Darwin's Biography

The short summary of the life and work of the famous English biologist Charles Darwin is information which I use as program notes to accompany performances of my play "Darwin Remembers - Recollections of a Life's Journey". The play, a living history re-enactment for one actor, is presented continuously without intermission and lasts approximately 70 minutes. The play is set in Darwin's study at Down House in October 1881 and the actor portrays Darwin in the 72nd year of his life, approximately six months before his death in April 1882. The actor also portrays both Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and the biologist Thomas Huxley during a 6 minute re-creation of the famous debate which occurred at Oxford in June 1860, shortly after the publication of The Origin of Species. The author/actor Floyd Sandford has performed the play several times in Eastern Iowa under the sponsorship of Humanities Iowa, and is interested in making the production available to audiances elsewhere. Persons interested in viewing the play program or in contacting Mr. Sandford are encouraged to do so.

Charles Darwin - A short biography

Charles Robert Darwin, the scientist, produced a prolific array of work during his lifetime. Of his 19 books, his most famous and historic work On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 when he was exactly 50 years old. There has been much speculation as to why he waited so long to publish his ideas on the origin of species following the return from his voyage in 1836.

Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809, sharing the same birthday with Abraham Lincoln. His father Robert was a wealthy physician with one of the largest medical practices outside London. His paternal grandfather Erasmus was both a physician and a celebrated nature writer. Darwin as a young boy developed an interest in natural history but started his advanced schooling at Edinburgh in medicine, a subject he soon learned to detest. Later at Cambridge, where he went to prepare for a career in the clergy, he showed no interest in his theological studies, but became acquainted with a botany professor, the Rev. John Henslow, who was destined to become his mentor and to have a profound effect on his life. It was Henslow who encouraged Darwin, following his graduation from Cambridge, to take an extended sea voyage and exploration of the world outside of England. Darwin took advantage of the opportunity -- without pay - and became expedition naturalist and gentlemen's companion to Capt Robert FitzRoy, on the HMS Beagle. The intended 3-year voyage stretched to 5 years, and Darwin had wonderful experiences as he circumnavigated the world, spending over 3 years of the 5 exploring the coastline, flora and fauna of southern South America.
Upon his return to England he arranged his notes and read voraciously in all fields of science, filling notebook after notebook with his insights. Finally, in 1838, he put his ideas together in what eventually became his theory of evolutionary change and the origin of species by a process of natural selection. He expanded these ideas into a 35-page paper and then into a longer 230-page paper, in 1842 and 1844, respectively. However, he did not publish his ideas at this time, apparently intending to keep working to produce a larger, more impressive book.

In 1839 he married his cousin Emma Wedgewood. They had 10 children together, 7 surviving to adulthood, and lived a long and happy life together, untouched by the slightest hint of poverty or scandal. After living several years in London they moved to a country house at Downe in Kent about 16 miles from the outskirts of London. He never again left the British Isles and rarely traveled far from Down House.

His tragedies were those shared by some of his contemporaries -- the premature deaths of three of his children and poor health. For Darwin, personal health became a major life influence as he was plagued by a chronic illness whose symptoms rarely left him for a day.

On the Origin of Species provides copious evidence and direct suggestions for practical research. Darwin's theory of natural selection is not one of local adaptation only. It does not assume the very human notion of progress nor does it presume, in terms of biological types, that one or the other is better, any more perfect or improved, or any more guaranteed of persistence over time. As if this denial of inherent progress or prefection were not enough, Darwin also introduced the idea of randomness and the non-necessity of assuming any divine overseeing Creator as the driving force behind the variety of types in the natural world.

The idea of evolution did more than simply contradict the Genesis story; it raised the specter of a purely materialistic cosmos which was disturbing to Victorian society. Although many people could reconcile the facts of evolution with their religious beliefs, many others had their faith shaken. One of these was Alfred Lord Tennyson who published a poem In Memorium in 1850 which became a popular poem of the Victorian era. In mourning the death of a friend Tennyson created a mood of dispair by drawing from images of natural history, the debate over evolution, and the heartlessness of an eat or be eaten scenario of the natural world.

Are God and Nature then at strife, that Nature lends such evil dreams So careful of the type she seems, so careless of the single life. Who trusted God was love indeed, and love Creation's final law -- Tho Nature, red in tooth and claw, with ravine shrieked against his creed.

Tennyson's brutish view of nature, red in tooth and claw, was adopted by evolutions critics as being synonymous with Darwin's a struggle for existence.

One can imagine Darwins surprise and the pain of his inner conflict when, after working for 20 years on his theory, he received a package from Indonesia in 1858 containing an essay written by the young English naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace containing an outline of a theory nearly identical to his own, which Wallace indicated was devised one night during a malarial fit. Although both men are credited with the theory of natural selection, priority for the idea of natural selection -- the essence of the theory -- cannot be denied to Darwin, as he had recorded his ideas to paper in 1838 when Wallace was still a teenager. The Origin was published in 1859 and became an instant best seller -- and an instant source of controversy. Controversy continues to this day, although the notion of evolutionary change is now firmly established as a major paradigm of the natural sciences. In The Origin Darwin talks much about pigeons, dogs, beetles, and other forms of life but says nothing of man. Of humans, he only enigmatically says that light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history. In subsequent editions Darwin revised the text to read much light.

Darwin, of shy and retiring tempement, and plagued by poor health, did not seek out conflict or controversy, and demurred when occasions arose to discuss or debate his views in public. At the June 1860 public debate held at Oxford, with more than 700 persons crowded into a lecture room, Darwin was conspicuously absent. It was his longtime friends and supporters Joseph Hooker and Darwin's bulldog Thomas Huxley who defended his views against the attacks of Admiral Robert FitzRoy, Richard Owen, and Soapy Sam Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford.

