Charles Darwin

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

That On the Origin of Species (1859), one of the most influential books ever published, should come from the pen of a man whose youth exhibited such indifferent talents, is a phenomenon not entirely unique in the annals of creativity, but nevertheless startling. The son of a well-to-do provincial physician, Charles Darwin never had to support himself financially; still, he had to do something with his life, and his father must have worried a great deal over this indifferent student with no clear vocation—indeed, with nothing more than an amateur interest in geology and entomology. In 1831, when Charles was twenty-two, he was offered the position of naturalist on H.M.S. Beagle, a surveying vessel bound for the coast of South America. The idea of a three-years’ journey—in fact the trip was to be nearly five years in duration—was not particularly palatable to Charles’ father, who may have felt his son was engaged in another evasion of adult responsibilities. The father’s objections were finally overcome, however, and Darwin left on the voyage.

The conditions of the journey were not propitious. The Beagle was only ninety feet long and quarters were necessarily cramped. Moreover, Darwin suffered initially from sea sickness, an affliction which never left him. The young man did enjoy his diligent collecting of the flora and fauna of South America; still, it was not clear that this collecting had any purpose beyond itself, that any larger interest was served by the thousands of animals, insects, birds, and plants he gathered up and sent home. Nevertheless, it was on that five-year journey that the connections began to be made that were eventually to issue in his great book. As he later recalled, it was especially on the bleak Galapagos Islands that he began to ponder the matter of the variation among species, the effect of isolation on their development, and the relationship between variation and the ecological niches into which particular species fit. On that voyage Darwin could also ponder the relationship between living species and those that no longer existed, but of which there were fossil records. Geology, in fact, was another of Darwin’s serious interests. Charles Lyell, later to become Darwin’s friend, had recently published his Principles of Geology (1830-1833), and the evolutionary theory of the earth’s development propounded in that book might possibly prove analogous to an evolutionary development in the biological world. Lyell, of course, did not propound such a theory in his Principles of Geology, nor, in fact, did he ever fully endorse that theory once Darwin had propounded it.

Soon after Darwin’s return from his voyage, he became engaged to and married Emma Wedgwood. He then settled down to a life of quiet domestic routine, a steady regimen of work and walks and novel-reading. At first he and his wife moved to London, but city life proved too taxing for Darwin’s delicate health and the couple soon moved back to the country. In fact, throughout his life, Darwin was plagued by ill-health, whose main cause may well have been psychological: headaches, nausea, vomiting, and eczema that would render his face unrecognizable. These difficulties continually limited his professional and social activities and circumscribed his friendships. Within the limits set by his ill-health, however, Darwin was a typical Victorian paterfamilias, possessed of a large family, loyal servants, and a devoted wife who nursed her often-sick husband and protected him from the intrusions of the outside world. These restricted living arrangements, settled on early, never varied. When fame followed on the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s day-to-day existence remained unchanged.

The placid exterior of Darwin’s existence belied a singleness of purpose that characterized his inner life for the half-century that passed between his return from South America and his death: the search for a theory that would explain what he had observed in five years aboard the Beagle. What accounted for the origin of species? Why did some flourish, while others became extinct? Why did species vary? In Darwin’s Notebooks one can see his intellectual struggles as, day after day, month after month,...

(The entire section is 1756 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Booklist. LXXVIII, October 1, 1981, p. 167.

Economist. CCLXXXI, November 21, 1981, p. 109.

Library Journal. CVI, November 15, 1981, p. 2231.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, December 2, 1981, p. 26.

New Statesman. CII, November 13, 1981, p. 27.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, February 7, 1982.

Observer. November 8, 1981, p. 28.