Fun facts about Charles Darwin and some myths and misconceptions about his writing
1. He was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln. On 12 February 1809, Charles Darwin was born to the doctor, Robert Darwin, and Susannah Darwin (whose maiden name was Wedgwood – she was the daughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood). Abraham Lincoln also arrived in the world on the same day. Lincoln and Darwin also both died in the same month, April (but on different days and in different years – and, indeed, from very different causes). Darwin’s grandfather was the physician Erasmus Darwin. Darwin would also marry into the Wedgwood family – his wife, Emma, was his cousin.
2. Darwin wasn’t the first to propose a theory of evolution. There were many attempts, prior to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, to explain how living creatures may have developed over time, but none of them was supported by hard evidence. They remained speculative. Indeed, Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had written a poem about evolution, called The Temple of Nature (subtitled The Origin of Society), published in 1803, six years before Darwin was born. (Wordsworth, among others, admired Erasmus Darwin’s poetry.) One of the most famous, and widely propounded, theories was from French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who in 1815 offered his idea of ‘acquired characteristics’. Lamarck’s idea was that minor improvements made in the course of an animal’s life would be inherited by its offspring – so, for instance, a giraffe’s long neck had developed from the effort of giraffes stretching their necks to reach the topmost leaves of the tree, with each subsequent generation inheriting the slightly longer neck its parents had cultivated. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection offered a different model: giraffes’ long necks had come about because those giraffes which happened to have longer necks were simply more likely to survive (as they could reach the food that shorter-necked giraffes could not), and therefore more likely to live long enough to mate and produce offspring, which in turn would be likely to inherit the ‘long neck’ gene from their parents. This is what Darwin called ‘natural selection’ and Herbert Spencer called ‘survival of the fittest’.
Another bestselling work about evolution which predated Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 was the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, in 1844. The author of this book kept his authorship a secret, but we now know it was Robert Chambers, co-founder of the Chambers publishing company (and, therefore, the Chambers Dictionary among others). Chambers’ science was speculative, too, and was superseded by Darwin’s fifteen years later. Chambers was probably right to keep his authorship of the book to himself: the book acquired the nickname of the ‘scarlet harlot’ (it was bound in bright red) on account of its ‘wicked’ theories. It was probably also a shrewd business move on Chambers’ part: his publishing house was a publisher of bibles!
3. Darwin wasn’t the first to propose a theory of natural selection. A man named William Charles Wells had proposed this same theory in a short speech of 1813 on the origins of different skin colours; this speech was published in 1818 and proposed the idea of natural selection which Darwin would later make famous (and, it must be said in Darwin’s favour, significantly add to). Stephen Jay Gould has written about Wells’s speech in his essay ‘Hannah West’s Left Shoulder’, included in his book The Flamingo’s Smile. A Scottish naturalist named Patrick Matthew had also offered a similar theory of natural selection in 1831, in the appendix to an obscure book titled Naval Timber and Arboriculture. Darwin had no knowledge of either of these theories when he published On the Origin of Species in November 1859. Indeed, a fellow naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, famously galvanised Darwin into publishing his theory, after Darwin had largely worked secretly on collecting the evidence for his theory for over twenty years – and Wallace himself came to the same conclusions about the ‘origin of species’ independently of Darwin.
4. Darwin is reported to have hated nobody, with the exception of one man. That man was Richard Owen, the gifted palaeontologist who appears to have been fond of taking credit for other people’s discoveries, notably those of the geologist Gideon Mantell. Owen had three saving graces, however: he coined the word ‘dinosaur’ in 1841, he helped to set up the Natural History Museum in London (and argued that it should be made available to enthusiasts as well as academics), and he was instrumental in establishing what was possibly the world’s first theme park, in Sydenham, London, at Crystal Palace Park – the first place to contain life-size models of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures.
5. On the Origin of Species was a popular bestseller – but it wasn’t Darwin’s biggest-selling book. In his lifetime, one of Darwin’s later works outsold On the Origin of Species. The book in question carried the rather less famous title The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. It appeared in 1881, just one year before Darwin’s death. He himself seems to have been surprised by its popularity, calling it ‘a small book of little moment’. These days, On the Origin of Species is his most popular and famous book, and his contribution to the field of biology is clear. He is even honoured in England by adorning the £10 banknote – though he will be replaced by Jane Austen in 2016.
Image: Photograph of Charles Darwin by Herbert Rose Barraud (1845 – 1896) taken in 1881, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.