualifications for scientific greatness. He never displayed intellectual fireworks as a young man, and his father, Dr. Robert Darwin, thought his lackadaisical attitude to studies and a love of hunting, dogs, and horse-riding would make his son a worthless loafer. Charles was prodded towards the family profession until he dropped out of the Edinburgh Medical School, and no one expected much after enrolling at Cambridge University with the vague intent of training as a Church of England parson. Joining the Beagle expedition changed all that, and arguably launched the greatest modern revolution in the way we understand the world.

Darwin had a different kind of genius to Newton, Pascal or Einstein, and we struggle to find its origins.

First, he came from a radical intellectual tradition through his grandfather Erasmus and by marrying into the Wedgwood family. They were influential figures of the Enlightenment who embraced scientific progress, opposed slavery, and backed grumbling American colonies before the Revolution. When Charles returned from his voyage in 1836 he settled down to family life in London and as a country gentleman for the next forty years at Down House. But even during the distracted years of his youth he was never idle, and a Whiggish background fortified awkward thoughts that later offended staid Victorian society. Unlike Grandpa Erasmus he never sought the limelight and said that expressing doubts about species being immutable was like “confessing a murder.” It helped that he had chronic ill health as an excuse for keeping his head below the parapet when the storm over Darwinism broke.

The Sandwalk at Down House
The Sandwalk

Second, he was painstaking and cautious at work and never felt the pressures that contemporary scientists endure who must focus on minutiae and hurry to be first into print with their discoveries and join ferocious competition for research grants. He had time to exhaustively validate data and ideas. From an early interest in beetles his curiosity expanded to the whole of nature, both living and extinct. He spent years studying barnacles, converted his lawn to experimental beds for studying earthworms and weeds, inquired about artificial selection of domestic animal breeds, and maintained a vast correspondence with other naturalists. All this knowledge built on his seminal observations from the Beagle was distilled for the theory of natural selection. It took time and a lot of shoe leather on the Sandwalk. He depicted his hunch that all living things are related in a sketch of tree-like branches linking species together. That was twenty years before the Origin, and on the same page he scrawled a note, “I think.” It took an abrupt convergence of ideas with Alfred Russel Wallace to force his hand into publishing. But his glacial pace of progress had prepared him for the resistance to come from the establishment. He had left no stone unturned and no detail was too small or arcane to be cast aside. Even barnacles helped to rock the world. In the end there was no risk of being forced into a disgraceful retreat, like some recent “discoveries” in stem cell science.

Third, Darwin was able to tinker at his fireside, though more in head than hands as inventors do in lonely garages. Unencumbered by employment and with servants to help care for his beloved family he withdrew from society for long periods, like St. Jerome in his cave. It was quality time to ponder and speculate. Charles would never have the same peace today with electronic gadgets constantly beeping for attention. Thinking is such a natural process that we hardly give it much thought or any training, and and if our attention spans are shortening we are feebler thinkers in consequence.

Darwin’s chair is still a source of wonder for me. As an ordinary object you would ignore it in the window of a cheap antique store—as you would driving past some unprepossessing garage in Silicon Valley—but it became the seat of something extraordinary. The revolution that began in the sitter’s mind long ago continues to roll forward and explain what had been inexplicable—fossils embedded in mountain tops, elaborate plumage of male birds, vestiges like the appendix, why many genes are similar from flies and worms to humans, and much, much more.

Once upon a time a gauche student was tempted to leap over the security cord at Down House to sit in Darwin’s chair. Others have dreamt of plonking themselves in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey to feel a royal moment before a cop hauled them away. But the student realized the famous chair would never inspire great thoughts again because revolutionary ideas emerge from obscurity.

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