Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: The Young Charles Darwin

The Young Charles Darwin
Keith Thomson
New Haven (CT): Yale University Press, 2009. 276 pages
Reviewed by
Léo F Laporte

Using Darwin's Autobiography (written in old age), his notebooks (both those written during the five-year Beagle voyage and those kept during the post-voyage decade), his voluminous correspondence, family reminiscences, his and other students' course notes, and the secondary literature created by the Darwin industry, biologist and science historian Keith Thomson carefully and economically dispels the apparent paradox of "an ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect" becoming the young genius in his thirties formulating the outlines of his revolutionary theory.

Thomson traces this intellectual trajectory in a thoughtful way, using all the documented evidence and, by delving within it, making his own compelling inferences about its interpretation. For example, in the Autobiography Darwin portrays Edinburgh professor Robert Jameson's lectures on geology and zoology as "incredibly dull," discouraging him from ever reading a book on geology or studying the science in any way. Yet, in a chapter devoted to Jameson, Thomson shows how, on the contrary, Darwin benefited greatly from this polymath, who was "intense and brilliant … a collector of specimens and information." Thomson emphasizes that Darwin "attended Jameson's lectures regularly and … compulsory sessions in [his] museum" of natural history." Darwin, who in his own words "was prepared for a philosophical treatment of the subject," was also introduced to the debates on the origin of the great classes of rocks: whether all primordially water laid (as the "Neptunists" held) or included significant amounts of lava periodically generated by the earth's internal heat (as the "Vulcanists" held). Jameson is reported even to finish up "with lectures on the origins of the species of Animals." Was Darwin perhaps a victim of the common disability of hazy recall in old age, or was Darwin, as Thomson suggests, distancing himself from Jameson to claim his future successes in geology and zoology as his own?

Thomson gives a full account of the role of other Darwin mentors when he was later at Cambridge including John Stevens Henslow (botanist and mineralogist) and Adam Sedgwick (geologist), both of whom found Darwin enough of an engaging young man to include him in their own natural history undertakings: with Henslow, collecting beetles in the local fens, and with Sedgwick, geologizing in north Wales. Because both were Anglican clergymen, they also served as role models for the vocation Darwin was preparing for, however desultorily.

It's often said that "evolution was in the air," and Thomson describes well the pro-and-con positions on Lamarckianism, William Paley's influence on Darwin's appreciation of fine-tuned adaptations, Georges Cuvier's views on animal extinction, and other similar debates. At the same time, Darwin was reading widely out of curiosity and for his final college examinations: including Hume and Locke, Homer and Virgil, Euclid and geometry, and Whewell's History of the Inductive Sciences.

Thomson thus makes a strong case that Darwin was a serious student with deep intellectual interests and that owing to his likeable personality he was able to befriend a broad range of men — usually older and more experienced — from whom he gained, like a composite protégé, a sound scientific education that would form the context for his own later scientific efforts. Darwin himself remarked in his Autobiography that "there must have been something in me a little superior to the common run of youths, otherwise [these] men, so much older and higher in academical position, would never have allowed me to associate with them."

Thomson argues that Darwin's selection as the Beagle's naturalist was therefore justified scientifically, and not just because Darwin was suitable as a "gentleman companion" for Captain FitzRoy. Henslow told Darwin that while he was not "a finished naturalist," nevertheless he was "amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting anything worthy to be noted in Natural History." Thomson indicates how throughout the five-year voyage, Darwin continued to keep in touch with the current science from the publications he solicited from his family (especially volumes 2 and 3 of the geologist Charles Lyell) and from the advice of Henslow, his Cambridge mentor.

Thomson describes how "[as] the voyage unfolded, Darwin would encounter situation after situation that challenged or changed his world view, both in terms of science and of human affairs." The voyage can thus be likened to Darwin's "graduate education," where he started out as a somewhat green ingénue and ended as a fully fledged competent scientist. Thomson points out that Darwin, soon referred to by the crew as "Philos," had the necessary social skills, too, to win over the captain and other officers who willingly cooperated in his onboard and offshore science. Only after the voyage, when FitzRoy's religious persuasion turned fundamentalist, was there a falling out between the two men.

Upon his return to England from the voyage, Darwin was received by his colleagues as a firmly established member of their scientific circle. This reception was made possible by the flood of specimens — animal, vegetable, and mineral — Darwin sent back to England as well as Henslow's sharing (in some cases through publication) of many of his letters with their colleagues. Darwin had full entrée to this exciting, sometimes contentious, world of natural history research and debate.

Before long, after being overwhelmed by all this attention and marrying his cousin Emma Wedgwood, Darwin retreated to the country in Downe, Kent, where he spent the rest of his life in semi-isolation, surrounded by an ever enlarging family. But, of course, he didn't in any sense retire. On the contrary, through the half-dozen years in London and the next few years at Down House, Darwin wrestled with the "species question" that had been stimulated by his time at Edinburgh and Cambridge and became more pressing from his voyage experiences. Using the extensive notebooks that Darwin kept during this period, from 1836 t0 1844, Thomson traces the irregular path Darwin followed in eventually developing the outlines of his theory of organic change. He comments that "reading the notebooks shows the vast range of intellectual debts that Darwin owed to others as he developed his theory — a useful counterpoint to the impressions he gives in the Autobiography."

In summary, in this well-written and interesting book, Thomson works out and demonstrates in detail the education of Charles Darwin. He removes that apparent discrepancy between the "ordinary boy" and the man buried in Westminster Abbey nearby that other English genius, Isaac Newton.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.