“Man is But a Worm,” a cartoon published at the end of 1881 in the Punch almanac for 1882. Picking up on the fact that Charles Darwin’s last book was The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms (1881), the artist put Darwin’s head at the end of a spiral that emerges from “CHAOS” in the lower left corner and proceeds to advance through worms, monkeys, and primitive humans before arriving at the pinnacle of civilization—an Englishman in his top hat. Immediately behind the hat is a dial indicating that “[thou]sands of centuries” have passed on the circular “Timesmeter” (image source).
No one is more closely associated with evolution than Charles Darwin, yet many people today lack an accurate picture of his life and beliefs. Many do not know that he staunchly opposed slavery, that he never regarded himself as an atheist, that he probably believed in God the Creator when the earliest versions of The Origin of Species were written. Few realize that he sought to make biology more scientific, reflecting more clearly the law-bound sciences of physics and astronomy, that his theory of evolution was partly based on the free-market economics of Adam Smith, or that he himself left open the door for a new type of natural theology that cannot be refuted by evolution. This series explores topics such as these, concluding with a brief look at some important objections to his theory raised by a very thoughtful critic who reviewed his book at length a few years after it was published.
I begin by sketching Darwin’s family background.
A Tale of Two Families: The Darwins and the Wedgwoods
Charles Darwin was born on 12 February 1809—exactly the same day as Abraham Lincoln. I cannot think of a more august historical coincidence. For two white boys from England and America at that time, it’s hard to imagine family circumstances more different. Literally born in a one-room log cabin in rural Kentucky, Lincoln grew up in Baptist family of very modest means, had almost no formal education, and worked very hard to earn a meager living before receiving a license to practice law in his twenty-eight year. Darwin, on the other hand, was born (as the English say) with a silver spoon in his mouth. The son of a highly successful country surgeon who had also married into wealth, Darwin received a first-class education and never had to work a day in his life.
What they had in common was far more important: brilliance, the ability to write well, and racist views by modern standards coupled with a deep hatred of slavery. Lincoln’s family belonged to an anti-slavery church in Indiana, he witnessed slavery for himself on a flatboat trip to New Orleans at age twenty-two, and battled politically first to limit its spread and then to end it. Darwin’s grandfathers opposed slavery and helped fund the efforts of William Wilberforce to prohibit British ships from carrying slaves, and he saw slavery with his own eyes in Brazil in his early twenties.
In 1787 the Wedgwood Company made this famous jasperware medallion for the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave trade, founded that year by Thomas Clarkson, depicting a slave in chains with the motto, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” (image source)
Charles’ grandfather Erasmus Darwin, born two months before George Washington, was a physician, author, and philanderer. His other grandfather was the highly successful industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, whose daughter married Erasmus’ son Robert Waring Darwin. Both families were free-market capitalists and religious liberals, the Darwins unrepentant deists and the Wedgwoods Unitarians. Charles’ wife, Emma Wedgwood (Josiah’s granddaughter), was a pious women who revered the Bible but did not believe in the divinity of Jesus.
The great painter Joseph Wright of Derby made two lovely portraits of Erasmus Darwin, this one (ca. 1770) when the subject was about 38 years old. Erasmus lived in Derby, and both men frequented the Lunar Society of Birmingham along with many other luminaries, including Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, a Unitarian minister who shares credit for discovering oxygen, and James Watt, who invented a new type of steam engine. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (image source).
Significantly, Erasmus was an early advocate of transmutation—what we now call evolution. In one of his many books, Zoönomia (1794), he mentioned both extinction and transmutation: “If this gradual production of the species and genera of animals be assented to, a contrary circumstance may be supposed to have occurred, namely, that some kinds by the great changes of the elements may have been destroyed” (Vol. 1, p. 399).
Josiah’s daughter Susanna Wedgwood married Erasmus’ son Robert Darwin. Her brother later became Charles Darwin’s father-in-law (i.e., Charles married his first cousin). (image source)
Thus, evolution was already in the family when Charles Darwin was born. We mustn’t trivialize the originality of Charles’ own version of it, but it wasn’t created from nothing. It evolved from pre-existing forms.
Looking Ahead: The Education of a Naturalist
Next time we’ll review Darwin’s education, stressing the crucial influences of certain science professors at the two universities he attended, Edinburgh and Cambridge.