Regardless of your beliefs and whether you choose to accept evolution or not, Charles Darwin is a man who deserves your respect. Most people know who he is and that he published The Origin of Species, but very few know the pain, anguish, and suffering that went into publicly releasing this information 153 years ago today.
In 2009 Aqila wanted to go to England to see Blur play a concert in Hyde Park. I was in, under one condition, we take a day for me to go Darwin’s home in Kent and pay homage to a man who suffered so I could understand.
Darwin was a well to do Brit with an aristocratic status who bounced around careers never content on where he landed. Because Captain Fitzroy wanted someone of his social standing on board the HMS Beagle he allowed Darwin to come along the voyage of the Beagle as a naturalist while he spent 5 years mapping coastlines. Darwin was a young 22 when he left on the HMS Beagle and spent the next 5 years collecting specimens from all over the world while suffering from seasickness the entire time.
He returned from this historic voyage at the age of 27…..he did not publish his theory until 23 years later. He spent less time alive before boarding the Beagle than he did working on his theory for publication. But it wasn’t lack of evidence that prevented him from publication, it was fear of retribution. It would be social suicide for someone of his class to go against God, in fact when he confided in friends about his theory it was done in hushed meetings in backrooms or the privacy of his home for fear of being overheard.
As he worked on his theory and the evidence began to fall into place he grew increasingly worried about the implications of his work. He knew he was sitting on the answer to the question of all questions, but was the world ready for it? He wrestled with this for over a decade, the majority of the time being spent at Downe House in Kent where he was surrounded by the English countryside with plenty of space for experiments in the natural world and his hobby of pigeon breeding and horticulture. It is this place, Downe House, that is the true birthplace of the theory of evolution. The real cornerstone of this being the sand path that looped the grounds.
Darwin would do five loops on the sand path a day to exercise both his body and mind. At this point he was suffering both physically and mentally from the stress of work. He would often get so upset he couldn’t eat and would vomit. He found the calm of walking the path allowed his body to let his brain work on the details of his theory.
In 1844 he outlined an essay explaining his theory which he then called Descent With Modification and even went so far as to leave a letter to his wife Emma saying to publish the essay if he should die unexpectedly. This is a 14 years before The Origin of Species was published……14 years. He knew this was his life’s work, he knew this was what he would be remembered for, he knew the importance of this information…..but even so, he would not publish it. So he spent the years publishing different essays and monographs on everything from geology to barnacles, all the while keeping the single most important scientific discovery in human history to himself and a few close friends.
Imagine you stumbled upon the answer to how the Universe began but couldn’t tell anyone.
One of the turning points in Darwin’s decision to finally publish was the death of his daughter Annie in 1851. It crushed him and he blamed himself because he married his first cousin and believed his children suffered from the closeness in relation. He had trouble accepting a God that could be so cruel…he even vocalized this when describing parasitic wasps. An insect that paralyzes insects and lays their eggs in them to provide live food when they hatch.
He continued to suffer and was told by doctors that if he did not stop working so hard he would die from the stress…..but Darwin didn’t stop. He dealt with the physical pain, no doubt well accustomed to physical discomfort while working from five years of seasickness on the Beagle. So he walked his path five loops a day and he wrote. In 1856 confidant and close friend Charles Lyell told him to put these works together in one book called Natural Selection. Through the year of 1857 he organized his book and then in June of 1858 he received an essay to read from a young English scientist working in Malaysia who through his observations had developed the exact same theory as Darwin himself years earlier.
Darwin was crushed. Decades of work only to get beaten to the punch at the last minute. Because of his own fear and insecurity he would be forever lost in the annals of history and all the pain in suffering would be for naught.
Wallace was not looking for publication but Darwin offered to publish both their essays together. Was it cowardly of Darwin to wait until someone else could be a target for the backlash? Maybe, but courage isn’t doing something without fear, courage is doing something in the presence of fear. A fear so great it was physically destroying him.
In June of 1859 they presented the information to the Linneaen Society, strangely the presentation raised very little response. During this time Darwin’s health declined drastically and he struggled to finish The Origin of Species. His friends encouraged him to keep working and finish it for publication.
So he he walked…five loops on the sand path.
On November 24, 1859 all 1200 published copies of The Origin of Species sold out.
Then came the storm. Richard Owen, the head of the British Museum of Natural History and well respected scientist of the time attacked Darwin and his theory in public forum. Darwin’s nightmare began to unfold as he was bullied publicly by both Owen and his following as well as local newspapers, even going so far as to portray a drawing of Darwin as part monkey part man.