Altogether, Darwin wrote 14 books, in addition to 4 monographs on the taxonomy and biology of barnacles, and his narrative of the Voyage of the Beagle. After Darwin had written down his ideas in his long paper of 1844 he was stricken with bouts of bad health and several tragedies in his personal life. He also spent 8 years working on his barnacle monographs, an accomplishment which made him the world's leading authority on barnacles. These events were responsible for some of his delay in writing his "big book" on natural selection.

In 1871 his book The Descent of Man was published, in which he argued that humans were no different from all other forms of life, and that we too, in our evolutionary history, have been influenced by the forces of natural selection. Then, in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872, he dared to claim that most of our refined and most particularly human behavior -- the expression of our emotions -- also reflected our evolutionary past.

Darwin was not an atheist. He described himself as an agnostic, and it is likely that he retained a belief in some kind of personal God, although not a diety who, like some master puppeteer, took a direct and continuously intervening role in the evolutionary process and in human affairs. Throughout his life Darwin maintained a sense of deep humility and a concern for his fellow man, fully aware of the limits of science. Darwin was deeply affected by the death of his older brother Erasmus ("Ras") in August 1881, and it is conjectured that his grief may have exacerbated the seriousness of his own poor health. In early 1882 he had several minor heart attacks. His condition worsened and on April 19, 1882, at 73 years of age, he died at Down House, after several hours of nausea, intense vomiting and retching, symptoms of a chronic illness that bedeviled him for the last 40 years of his life. At his bedside, and attending to his needs, were his wife Emma, his daughter Henrietta and his son Francis. A widespread rumor circulated -- facilitated by an evangelist by the name of Lady Hope who preached in Downe during the last years of Darwins life -- that on his deathbed Darwin renounced evolution and declared himself a Christian. This story, totally contradictory to the nature of the man himself, is a falsehood, denied by his daughter Henrietta and those who knew him best and who were actually at his bedside during his last weeks. Darwin's last words, spoken to his wife Emma, were in actuality, "I am not in the least afraid to die."

Darwin, and his family, wished for his burial in Down, in the village where he had spent most of his adult life. He requested a simple burial in a plain, rough hewn, unadorned and unpolished coffin. But, his scientific colleagues convinced his family that he was due a greater honor, and it was the wish of Parliament that a person of his stature be given a state burial. Accordingly, on April 26, 1892 Charles Darwin was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey in a fine polished coffin that one could see to shave in, only a few feet away from the grave of Sir Isaac Newton.

His pallbearers included Alfred Russell Wallace and the two scientists who were his closest friends and staunchest defenders -- Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley. The organist at Westminster Abbey wrote a special funeral anthem for the occasion, taking the text from Proverbs 3:13-17, which begins "Blessed is the man who finds wisdom and who gains understanding". As oftentimes occurs among hypocritical humans, many who cursed Darwin in life and called for his scalp, were full of kind words at his funeral. For those who knew him as the kind and modest man he was, their praise came from the heart. Said Huxley, in his eulogy during the funeral services "his was an intense and almost passionate honesty by which all his thoughts and actions were irradiated, as if by a central fire."

Emma Darwin, his loyal and devoted wife, moved to Cambridge but returned to Down House during the summers for 14 more years until her death in 1896.

Both Darwin and his ideas were misunderstood by many during his lifetime, and much misunderstanding and confusion continues to this day. Darwin did not propose that the evolution of any species, including our own, was the result of a random accident. Changes occurring from one generation to the next are cumulative, typically gradual, and influenced by natural processes that are selective but neither random or accidental. The evidences for evolution and a naturalistic origin of new species on this planet is overwhelming and scientifically convincing. Considering the scientific rvidence for evolution by natural selection is one matter; whether one then draws their own conclusions about the existence or non-existence of a spiritual force in the cosmos is another matter entirely.

It is the modest hope of the author/actor that this play will shed a bit more light on the personality of Charles Darwin and the significance of his life and work.

Down House: Down House and the Darwin Museum is located only a short walk from the quaint and charming village of Downe, amidst the rustic and picturesque Kent countryside, only 16 miles South from central London. In 1996 maintenance of the house and grounds was assumed by the conservation organization English Heritage. The house has been fully restored and can be viewed using a highly educational audio tour. Upstairs rooms have been converted to exhibitions of Darwin's discoveries, life, and family. Visitors can tour the grounds and walk on Darwin's Sandwalk. In nearby Downe one can visit the church of St. Mary the Virgin, c. 1290. The graveyard there is the resting place of Emma, Darwin's brother Erasmus, 4 of the Darwin children, and of Joseph Parslow, Darwin's butler and personal friend for 40 years. The author has visited Down House and the village of Downe and can enthusiastically recommend it as a worthwhile day trip for any tourists visiting in the London area.

The Books and Monographs of Charles Darwin

1839

Journal of Researches into the Natural History etc ....
(The Voyage of the Beagle)

1842 The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs
1844 Geological Observations on Volcanic Islands
1846 Geological Observations on South America
1851 A Monograph of the Sub-class Cirripedia
1851 A Monograph of the Fossil Pedunculated Cirripeds of Great Britain
1854 A Monograph of the Sessile Cirripeds
1854 A Monograph of the Fossil Sessile Cirripeds
1859 On the Origin of Species
1862 On the Var. Contrivances by which British & Foreign Orchids are Fertilized by Insects
1868 The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication
1871 The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex
1872 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
1875 Insectivorous Plants
1875 The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants
1876 The Effects of Cross- and Self-Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom
1877 The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species
1880 The Power of Movement in Plants
1881 The Formation of Vegetable Mold through the Action of Worms