But Darwin was no longer alone. With all the cards on the table other scientists began to support him, most notably is one of my favorite characters in science, Thomas Huxley, nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog”. He had the tenacity and confidence to attack Owen’s establishment head on in public. Most notably in the Oxford debate on evolution in 1860, which Darwin did not attend. Samuel Wilberforce spearheaded the religious side of the debate and it was here that Huxley solidified his role as Darwin’s defender.
The topic of descending from apes was being scoffed at by the religious side, how ridiculous a person who have to be to believe this. It is believed that the culmination of this debate came when Wilberforce, believing he could shake Huxley said “..whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.”
Without missing a beat Huxley replied “I wound not be ashamed to have a monkey for my ancestor, but I am ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.”
Roughly saying “You have a great gift of intelligence and you choose to use it to hide the truth”.
Whether it played out like this word for word is up for debate, but this was the gist of their back and forth.
Darwin, now removed from the front lines of debate continued to work for the next 20 years and publish more work on everything from carnivorous plants to the animal mind. He also published 6 more editions of The Origin of Species along with the historical Descent of Man in 1870. He kept a full garden, a greenhouse full of carnivorous plants, bees, orchids…
…and he walked, five times a day on the sand path.
His health continued to decline and in 1882 surrounded by his family Darwin died of heart failure. He was slated to be buried in St Mary’s Church yard in Downe, but the head of the Royal Society William Spottiswoode petitioned for him to have a state’s funeral and laid to rest in Westminster Abby close to John Herschel and Sir Isaac Newton. An honor held only for heads of state and people of national significance.
The petition was accepted and, Charles Darwin, a man who was convinced he would become the worlds most hated man was honored with a states funeral and was carried to his grave by close friends Thomas Huxley, Alfred Russel Wallace, William Spottiswoode, and Joseph Hooker.
My pilgrimage to England started here, at Darwin’s resting place where I expected to find an ornate monument to Darwin, but was greeted by a modest stone that simple says ““CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN BORN 12 FEBRUARY 1809. DIED 19 APRIL 1882.” It was a fitting grave for a man who preferred to be in his study than in the spotlight.
I just sort of stood for awhile, looking for some sort of emotional response, but nothing of significance came forth. It was just a stone, there were crowds of people, crying children, and little atmosphere for reflection.
The next day we then took a train, two buses, and walked 30 minutes down a narrow road with no sidewalks to Downe House. We took the tour of the house with a small group and I began to feel a tinge of emotion, as we toured from room to room seeing the actual spot Darwin worked I started to get a surreal feeling. The reality of where I was, the significance of this spot to me personally, began to set in. My whole life has been guided by work that was penned in this very spot.
But it was Darwin’s path where it finally set in. I began to walk it, I felt an initial giddiness but as I moved further from the house and other people I began to feel it. As I walked the path my mind began to wander, I thought of Darwin walking this path as I am now, I thought of natural selection, the origin of humans, and the greatness of his theory…..but then my mind wandered and the world around me slipped away….I was in CCD, in the sixth grade, a nun was scorning me for talking about evolution during class….8th grade forced to sit alone in CCD to reflect why I shouldn’t ask the nun how God created us when we evolved from primates…I saw myself stomping through ponds collecting anything living and placing them in a coffee can complete marveling at the variety of nature, not able to articulate the beautiful words of Darwin… from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved…I was entering college to pursue a career in science…I was sitting in the Smithsonian studying Komodo dragon behavior….I was teaching evolution to seniors in a class I designed as the head of science at a private school called Evolution and Comparative Anatomy….and here I am in England….my life, my whole life guided by a theory that was born right here….I became completely overwhelmed…I thought of Darwin waking this path, suffering intense physical and mental pain as he mentally penned the words of his life’s work.
I wanted so badly to tell Darwin thank you, that his work answered the question that no one could answer for me during my young life….I knew it could never be and as I kicked a stone on the path on my final lap, I remembered a snippet I read about how Darwin would put a small pile stones down and would kick them aside as he walked so he didn’t have to be bothered mentally to remember what lap he was on….. and it came full circle……there I was kicking stones on the sand path at Downe House….and for a moment….I was as close to Darwin as I could be. I picked up the rock I kicked and held it, the only tangible connection I could have and kept it.
So as I sit here in a rocking chair in the back of the living room of my parents house during my Thanksgiving visit. My wife and family are watching TV and occasionally asking me what I am so intensely focused on…I guess I was just trying to find a way to simply say…
….Thank you Charles, I am eternally grateful. Your suffering put mine to rest.